Medical Red Flag. Three words that make every athlete with professional aspirations cringe. In the weeks leading up to the NBA draft, this label had been placed on two talented forwards, Jared Sullinger from Ohio State and Perry Jones III from Baylor.
In both of his two years at Ohio State, Sullinger was a first-team All-American. In March, he led the Buckeyes to the NCAA East Regional championship and a berth in the Final Four. Jones, a star at Baylor, was a McDonald’s and Parade All-American out of high school in Dallas. He was thought to be top-five draft pick prior to this season. So why did these can’t-miss prospects tumble down the draft board?
From the business side of sports, players like Sullinger and Jones represent potential investments for the future of the teams. If there are warnings signs that make the risk of that investment greater than the potential benefit, then teams might think twice about choosing that player. And to a degree, this is exactly what happened.
Jared Sullinger chose not to attend the draft in person, as concerns of his fall arose. Only weeks earlier he had been projected to be a top pick. Now he had dropped out of the top 10, then out of the lottery, and then into the 20s of the NBA draft. In the previous week, word had surfaced that the Ohio State sophomore had been medically red flagged due to back issues, which might end up shortening his playing career.
Sullinger’s father, Satch Sullinger believes his son’s condition isn’t all that serious and conveyed his thoughts to ESPN’s Andy Katz. “He had a bulging area that was due to his hamstring and quads being so tight. It pulled on his hip flexor and he’s been taking care of it to loosen it. You can call it a red flag if you want. But it’s tight hamstring and tight quads.”
As for treatment and the possible need for back surgery, Sullinger’s father tried to refute these fears. “He’s been to doctors, he’s doing yoga and deep tissue massage. The flexibility is helping take the pressure off the area.”
With picks at both numbers 21 and 22, the Boston Celtics finally scooped up the fundamentally sound power forward, as they hope to see him contribute youth and energy to a veteran Boston team. Although they had not brought him in for a pre-draft workout, the front office felt the team had the opportunity to get a top-10 pick with only what assistant GM Ryan McDonough labeled “a slight risk”.
Danny Ainge, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, acknowledged that Sullinger’s back does bring risk. Ainge said, “We did our research on the back issues and felt comfortable, but there are some issues there and our medical staff thinks that short term and long term, there may be some maintenance issues with the back.”
Not unlike Sullinger, a year ago Perry Jones III also was considered a can’t-miss NBA draft choice. That changed drastically last night as he fell to No. 28 overall to the Oklahoma City Thunder. According to a report from Chad Ford of ESPN.com, NBA team doctors are concerned about a meniscus issue that some believe could pose a problem down the road and even require surgery.
General manager Sam Presti said he doesn’t know if Jones will require knee surgery. Thunder doctors will examine him soon. Presti and the organization liked what they saw from Jones in his workout at the NBA draft combine in Chicago.
When commenting on the risk of Jones knee injury, Presti answered much as Ainge did about Sullinger. “We’ve looked at all the information that we’ve had available and we wouldn’t have selected him unless we felt comfortable with all of the information,” Presti said.
While he will be elated to join three time scoring champion Kevin Durant and an elite basketball team, there is no doubt that Jones feels disappointed about being just drafted two picks before the second round. But his slide, and Sullinger’s as well, will cost them financially, as smaller contracts are offered to lower picks. Darren Rovell, CNBC’s sports business reporter, tweeted during the draft that Jared Sullinger’s injury would cost him about $2 million over 2 seasons.
Speculation is often a bad mantra for athletes in this day and age. Professional sports teams are working to make player evaluations a science. Scouting, complex statistical analysis, MRI’s of every body part, genetic testing – any of it could become standard as teams try to identify medical risks. The fear of an unknown commodity and the potential to lose millions of dollars on a player too injured to play can be a strong deterrent for teams. While both Sullinger and Jones III will have the opportunity to prove themselves, it is hard to ignore the repercussions of the ‘medical red flag’.
What can professional sports teams do to better assess players’ medical risks? Share your ideas and comments below! I also want to thank Prateek Prasanna for his help with this post.