Ranking Syracuse’s Breakout Candidates
While the Orange lost four prominent players from last season, most of this year’s rotation will be familiar. The supporting cast from last season will be asked to fill the shoes and step into larger roles. While all of us hope those guys can become all-conference types in Syracuse’s last season the Big East, there probably won’t be enough minutes to propel everyone to such lofty status, and a more Darwinian approach is likely to prevail.
So who will break out and rise from role player to star player by the end of the season? The following rankings are based on a mix of the player’s ceiling and the playing time I expect each to receive.
1. C.J. Fair – Brandon Triche is getting most of the hype as the senior leader, and I’m very excited to see whether or not he makes the leap we’d like, but since we’re talking about ceilings here, I have to give the first crack to the headbanded one. More on Triche in a moment, but what I absolutely love about Fair and have since we got our first look at him two seasons ago is that there are very few things he doesn’t do well. He can shoot, he can defend, he can rebound, he can hit free throws and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps most relevant to this conversation, though, is the fact that he’s great at minimizing mistakes. Towards the end of the regular season, he played at least 35 minutes in five straight games and turned the ball over just four times in that span. In 26.4 minutes per game, Fair had a microscopic turnover rate of 10.6%. That number was good enough for fifth in the Big East in the 2011-12 season, and none of the four players above him are back. When you play for Jim Boeheim and show the kind of control Fair has, you don’t see the pine all that often. Though he endured a rough 7-27 slump late in the season, few of those shots were ill-advised and he broke out of it with a clutch performance against Wisconsin. The only thing left for Fair to master is his three-point shooting, but reports indicate that he’s come a long way in that department. Don’t get me wrong – I do think James Southerland will continue to get chances, but I see him as more of a spark than a full-time mainstay. I look for Fair to have a huge year and play enough to score close to 15 points per game with five or six rebounds to go along.
2. Michael Carter-Williams – With NBA-caliber length and leaping ability to match, there’s a lot to get excited about when it comes to Carter-Williams, but I have to pump the breaks a little and ask just how much of that optimism is due to his limited exposure last season. In other words, am I excited about Carter-Williams just because the shine hasn’t worn off yet? I’ll be the first to admit that that’s part of it, but after looking again at the way he played once he got some burn, you can see why so many are pumped at the idea of him holding the keys. He has the playmaking ability that makes scouts drool and pretty good handles to keep defenses honest. There’s so much to like about Carter-Williams that it’s easy to forget that he didn’t play a single minute in any of SU’s four NCAA Tournament games, so how he’ll respond to bigger challenges could be the biggest question he faces as a regular. He has the ability to be special, but will he thrive in the spotlight?
3. Brandon Triche – Don’t worry, he wasn’t going to drop that far. I won’t spend too much time talking about Triche because I devoted an entire post to him just last week and nothing’s changed since then, so I’ll sum up the key points. SU’s point guard has the shooting ability that keeps opposing coaches up at night, but can he put it all together? While he’s started every game he’s played, he’s also been held back by inconsistency and nagging injuries. Last season, Triche had a good first half, but averaged less than eight points per game over the team’s final 14 games, and that includes good efforts in the team’s last two Tournament games. Yes, the Orange had other playmakers, but I’m nonetheless skeptical that Triche will be the scorer many are hoping him to be through the course of the entire season. I don’t think it’s as important for him to become a steady 15 PPG scorer as others think, but it’s going to take a lot of convincing for me to rank him among the nation’s best.
4. Dajuan Coleman – Historically, the Big East is not kind to freshman big men, but Coleman could be the exception that bucks the trend. While Jon Rothstein’s recent comment comparing Coleman to Jared Sullinger sound outlandish to me, another comparison sounded more rational: DeJuan Blair. Physically, Coleman has a little more baby fat, but it’s not that difficult to see Coleman gobble rebounds and own the paint defensively the way Blair did as a freshman while showing enough offensively to get into double figures with his soft hands and shooting touch. The freshman has reportedly shed some pounds, but whether it’ll be enough to get up and down the court at the rate Jim Boeheim wants is yet to be determined, and that will be a major factor when it comes to staying fresh.
5. James Southerland – Let’s get one thing out of the way: I fully acknowledge that I may be crazy putting a freshman big over a senior wing on a list like this, but hear me out. I alluded to this earlier, but it seems like Fair and Southerland’s destinies are tied to one another. They play the same position, they’re almost identically sized and are two of the most experienced players on the team. Southerland was more efficient offensively, but didn’t play as much and didn’t show the level of consistency Fair displayed. The simple truth is that there won’t be room for both to play 25 minutes a game. Southerland’s biggest asset is the flexibility he gives Jim Boeheim to mix and match lineups. The Orange can use Southerland to give Fair a breather, but Boeheim can also go small, playing Fair and Southerland together and using Dajuan Coleman or Rakeem Christmas as the center. Still, there’s real value in being a prominent sixth man with the potential to play starter’s minutes. Just ask Dion Waiters. Southerland’s not going to show up on any mock draft boards, but at the end of the season, I think we’ll look back on a handful of games where his play gave the Orange the boost they needed to get a win.
6. Rakeem Christmas – I go back and forth, but among the preseason narratives, I’m most intrigued by the new and improved Christmas. Twenty more pounds of muscle and a little bit of confidence after being humbled so many times last season could be all Christmas needs to have a big year on both ends of the court. The forwards and centers in the Big East are always an intimidating bunch, but they seem to be an especially skilled group coming into this season. Gorgui Dieng, Steven Adams, Chris Otule, Davante Gardner, Mouphtaou Yarou, JayVaughn Pinkston and Otto Porter can all cause problems if the opposition isn’t prepared, and that’s the biggest question for Christmas after he looked lost so often that Boeheim pulled him from the starting lineup. Another one will be if Christmas has developed any semblance of a post game. He may not have to in order for SU to reach its potential, but a stronger pulse on offense could go a long way.