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Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Is Jared Sullinger Ohio State's newest star?

By Eamonn Brennan

CHICAGO -- Evan Turner did everything.

That's what star players do for their teams, but Turner was something different. A 6-foot-7 point guard so athletically dominant and preternaturally skilled, Turner made Ohio State coach Thad Matta's offense often resemble that of a sixth-grade coach with a particularly well-developed 12-year-old. "Everybody get out of the way. Evan, get the ball, dribble up the floor, and score. OK, break!"

It worked. The Buckeyes fell short of the Final Four, but they had their best season since the Greg Oden- and Mike Conley-powered 2007 runner-up finish. Now, Turner is gone. The question for an experienced Ohio State team facing its first season without the national player of the year -- Turner was drafted No. 2 overall in the 2010 NBA draft -- is how you replace him. If you can.

Sullinger
Sullinger competed against some of the nation's best in Chicago this past weekend.
Maybe you can't. But you can do what Matta did: Recruit a bunch of really big, really good players, mix them in with your talented veterans, and see what happens.

This is where Jared Sullinger comes in.

"He's a big boy," Ohio State junior guard William Buford said at this weekend's Nike Skills Camp. "He could give us a major interior presence."

Wait. Who?

For all of the (deserved) hype about Harrison Barnes, the No. 1-ranked player in the class of 2010, and Duke import Kyrie Irving, a point guard ranked No. 3, little has been said outside recruiting circles about No. 2. That's Sullinger, a 6-foot-8 interior monster, the gem of another impressive Matta recruiting class, and Ohio State's best post-Turner chance of immediately returning to the college hoops elite.

At the Nike camp on Saturday, Sullinger showed off what recruiting services have been saying about him for years. Is he big? Check. Can he rebound? Check. Can he score in the post? In the limited workout I saw, yes.

Sullinger had two particularly impressive moments in Chicago, both of which came against a collection of the best big men in college basketball. The first was thundering. Lingering by the free throw line, Sullinger drifted to the front of the rim as his teammate's layup careened off the backboard. In one surprisingly athletic moment, Sullinger sprang his huge frame airborne, grabbed the ball at the top of his jump and slammed it through the rim with a basketball scream -- "AHHHHH!!" -- for the ages. Ten years ago, that backboard shatters.

The second was more subtle. Sullinger moved into the left block, caught the ball high and turned smoothly over his left shoulder to hit a little right-handed baby hook. The forward has been working on his interior touch lately -- you can't dunk everything, not in college -- and it seems to have paid off.

"The game is more physical," Sullinger said. "Referees are going to let you play. So I'm just trying to get used to that, to do more things with the ball."

Considering the competition, a collection of the best big men in college basketball (most of whom were experienced upperclassmen), Sullinger acquitted himself well.

"These are the best big men in college basketball today," he said. "I'm adjusting to that level."

There are more adjustments Sullinger could make. The 18-year-old isn't exactly out of shape, but compared to the muscular veterans surrounding him, it was clear how much he could benefit from a college-level fitness regimen at Ohio State. Still, Sullinger's size is his advantage. Few players are gifted with his wide, lane-clearing shape, and even fewer have so much athleticism to go with it.

Sullinger's entry into the OSU ranks comes at a particularly good time, and that's not only because the Buckeyes lost Turner. Depth, or lack thereof, killed Ohio State last season. Nowhere was Matta's bench thinner than in the frontcourt, where forward Dallas Lauderdale lacked a valid backup. When Lauderdale needed a rest, or suffered foul trouble, the Bucks were stuck.

Sullinger changes that. With Turner gone and the point guard position up for grabs, it's not hard to imagine the freshman playing alongside Lauderdale. That would arguably give Ohio State the Big Ten's best frontcourt. Add Deshaun Thomas, a 6-foot-7 small forward recruit ranked No. 3 at his position in 2010, and the Buckeyes have three players who can play in the post without a noticeable drop-off in skill.

In the end, that might be the biggest adjustment Ohio State makes: The transition from a four-guard set with one dominant ball handler to a bigger, stronger, deeper and more dominating lineup. The Buckeyes should be less reliant on outside shooting, more eager to bang in the post and, all told, more balanced.

"We have a lot of veterans coming back, a lot of really good players coming in," Buford said. "We're all leaders. Now it's time to work, to get better and to see if we can do even better than last year."

Ohio State? Without Evan Turner? Better?

It's a scary thought. But with the talented Sullinger in the fold, and with guards like Buford, Jon Diebler, and David Lighty all back, it also seems, well, downright plausible.

Evan Turner did everything.

Wait -- who's Evan Turner?