A Tale of Two Stars: Anthony Davis and Jared Sullinger

Anthony DavisDuring the broadcast of Tuesday night’s Florida-Kentucky game, which the no. 1 Wildcats won handily, Dick Vitale told a story about Ohio State sophomore Jared Sullinger. Both Vitale and Sullinger were at the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year awards banquet this past April — Sullinger to receive the top prize, Vitale to receive a humanitarian award — when the announcer asked the star who would win next season.

“No doubt in my mind,” Sullinger said. “Anthony Davis.”

Vitale argued for Austin Rivers and other incoming freshmen, but Sullinger was adamant. Now, a year later, his prediction is a foregone conclusion. Anthony Davis is the freshman of the year, beyond any shadow of a doubt. With a wingspan captured in this poster released at Tuesday’s game, he’s dominated the interior to an almost unfair extent. And unless a virulent strain of anti-freshman bias runs through the various award committees, he’s a contender to win every national player of the year award, too.

And what of Sullinger? Heading into Tuesday night’s game against Purdue, he was having a very-good-but-not-great season. He missed two December games (including Ohio State’s loss to Kansas) with back spasms, left another with a bruised foot, and seemed to injure his tailbone on a late rebound Tuesday night. His numbers this season are strikingly similar to his freshman campaign. He’s made marginal improvements in most offensive metric categories, but he gets to the line much less frequently than last season. His offensive rebound percentage has also dipped, and the combination of these stats indicate he’s playing a less physical game.

Anecdotal evidence backs this up; as Purdue kept up the pressure on Tuesday night, he went 21 minutes without scoring a field goal, and was bailed out by a few questionable “star calls” that sent him to the line. Late in the game, he committed two bad fouls, sat out several minutes, and then hurt himself on a rebound. He looked out of sorts during that stretch, and though he never got to test himself against Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, it was a surprise to everyone when Duke’s Mason Plumlee played him even when the Blue Devils visited Columbus in November. You can’t quite say the bloom has come off the Sullinger rose, but he hasn’t completely fulfilled the promise of his great freshman campaign.

And — this just in — he might have an image problem. Davis wasn’t the only one to end up on a poster Tuesday night:

For more angles on Kelsey Barlow’s spectacular dunk, check here.

Davis and Sullinger are ripe for comparison, and not just because they played back-to-back games Tuesday night. Sullinger is a 6-foot-9 forward on one of the top three teams in the country. Davis is a 6-foot-10 forward on one of the top three teams in the country. Both are player of the year candidates, though Sullinger’s chances are fading fast. Both are surrounded by talent. Their teams will likely earn one-seeds in March and vie for the national title. They might even meet in the Final Four or the championship game, and the success of each team will depend on the play of their stars.

But when you look at the numbers, the comparison isn’t favorable to Sullinger. Using one of StatSheet.com’s radar charts, we can see that Davis leads in every major category:

What if we add Robinson to the mix?

It’s still Davis, all the way, with Sullinger slightly ahead of Robinson. To be totally fair, the one stat where Sullinger and Robinson exceed Davis is defensive rebounding percentage. But in every other category, the freshman tops them all, including less prominent categories like assists, steals, and turnover rate.

While their games are similar, there appears to be a wide chasm between Davis and Sullinger’s personalities. Few current players inspire the love-him-or-hate-him dichotomy like Sullinger. He’ll scream after a dunk, show his displeasure at a bad call, or stare down an opponent after a hard block. His style is theatrical, and when you close your eyes and try to picture him, he’ll likely be wearing a cocky grin and nodding his head. It’s a big reason why Barlow’s dunk was so enjoyable in some corners Tuesday night; Sullinger is a savvy master of the court. In contrast, Davis plays quiet. There’s an innocence, maybe even a sweetness about him that’s impossible not to like. His interviews cement the impression. You get the sense that he’s humble and less complex than someone like Sullinger, and it would have been hard to revel in his embarrassment if Barlow had dunked in Lexington.

Both players are intensely competitive, but only one has distinguished himself in the big moments this season. While Sullinger was battling Plumlee to a draw, or missing the Kansas game with an injury, or making just three field goals in a loss to Indiana, or enduring a dry spell against Purdue, Davis was outplaying Robinson in a win at over Kansas, blocking John Henson’s jumper to clinch a home game against Carolina, hitting 12 of 13 foul shots and notching a double-double against Louisville, and dominating against no. 7 Florida so thoroughly that Billy Donovan’s Gators never had a shot.

Tuesday’s contests followed the script. While Davis buried Florida, Sullinger’s long absence let a feisty Purdue team stay in the game with hot shooting. It took seven straight points from William Buford, with Sullinger cheering from the bench, to give the Buckeyes the breathing room they needed to seal a three-point win.

There are a lot of chapters left to be written in this story, and there are exceptions to the narrative. In Kentucky’s lone loss to Indiana, Davis only scored six points because of early foul trouble. On Saturday, Sullinger scored 24 to help Ohio State earn its first win in Madison in nearly a decade. He won’t have to wait long to add to his resume; on Saturday, he faces Draymond Green in a game with Big Ten championship implications. And of course, none of it will matter in March, when the stakes are ratcheted up to dizzying heights.

But Davis is the clubhouse leader, and if he can maintain his level of play and lead Kentucky to the national title, player of the year awards won’t even scratch the surface. He could go down as one of the best freshmen in NCAA history.

Filed Under: Anthony Davis, College Basketball, Inside College Hoops, Kentucky, Ohio State, Shane Ryan

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere