It sounds weird, but one thing I love about college basketball isn’t mostly about college basketball. Over the last couple years, I’ve become a big fan of the increase in visibility of the nation’s top high school recruits. Thanks to contracts involving networks televising events like the Boost Mobile Elite 24, Nike Hoops Summit, the McDonald’s All-American game, and most recently, the Jordan Brand Classic, we’re able to get glimpses of the best high school talent in the country as they near the start of their college careers. The high school scene is covered thoroughly by a variety of tremendous online news outlets and scouting services who provide periodic updates. But the everyday fans, until recently, haven’t been able to see their school’s freshest faces in high school exhibition action. I know it can be tough to come away from these all-star games with a lot of confidence in what to expect from these players, but I’ll take any chance to take a look at guys like Rakeem Christmas and Michael-Carter Williams.
Christmas impressed the most on Saturday night in Charlotte. He started, had two quick dunks and finished with 12 points to go along with seven boards and a block. The Jordan Brand Classic looked like an extreme case of a defense-free exhibition, as the teams combined for 222 points, so while Christmas showed the ability to finish, you still have to take the performance at face value. The physical tools are definitely there, though I’d like to see him add 10 or so pounds of muscle of meat on his bones, and his offensive game is essentially limited to putbacks, finishing on the break, and exploiting mismatches.
We also got a good look at Michael Carter-Williams, SU’s incoming point guard who rose up the charts for ranking services over the past year. Known as a scoring guard, Carter-Williams has recently taken on more of a distributor/floor general role, and scored just one point, though he dished out five assists and pulled down six rebounds. He appears to be the successor to Scoop Jardine at the point guard spot, and will have a year to get his legs under him and build up some much-needed muscle.
High school exhibitions make for entertaining basketball, but the springtime portion of the off-season is also busy with news of coaching hirings and firings and player movement, whether it’s in the form of draft declarations, transfers or action in the spring signing period. It seems as though there’s been an inordinate amount of player movement in the Boeheim era this millennium. In many cases, it’s been the kind that garners great PR, like Carmelo Anthony, Wes Johnson and Johnny Flynn leaving early for the draft and having their names called as top ten selections. Occasionally, it’s head-scratching, like Donte’ Greene’s draft decision following the 2007-2008 season. Other times, though, the news of players leaving the Orange has vindicated whispers and reports alike that certain guys simply wore out their welcome with Jim Boeheim (Paul Harris, Louis McCroskey), the school (Eric Devendorf, Josh Wright) or each other (DeShaun Williams). We may have such a scenario yet again with Saturday’s report that Dion Waiters’ status with the team is, according to Boeheim, “up in the air.” Boeheim added that the matter will be resolved one way or another by the end of this school year, so we shouldn’t expect this to drag out for long.
As illustrated, the SU program has withstood a great deal of roster attrition over the years. From that angle, this is nothing new. But it’s intriguing that a player who was recruited by Syracuse as early as Waiters was, a guard who committed to SU more than three years before his first game, could be off the team a mere six months after his debut. That doesn’t mean this move, should it take place, would be surprising. He came to Syracuse as a ball-dominating guard who was asked to come off the bench as the Orange’s third guard, a role he very obviously wasn’t used to. Then, in January, Waiters infamously threw an f-bomb in the general direction of Jim Boeheim during garbage time of the Seton Hall debacle in January, so it’s not hard to see how the bouts in chemistry and style would lead to some disagreements.
I’m a big fan of Waiters’ on-court play. Last season, he turned the ball very rarely over for someone who commands the rock as much as he does, displayed an aggressive eye towards the basket that Brandon Triche lacked, and his defense, perceived as an Achilles heel upon his arrival, really seemed to come along. While Fab Melo and Baye Moussa Keita struggled on offense, Waiters stuck out as a freshman who could produce as long as he stayed out of his own way. Of course, the last part of that sentence proved to be operative over the course of the season, and Waiters was benched for the Marquette game that followed his colorful language propelled at The Per’fesser. Around the same time, he hit the freshman wall, going 5-25 in three games during SU’s midseason losing streak. At the end of the season, though, he was SU’s leading scorer in their tournament loss to Marquette, going 8-10 from the floor for 18 points, with his only misses coming from behind the arc.
Truthfully, I would love for him to work out any remaining qualms with Jim Boeheim and stick around. I hope that next March, there’s an article in the Post-Standard talking about how Dion Waiters ascended from possibly leaving the program to flourishing as a consistent double-digit scorer in a fast-paced SU attack as the Orange forges along into the second weekend of the tournament. I love Waiters’ scoring potential as a long-term player, and while I like what’s on tap from next season’s freshmen, his presence would keep Trevor Cooney and Michael Carter-Williams from having to do too much too soon. However, both sides need to be all in, and the last thing the team needs, especially with a talented freshman class coming in, is a locker room lingering with discomfort, tension and clashing personalities.
At the same time, SU figures to have a very deep roster next season which is built to withstand Waiters leaving if the situation presents itself. For a variety of reasons, roster retention drama has a way of popping up around Jim Boeheim’s program on a regular basis. Fortunately, we’ll be able to know what’s what by early-to-mid May.