In the past, player defections, attitude problems and injuries have prompted Jim Boeheim to shuffle his starting lineup earlier than he would have liked. Louie McCroskey, Josh Wright and Billy Edelin are just a few examples, and those are only from the last seven years. Shortly into the 2008-09 season, Boeheim relegated fan favorite Kritof Ongenaet to the bench not because of any of the above problems, but simply because playing Rick Jackson gave the Orange a post threat to complement Arinze Onuaku without a significant dropoff on the defensive end.
Balancing the search of the optimal rotation with the need to develop younger players is a goal of every coach in America in the non-conference portion of the season, though a lucky few have the recipe perfected from the first day of practice. In comparing Dion Waiters’ performance this season with Brandon Triche, it’s getting harder to believe with each passing game that Syracuse’s best chance to be successful involves Triche playing 25 or more minutes per game, as has been the case in all seven games this season.
In fairness, when you take a look at the season Triche has had, nothing jumps out that calls for his role to be sharply reduced. He’s a year up on Waiters in the experience column (for what that’s worth), he contributes modest scoring output, dives for loose balls and dishes out his fair share of assists. On defense, his length and size has been an important asset to the early season success SU has had in limiting their opponents to less than 60 points per game on just 36% shooting. He has that familial connection to the spectacular teams of the late 80′s and is a local player, which endears him easily to the Syracuse purists out there. There’s plenty to like about the guy.
But when Boeheim points to Waiters and he scores a quick 12 points in less than five minutes as he did against Georgia Tech in Atlantic City and keeps control of the ball despite his preference to run and get into the lane at will, the difference in play between the two guards becomes hard to ignore. In addition, Waiters gives SU a legit three-point threat in the backcourt who can also tread water defensively as he grasps the nuances of playing the front of the zone.
Tuesday against Cornell, Waiters played a season-high 20 minutes, while Triche played a personal season-low 23. The sophomore posted more turnovers against the Big Red (six) than Waiters has all season (five). It’s no secret that Boeheim’s been loyal to Triche from day one, naming him the starter as soon as Johnny Flynn got both feet out the door. However, the Professor has also called him out publicly on more than one occasion as someone who hasn’t been as assertive and confident as he needs to be in the early going. In Waiters, who came to SU accustomed to staying on the floor as much as humanly possible, you have a player with intrinsic motivation to shine and the talent to elevate his role. Complimentary players throughout the years have rightfully stated that they’ll embrace such a role if it helps the team win, gets them to where they want to be in the end and all the other factory-produced quips they’re trained to say. Just seven games in, we’ve learned that Dion Waiters is not that kind of player. It kills him to come off the bench.
I’ve mentioned in this space before that who starts and who doesn’t isn’t nearly as important as simply maximizing the overall distribution of playing time for the best players. Anyone who watched Craig Forth patrol the paint for the Orange can attest to that, as can those who fell in love with Kristof Ongenaet’s defensive intensity. We’re even going through that process with Fab Melo’s development at present. Still, there is something to be gained for helping your team get off to a good start, as was the case in the aforementioned Ongenaet-Jackson switch. It’s becoming clear that Waiters can ignite that spark in a way that Triche hasn’t.
NC State and Michigan State are already less than a week away. The closing gap in playing time between the guards is something to keep a very close eye on in those games and beyond, and with Triche struggling to find his niche in the offense and Boeheim starting to lose patience, Waiters is getting his window.