At any point over the last three years, if someone had told you that Rakeem Christmas would erupt for 35 points – the most by any ACC player this season – chances are you’d have scoffed and perhaps asked them to share whatever they were smoking. That just wasn’t the type of player Rakeem Christmas was through his first three seasons, but it sure as hell is now. So what’s happened? What’s caused the former McDonald’s All-American to blow up into one of the most dominant post players in the country in his final year of eligibility?

Well, for starters you obviously have to give Rakeem credit for working his ass off between the end of last year and the beginning of this season. He’d never be putting up such gaudy numbers if he hadn’t put in a ton of time in the gym and the weight room, improving his skills and his body.

But you know what? I would actually argue that Rakeem was never as far away from becoming this dominant force as his statistical leap would have most people believe. That’s probably a strange thing to say considering that over his four year career, his scoring average has gone from 2.8 points, to 5.1 points, to 5.8 points per game his first three seasons to 18.2 points per game this year. But the fact of the matter is that, in addition to offseason improvement, there have been other factors at play here.

First of all, the reason for the consistent fire and passion Rakeem has been displaying is the same thing that drove him to work so hard over the summer to improve his all around game. According to people who would know, after last year Jim Boeheim and his coaching staff sat down with Christmas and had a long talk about expectations for his final year in Orange, and it lit a fire under the big man. That’s the most important thing here, in large part because even going back to his high school days, Christmas had a reputation as somewhat of a coaster – deciding to dominate only when he felt like it, content to just sort of glide through long stretches of games.

But no one improves so much, so quickly, just because of some offseason workouts and a new found love of the game. It’s always been my contention that Rakeem has always had a lot more talent than he’s been able to show, and it’s finally bubbled to the surface now that he’s the centerpiece of this Syracuse team.

It took me all of about two minutes four and a half years ago to know that Rakeem Christmas was a talented kid. His stat line in the McDonald’s All-America game was far from impressive, as he only scored two points. But the manner in which he scored those two points was enough to sell me on his potential. In the second half of that game, Rakeem caught a pass about 12 feet from the hoop, out toward the wing. He hadn’t really seemed to even be trying in his few minutes here and there, but in that moment he unleashed a beautiful, picture perfect turnaround, fadeaway jumper that swished perfectly through the net.

That was it. That was all I needed to see. And I think that kind of talent has been hiding just out of sight ever since.

It didn’t help that his first year he was Boeheim’s whipping boy for the 2011-12 season, acting as a starter in name only while only getting about 12 minutes per game of on the court action. On top of that, he was sharing time with Baye Moussa Keita, a Boeheim (and fan) favorite with a much longer leash that Christmas ever had before this season.

Some of that was Rakeem’s own fault, of course. He was foul prone, and that tendency to occasionally coast reared its ugly head more than once. He was also never anything more than the third or fourth option on the court at any given time. But the flashes were always there. 

Last season, his numbers actually reflected the kind of season he’s having this season, just with a much smaller sample size. During the 2013-14 season, he shot 61.3% from the field – compared to 58.8% this season – but only attempted 3.6 shots per game. This is far from scientific but if you were to take those numbers and carry them forward using the average shot attempts for this year (11.7 per game), that alone would lift him to 14.5 points per game, and that’s not including free throws.

Speaking of free throws, his strong performance at the line this year shouldn’t come as a surprise, either, since his percentage in 2014-15 (73.5%) is only slightly up from 2013-14 (72.6%). So it’s really not inconceivable to think that, had he been more of an offensive focal point last year, Christmas could have put up much bigger numbers.

But that’s only at one end of the floor. We always knew that Christmas had some offensive skills, which we’re finally getting to see on a nightly basis. The bigger improvement has actually come on the other end of the floor, where he protects the rim and cleans up the glass. He’s blocking more shots than ever before while simultaneously dramatically decreasing his foul rate. Now, that’s not to say he’s completely reined in the foul issues. After all, he’s fouled out twice and had four fouls seven other times this season. That’s more than half of the games played so far with four or more fouls, which isn’t exactly ideal.

That said, he’s become a lot better at playing with foul trouble. Once he picks up his third or fourth foul, he’s been significantly improved in adjusting his play to avoid fouling out while still maintaining his effectiveness. 

Rakeem’s rebounding numbers are the one area that haven’t been getting enough attention, and you could argue that’s the biggest area of improvement he’s had this season. You can extrapolate shooting numbers to realize that a player is only a few additional touches from a big bump in scoring, but rebounding doesn’t work the same way. You don’t need touches to go and get on the glass, you only need minutes. 

Christmas is getting about nine more minutes per game this season, but even that’s not enough to have jumped from 5.1 boards last season to 8.9 this year. Nine more minutes isn’t going to equal four boards per game. This is where his time in the weight room, and the talk with the coaches about putting in the effort on a nightly basis, has paid off the most. He owns the backboard, and he knows it. 

There are a lot of factors involved in the rapid ascent of Rakeem Christmas. Early in the year, I think it’s safe to say we were all expecting him to level off and even dip back down to “reality.” Turns out, what we were watching in those early games was not only the new reality, but his numbers would keep going up…and up…and up. 

This is Rakeem Christmas’s last year at Syracuse, and he’s making the most of it. The real Christmas came late, but hey – better late than never.

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