From the day he started to assert his will on college games, Jared Sullinger has reminded head coach Thad Matta of a big man he has coached before.
It’s not Greg Oden.
Checking in a full three inches shorter than the former No. 1 NBA draft pick, Sullinger weighs 10 pounds more than Oden’s listed playing weight at Ohio State. Instead, the freshman forward’s body and style of play remind Matta of David West, a two-time all-star who brought home national player of the year honors as a senior for the Musketeers.
The day when Sullinger signed to be a Buckeye – the first day Matta was allowed to discuss him publicly – the coach brought out the comparison.
“As I watched him in the summer, he reminds me of David West from the standpoint of he’s going to get 25 points and 15 rebounds every time he takes the floor,” Matta said. “His intellect for how to play, taking charges – he’s a guy that will shot-fake a guy, lean into him and as he’s laying the ball in say, ‘That’s your third foul’ before the ball goes in. He knows what’s going on at all times.”
Before he came to Columbus, Matta spent three years as the head man for the Musketeers and compiled a 78-23 record. Seated at his locker in New Orleans Arena after having scored 17 points and added eight rebounds – both team-high totals – in a Jan. 3 win against Philadelphia, West said he keeps in touch with Matta because “that’s my guy.”
The eight-year NBA veteran spent his last two seasons at Xavier with Matta as his coach.
“When he came to Xavier, he put a lot of pressure on me to perform,” West said. “He put a lot of emphasis on preparing me then to be a pro and trying to compete. That was the biggest thing from him: he wanted me to compete on every single play. He’s one of the most competitive people that I know.”
It is a message that the coach has also been preaching to his players in Columbus. It has helped turn Sullinger from a slightly pudgy prep player into one capable of playing a full 40 minutes if necessary – as it has been on two occasions this season.
“There’s no compassion on this team,” Sullinger said. “If you could look at our practices, there’s times where we argue, times where we yell at each other or cuss each other out. It’s a tough basketball team but once we get outside of that rectangle it’s a pretty good basketball team as a group.”
When asked if Matta had told him he was similar to any other players that he had coached, Sullinger immediately said West.
“(That) is a very strong compliment because David West is a very, very good basketball player at the college level and he’s doing very good at the next level also,” the freshman said. “For a compliment like that, that’s something special.
“You couldn’t stop his jump hook. He rebounded the ball and he was one of the nastiest players that Coach Matta ever coached.”
While at Xavier, West checked in at 6-9, 240 pounds and remains at that weight today. Sullinger is listed at 6-9, 280 pounds, which puts him 10 pounds heavier than Oden when he was a Buckeye.
But where Oden’s game was all about pure physical force and being an intimidating figure in the paint, Sullinger presents a more workmanlike profile. In addition, Oden was sidelined after undergoing offseason wrist surgery and was limited by the injury for most of the season.
“Honestly, I think Greg and Jared are two completely different players from the standpoint of Jared, No. 1, has two hands, which is important,” Matta said. “He’s a little bit more polished around the basket where Greg was so dominant defensively and right next to the basket. The biggest things I’ve seen between the two of them is both of them are winners and both of them love to compete.”
Following a December win against IUPUI in which Sullinger scored a freshman school-record 40 points and added 13 boards, Matta said it reminded him of a performance West put up as a senior. In an 85-77 victory against rival Dayton, West put up 47 points and grabbed 18 rebounds. Said Matta: “He’s one of the best I’ve ever coached.”
Sullinger lacks game-changing height and has to rely on his skill and smarts to be effective in the paint. It has worked well this season: through 26 games, he is averaging 17.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. West averaged 11.7 and 9.1, respectively, as a freshman but put up 20.8 and 11.8 in each game as a senior.
The two have never met, but West said he knows of Sullinger by way of reputation.
“I know he’s big,” he said. “I know that much.”
The NBA veteran said Sullinger will only continue to grow as a player while he is under Matta’s watch.
“He’s going to do what he can to get the best out of you,” West said of Matta. “He’s going to push you and he’s not going to relax. Once you have some success, he’s not going to let you rest on that. It’s always onto the next play, next game. He’s going to push you.”