The focus for many Syracuse basketball fans this week is Wednesday’s McDonald’s All-American game. The exhibition, of course, includes two players slated to join the Orange in the fall – guard Michael Carter-Williams and big man Rakeem Christmas. The achievement is another feather in the cap of SU’s coaching staff, and the Orange is one of six teams (the others being Louisville, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State) to place multiple Burger Boys in Wednesday’s game. In case you abandoned the NCAA Tournament in the wake of SU’s loss, that’s two number one seeds, a two-seed, a Final Four team and, well, Louisville. All told, some terrific company. Some Orange fans will hearken back to 2007, the last time ‘Cuse had a pair of high school seniors in the Mickey D’s game, but the situations Carter-Williams and Christmas will face when they get to campus are very different than the ones from four years ago. Where they fit in is a little fuzzy at the moment, but it certainly falls under the adage of “a good problem to have.”
In 2007, Burger Boys Johnny Flynn and Donte Greene smoothly slid into starting roles from the get-go in their freshmen seasons, but Michael Carter-Williams and Rakeem Christmas don’t figure to get a ton of immediate minutes due to the logjams in front of them at their respective positions. With only Rick Jackson leaving and three players coming aboard, there will be plenty of depth, perhaps more than any team in the conference. As I touched on last week, however, the kind of depth SU has leaves some wiggle room for both freshmen to make their cases for playing time. When practice starts in the fall, there remains a chance that both players will make early impacts because there aren’t many players already on the roster who are locks to run away with the lion’s share of available bench minutes next season. Let’s start with Carter-Williams and the guard rotation.
Like it or not, Scoop Jardine is the Orange’s starting point guard in 2011-12. He makes his share of mistakes and then some, but he’s also a threat to score 20 points on any given night and his experience, even if it’s overvalued by Jim Boeheim, puts him at a distant advantage as the incumbent. It’s unrealistic at best that Dion Waiters can run the offense in his sophomore season, and the coaching staff seems committed to keeping Brandon Triche at the two spot in most scenarios. This adds up to an opportunity for Carter-Williams to step in as the backup point guard next season. There have been reports of him developing floor general skills in his senior season at St. Andrew’s, though that’s an area that has been mostly neglected in his high school career. While he may be unpolished in facilitating an offense, it’s a part of his game that should be honed once he’s under the wing of Mike Hopkins, but until then, he’s still a very good scorer. In Waiters, Triche and Jardine, the Orange already have many of those in the backcourt, but in so doing, the Orange has essentially punted the component of running a sound offense. There’s also a concern in how playing time will be distributed among the several guards, (we haven’t even brought Trevor Cooney into the picture yet) – but the focus of this post is simply to take a crack at where the players fit on the depth chart, not how playing time will be chopped up.
Despite the depth SU has stacked in the frontcourt, there isn’t a ton of proven talent here, and this is a place where Rakeem Christmas could step in if the Orange’s current core of inexperienced bigs don’t make the progress needed over the summer. Let’s take a cursory look at that current group.
Fab Melo struggled under lofty expectations in his freshman year, but should improve as his strength and conditioning is stepped up along with practice and repetition. He also needs the playing time in order to get better, and if the last few games of the season are any intention, Jim Boeheim has every intent to give him those opportunities. Baye Moussa Keita was as good defensively last season as he was poor offensively and, like Melo, will be a sophomore. The Ongenaet comparisons are easy to draw, but Ongenaet also lost his starting spot shortly into his second season at SU because he was lost cause on the offensive end and there was some big dude from Philadelphia who could fill in, and that ended up working out alright. DaShonte Riley will be back following his redshirt year and will also compete for minutes after not having many opportunities two seasons ago as a freshman. Add Christmas to the mix and the end result should be a frenzied competition for playing time for a spot alongside Melo.
One theory I have is that Keita will be the odd man out. Christmas and Keita are similar in that both are very raw offensively and more polished on defense, though Christmas’ upside along with his size advantage of about 20 pounds makes him a touch more appealing in my eyes. Keita was viewed as a redshirt candidate last season before DaShonte Riley underwent surgery to fix his foot, but with more bodies with higher upside available this season, it’s very possible that Keita takes a redshirt season in 2011-12. It’s also possible Christmas isn’t quite ready from due to his limitations (specifically, his motor and intensity have been questioned), and we’ll see Keita after all.
Ultimately, I just don’t see many things Keita can do better than Christmas at this point, aside from running the floor. Keita was a surprise in his freshman year, and his experience will be helpful in the long run, but the bottom line is that he would’ve been on the outisde if DaShonte Riley was able to play last season. Jim Boeheim rarely redshirts a player solely to prolong eligibility, but I can see a situation where it would be appropriate to go down that road with Keita. By no means should the seas be parted for Christmas to get playing time, but I think he should get some chances. Riley remains somewhat of a wildcard because it’s been so long since he’s had any playing time and is coming back from an injury, but he should be in the picture as well.
Placing a lot of stock in an exhibition like the McDonald’s All-American game is a fool’s errand. It’s little more than a glorified scrimmage at its heart, but that shouldn’t take away the fun of dreaming about the futures of SU’s brightest stars.