The two highly touted big men were high school juniors when they met in the Flyin’ to the Hoop showcase event in Dayton, Ohio in January 2009.
Sullinger’s team, Columbus (Ohio) Northland, won the game, but Tyler, then at San Diego High, held his own with what DraftExpress.com called “a gorgeous skill set both from the perimeter and in the low post.”
“Go look at his body, go look at his athleticism and then look at Sullinger’s athleticism,” Sonny Vaccaro, the grassroots sneaker guru who has advised the 6-foot-11 Tyler, said in a phone interview. “Sullinger isn’t as big as he’s portrayed to be. I’m saying [Tyler] is as good as these people.”
Yet while Sullinger would have been a Top 5 pick had he elected to leave Ohio State after his freshman season, Tyler, who turns 20 Sunday, is projected by DraftExpress as an early second-round pick in the June 23 NBA Draft.
“They went to college and I played professional with grown men so there’s going to be a difference there,” Tyler said of Sullinger and the other elite high school players he faced, such as Renardo Sidney. “I’m not going to say that I’m better than these dudes, but there’s going to be a difference there.”
While few doubt Tyler’s athletic skill-set, there are questions about his maturity. A Knicks source who attended Monday’s workout — which was not open to the media — said Tyler displayed flashes of emotion and frustration that underscored his immaturity.
Point guards Nolan Smith of Duke and Shelvin Mack of Butler, by contrast, were complete professionals, the source said.
Still, there is little doubt that Tyler has come a long way as a result of playing overseas in Japan and Israel after making the controversial decision to leave San Diego High after his junior season.
“Oh man, it definitely helped me in a lot of different ways, from maturity to being a professional on and off the court,” Tyler, who initially committed to Louisville coach Rick Pitino, said Monday. “Definitely learning basketball, learning how to be a good teammate, learning how to run professional sets and be coached by an NBA coach. It was definitely a great experience and it’s definitely going to help me a lot here.”
Vaccaro helped broker a deal with Maccabi Haifa of the Israeli League that paid Tyler $140,000 after he opted to skip his senior season.
“The Israeli team came over to America and scouted him for two days in Santa Monica with a lot of Arn [Tellem’s] clients,” Vaccaro recalled. “I personally thought it was the best place for him, as opposed to another country where English would not have been the first language….We all agreed that Israel was good, including Arn and his dad.”
Yet Tyler’s experiment in Israel proved to be an abject failure. He clashed with the Israeli head coach and was portrayed in the media as being immature and insolent.
“The family didn’t go with Jeremy to Israel,” Vaccaro said. “That was the hardest thing to do because now he’s over there and even though it’s English-speaking” he didn’t have a support system.
Said Tyler: “It was pretty tough, but I knew it was going to be tough. I was coming into a situation not really knowing how to handle myself and that’s exactly the challenge that I wanted. I wanted to challenge myself, challenge my skills, challenge me as a person. It was like a developmental year. I grew up and I developed a lot of good daily things that I didn’t have, such as being a professional, learning how to conduct myself in the public as a sports figure, as a model person.”
Tyler said that experience helped him transition to Japan, where he signed with the Tokyo Apache of the Japanese basketball league last July and played for former NBA coach Bob Hill.
Hill, who mentored David Robinson as coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1994-5, said the Israeli experiment was doomed from the beginning.
“How can you send an 18-year-old to Israel by himself?” Hill asked The New York Times. “First of all, the Israel league is good. There’s no way he was ready, especially if he didn’t have an American coach who could bring him along. I mean, they took him right out of high school in his junior year. It was a disaster. He didn’t do well. He’s doing much better here than he did in Israel.”
Tyler credits Hill with helping him become a man and a better basketball player during his tenure in Japan.
“He’s been everything I could possibly want, in a mentor and a coach and a father figure,” Tyler said Monday. “I was there by myself. He’s a dad, so he knows what it’s like to be 18 or 19 in a whole ‘nother country. Off the court, man, he was in in my head every single day. I basically lived at his house. I was going over there every day eating. He was installing how to be a professional, how to be a man and how to be a good person. And all that transitioned over to basketball.
“He always told me, ‘If you had everything that I have in my brain in your body right now, then you’d be the best player ever.’ So I said, ‘I’m going to soak up everything every single day.'”
After reportedly being lambasted by Hill after he got into trouble with referees during a double-overtime loss, Tyler responded by scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in a victory in early March that may have been a turning point.
“I got player of the game and everything was rolling,” Tyler recalled. “I was excited. I couldn’t wait.”
Yet just when things appeared to be turning, the following day Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake.
“I was actually on my to go in the grocery shop with the point guard of our team, Byron Eaton,” Tyler recalled. “We feel earthquakes all the time. And this one started off kind of small. I was watching TV, I held the TV for a little bit and then I let it go and it just fell over. I was like, ‘This is big.’ [Eaton] didn’t even know where the stairs was because we didn’t know what to do in that situation.
“So we just kind of ran out of the house, just watched all the buildings sway from side-to-side, side-to-side. It was the craziest thing. It’s unimaginable, something I’ve never seen before in my life. That was an experience, man.”
The Apache suspended operations and Tyler returned to the U.S. a week later.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Tyler said. “My heart goes out to all the people that lost their families and all the people in Japan.”
The transformative experiences in Israel and Japan have no doubt changed Tyler forever.
Yet he’s still working to keep his emotions under control and his behavior will be scrutinized when he works out Wednesday for the Chicago Bulls and Friday with the Washington Wizards.
“A lot of people think that me leaving overseas took me back steps when it only moved me forward,” he said. “It will show up soon.”
The Knicks on Wednesday will work out Corey Fisher, Andrew Goudelock, Matt Howard, Delroy James, Trey Thompkins & Carlton Scott.