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It came as something of a surprise to Syracuse fans yesterday when word leaked that the Orange would be hosting East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes for a visit later this month. After all, the Orange are facing something of a scholarship crunch if things fall into place with the rest of the class of 2017. So the question of how Hughes fits in is certainly valid.

And like others, I certainly had questions. The Orange need more immediate help, and with that same scholarship crunch (which I talked about yesterday), it would seem to be limiting the team’s options for the recruiting class of 2018 while simultaneously taking away a live body for games in 2017-18.

Then there were the questions about whether Hughes is a talented enough player for Syracuse to take a chance on, particularly since he’s got to sit out a year and the Orange are involved with a number of high profile recruits in 2018. The more I’ve read about him, however, the more my questions have been answered and my hesitation on potentially taking him has lessened.

Let’s start with what kind of player Hughes is. The New York State native, who played his final year of high school ball alongside Matthew Moyer at South Kent (where he earned All-NEPSAC honors) is an athletic wing player who is much more of a shooting guard than a small forward. For those who think he might be added depth at the three, my feeling after watching him a bit is that, if he comes to Syracuse, he’ll spend the bulk of his time at the top of the 2-3 zone.

Which would be ideal, really. At 6-foot-6, he’s got great size for the shooting guard position (and don’t be fooled if you watch some of his ECU highlights and come away thinking he’s not really 6-foot-6; ECU had one of the five tallest rosters in America last year, averaging nearly 6-foot-7 as a team, which is why his height doesn’t jump out). He’s also got quick hands and feet, which could make him a dangerous defender at the top of the zone.

I spent part of this morning watching his game against SMU in the AAC Tournament, in which he scored 15 points, knocking down 5-of-10 field goal attempts and 2-of-4 shots from beyond the arc. His handle needs a little bit of tightening, and right now I’m not sure how much I’d trust him to help break a relentless Louisville press with the dribble, but he comes across as a smart player with above average ballhandling and passing ability, and good overall hoops IQ.

And don’t be fooled by his shooting numbers, either. Last season, Hughes shot 27.3% from three point range and 34.9% overall, while averaging 7.8 points-per-game. That certainly raised a red flag for me, as it did for much of the Syracuse fanbase. But sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story. I looked up his old recruiting profile on ESPN.com, and a couple of things stood out to me.

  • He was a football player, and didn’t play on the AAU circuit during high school.
  • Right there in his “weaknesses” it’s mentioned that, given his relative lack of experience playing against high level competition, it might take him longer than some others to adjust to the Division I level.

Honestly, both of those points make so much sense with regard to how he ended up at East Carolina, and why he didn’t set the AAC on fire as a freshman. If you’re not playing on the AAU circuit, and essentially sitting out the spring and summer, you’re going to fly completely under the radar. Like it or not, that’s how players get noticed and gain reputations on a national level, and attract big-time colleges.

And the second point makes an equal amount of sense. Sometimes, it’s hard for a player to transition to the college level. That’s even more true when you factor in what a significant jump in competition it is if you’ve basically skipped the AAU circuit your whole life. Yes, the NEPSAC is a tremendous basketball league, but if you haven’t spent years playing with and against the best of the best in AAU ball, you’re at a disadvantage and the competitive gap becomes even more significant, and more shocking the first time you see it staring back at you.

It’s also interesting to look at Hughes’s splits between wins and losses. Hughes played in 10 of East Carolina’s wins, and in those games, his shooting numbers were substantially better than in losses. In those 10 victories, Hughes shot 45% from the field and better than 36% from three point range.

When watching Hughes, it’s clear that he absolutely can shoot the ball. He’s got a good, smooth stroke, and he takes it with confidence. Sometimes it just takes a little longer for a player to adjust to the level of competition. This is a player who, after all, Donna Ditota saw hit eight threes in a single game for South Kent. That doesn’t happen by accident for a lousy shooter.

Demetris Nichols shot under 24% from three point range as a freshman, and only hit 25% as a sophomore. These days, we know and remember him as one of the best shooters in Syracuse history. James Southerland hit just 29% from deep as a freshman. Trevor Cooney – one of the most prolific shooters in Syracuse history – hit just 26.7% from deep his redshirt freshman season. Preston Shumpert only shot 29% from three point range his first year at Syracuse.

And so on, and so on. Particularly given how little experience Hughes has against top level competition, it makes perfect sense that his adjustment period might last longer. And that’s where a redshirt year would become absolutely ideal for him and his development. If he chooses to come to Syracuse, he’ll get a year in the program to learn how to play the top of the 2-3 zone, but just as importantly, he’ll be competing every day against high level basketball players. By the time he’s eligible to play, he’ll be a third year sophomore, and have a chance to be a significant contributor.

His size, athleticism, and fundamentals make him an extremely interesting prospect. If you want to see him in action, check out that ECU/SMU game I mentioned above. You can pretty much skip ahead to about the hour and 10 minute mark and watch from there, since he does the bulk of his damage in the final 10 minutes of the game.

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