Freshmen Orientation A Story In SU’s Win Over Bucknell
Everyone who expected Rakeem Christmas to have the best game of his young career last night, step forward. Now, step back again, because you’re either lying or deranged.
His playing time may still get cut down when Big East play comes, but he certainly made his case for an extended look before Jim Boeheim closes the book and we become confident in comparing him to Fab Melo as freshman-starter-in-name-only. I’ve always thought that Christmas’ offensive skills were undersold, though make no mistake that they’re still pretty limited. What I saw from him last night was an ability to get into position on the low blocks, with the guards getting clear enough angles to feed him the ball, plus a token putback. You don’t have to worry much about him finishing once he gets the ball (his 68% field goal percentage is second only to Baye Keita, who has nine fewer attempts), but because he’s still getting comfortable as a freshman, it’s going to take some time for him to get on the right page offensively. Tuesday night was the perfect storm of an undersized Bucknell back line that also didn’t have much skill meeting a long-armed wing who, for at least one night, could get by on his physical tools more than his array of post moves.
In the postgame presser, Jim Boeheim even compared him to Hakim Warrick, which I didn’t really see coming at the time, though I understand the comparison now. Both players arrived at Syracuse still developing physically and without a lot of low post prowess. Less important is the Philadelphia connection, but you can throw that in as well. Christmas is already bigger than Warrick’s peak size as a collegian, and there’s a significant difference in the hype they carried out of high school. Still, while Warrick developed a little bit of range by his senior season, the post is where Christmas should develop his repertoire as long as he’s at Syracuse.
Another reason that Christmas is getting more opportunities is the continued decline of Baye Keita. It’s becoming somewhat perplexing, because the recent competition has not been the kind that should pose a threat to his defensive skill set. He’s pulled down just ten boards over his last four games, which for perspective, is five fewer than Scoop Jardine has in the last four games. Granted, Scoop regularly plays more than Keita, but the disparity is still disconcerting. I won’t harp on this too much because I’ve discussed it ad nauseum, but if Keita isn’t helping the team out with his defense, having him on the court is a waste of available minutes better spent on players who can contribute more consistently. Offense has never been Keita’s game and probably won’t ever be, but it’s pretty damning that Matt Tomaszewski, the Orange’s walking trivia question, only has one fewer point than Keita over the last three games. We still haven’t seen enough of Christmas, but we’re approaching the point where he and Keita may be neck-and-neck for playing time before too long. In fact, we may already be there – in three of the last four games, Christmas has played an equal or greater number of minutes than Keita. This is a situation definitely worth monitoring.
We also got to see more of Michael Carter-Williams, which was very important, even though his current role wouldn’t lead one to that conclusion. As with Christmas, the opportunities for the staff to get a good look at MCW in game action might be wearing thin with non-conference play drawing to a close later this week. He’s still a little too jittery when he comes in, but I’ve noticed that in every game where he’s received some real time, he gets more comfortable after a few possessions. It’s also helps that there are so many options that he doesn’t have to create for himself, even though that was his calling card in high school. At the same time, SU was firmly enough in control that he could take a chance when he wanted and get out on the break and throw down a dunk.
Moving on, rather quietly, Kris Joseph is putting together an excellent season. I’m most impressed by his consistency from long range and at the charity stripe. He isn’t a volume shooter from the perimeter, but he’s hoisted at least three threes in all but one game so far and is hitting on over 40% of his tries. He isn’t being as forceful as he probably could, but with so many good options on offense, he doesn’t have to. Though he hasn’t lived at the free throw line, he’s missed just two free throws since Thanksgiving and is 13-13 over the last three games. The feat becomes slightly more impressive when you consider that the team played an evening game on the road over the weekend, and had to fly back the same night to play again 72 hours later.
Thursday’s game against Tulane will shut the door on non-con play and end a torrid stretch of three games in six days before a well-deserved six-game layoff. The season is flying by, but the future of SU basketball, both in the short-term as well as long the term, continues to look bright.