It can’t be easy being the third point guard in as many years for a highly successful basketball program like Syracuse, particularly when you’re following in the footsteps of a pair of guys who were first round picks in each of the last two NBA Drafts in Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis. Obviously, the pressure has been high for Kaleb Joseph since the day Ennis decided to go pro, and through two regular season games, some fans are already showing signs of panic. But the key both for fans and for Joseph himself is to stop and realize that patience is a virtue.
It may not have been entirely fair to heap such massive expectations on Joseph from the get go. For most freshman point guards, being handed the ball and told to run a team like Syracuse would be akin to handing a 16 year old, fresh from the DMV, the key to a Formula 1 race car and telling him to go nuts. It’s generally not going to turn out well for anyone involved.
The added trouble for Joseph is that Ennis was so absurdly prepared to play at the high major level that it kind of casts a pretty large shadow over whoever came next, and that just happens to have been Joseph. It’s not particularly fair to make comparisons to Ennis simply because he was something of an anomaly, his control of the game and his on court poise somewhat stupefying. No one was going to be able to fill his shoes from that standpoint, and really, we should stop holding Joseph up to the same standards that were established with Ennis because it’s too much to ask of most sophomore point guards, let alone freshmen.
Yet it’s okay to be a little disappointed in Joseph’s slow start on the year, primarily because when you watch him play and read about his work ethic, and about what a student of the game he is, you know that at any moment things are going to click into place and he’ll have a breakout performance. The fact that he was fairly quiet against lesser opponents like Kennesaw State and Hampton has some fans concerned, but they needn’t be. After all, this is still a young kid getting his feet wet, and getting used to playing at the NCAA Division I level.
For Joseph, it’s about slowing down and being a little more patient with the ball. He’s shown a tendency to get a little out of control from time to time in the first two games, zipping down the floor and trying to dribble through traffic because that’s something he’s always been able to do in the past. He was always stronger, faster, and more agile than his opponents. Soon enough he’ll learn that he’s no longer bigger, stronger, or quicker than everyone, and even on squads like Hampton, he’s going to run up against older guards who are physically and mentally stronger than anyone he’s ever competed against. He’s got to learn to adapt his style, while staying true to what will ultimately make him such a weapon: his speed and athleticism.
One area where he can exploit his explosiveness but hasn’t yet is in penetrating the lane. He’s proven to be terrific at driving and dishing, but eventually he’s going to need to use his burst to get into the lane and find his own offense. Early on this season, he’s mainly scored on the break or from pull up mid-range jumpers. Of course, another issue he’s been running into in terms of the seeming reluctance or inability to drive has been the fact that most of the offensive damage so far this season is coming from the post, and with Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough keeping their defenders in the paint, there hasn’t been much room for Joseph to operate.
Tonight when the Orange take on Cal at Madison Square Garden, Joseph will be facing his stiffest test yet with a perimeter oriented Bears team with big, strong, talented guards. He’ll also be on the biggest stage of his young career, playing under the bright lights of the Garden in a nationally televised game. Expectations were high, and there’s no better time to show people that they were right to expect big things.
But even if he again puts together a quiet stat line, that’s not any reason to panic. Just as Joseph needs to be a little more patient with the ball in his hands, Syracuse fans need to exercise patience as the young point guard grows and matures as a big time college point guard. He’s got all of the tools to succeed, and it certainly looks to be a matter of when, not if, things will click into place.