Believe it or not, we’re actually allowed to think about the things that are going to be happening on the court for the Syracuse Orange basketball team. Yes, there are obviously a few off the court issues you may have heard about recently, and there’s no actual basketball being played on the Hill until practices resume in October for the 2015-2016 season. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t look to the future to try to answer some questions about next year’s team, does it?
This season, Syracuse faced some serious problems when it comes to scoring the basketball. Outside of the 17.5 points per game from Rakeem Christmas, the Orange couldn’t seem to find any reliable help on a nightly basis. Obviously, certain players stepped up in certain games to help shoulder the load, but the offensive balance was far too limited and inconsistent, and that’s a large part of the reason that Jim Boeheim’s squad finished the year 18-13.
So who will supply the scoring punch for Syracuse as we look ahead to next season? Yesterday I talked a little bit about our best bet to make up for some of the production we’ll be losing with the departure of Rakeem Christmas, though I don’t think we can count on Dajuan Coleman for more than, and this is probably a generous estimation given his time away from competitive hoops, 8-10 points per game on any given night.
Chances are that unlike this year’s team, next season we’ll see a much more perimeter oriented attack from Syracuse. This might not necessarily be a good thing considering how poorly the Orange shot the ball this season, with Trevor Cooney turning in a pretty dismal season from beyond the arc, and Michael Gbinije fading quickly down the stretch. Cooney finished the year averaging a career-best 13.4 points per game this season, but hit just 30.9% from long distance. That’s not exactly great coming from your designated long range bomber. Cooney’s shooting struggles reached epic levels over the last 10 games of the year, hitting just 15-of-78 three point attempts (19.2%) to close out the season.
Gbinije, meanwhile, was fantastic through the middle portion of the year but likewise closed poorly, failing to score more than 12 points in any of the final five games. Gbinije was outstanding against Duke and Louisville, but in those last five games that followed, he shot a woeful 27.9% from the field and 22.2% from long distance, while turning the ball over 3.2 times per game in those last five games of the year.
The troubling thing here is that, as we move toward 2015-2016, those are the two most proven scorers on the roster, and they both had what can only be classified as horrible ends to the current campaign.
Offense, more than anything else, is what Syracuse will need from its group of talented newcomers and still largely unproven returners. Kaleb Joseph has flashed signs of being a competent slashing scorer with a solid midrange game, but he was so shaky and constantly in the doghouse this year that it’s hard to tell what the Orange will get from him. His confidence was shaken by Jim Boeheim, who at one point literally told him not to take any more jump shots, but with a year under his belt and an offseason of gaining strength, he should be able to use his quickness to attack the rim more and do some damage in the lane.
Meanwhile, the returning players best equipped to handle a little more of the scoring load are Chris McCullough, Tyler Roberson, and BJ Johnson. They’re three very different players in terms of offensive repertoire, but all could be more than competent scorers at the Division I level. Of the three, Johnson is in the unique position of having the farthest to go to become reliable, while simultaneously possessing the skill set to become the best volume scorer of the bunch. Johnson obviously needs to put on a considerable amount of weight and gain consistency on his jumper, but his range, size, and athleticism make him an intriguing cog in the machine.
McCullough, meanwhile, is the best pure talent on the roster, and frankly I don’t think it’s even close. At 6-foot-10, he’s long and athletic, and possesses an above average set of skills – skills that could make him a nightmare for opposing coaches. He’s already got the ability to hit midrange jump shots, and about the only things keeping him from becoming a dominant inside scorer are his lack of strength and bulk, as well as the uncertainty of how well he’s going to recover from his ACL injury. If McCullough can add 10-15 pounds of muscle and regain confidence in his knee, he could be a 15 points per game scorer next season, no question.
That brings us to Roberson, the talented but seemingly timid sophomore who quietly became one of the team’s most consistent players as the year went on. Roberson was forced into an embiggened role following McCullough’s injury, and reached double figures in the scoring column in eight of the 15 games that McCullough missed. Over the last three games against Duke, Virginia, and NC State, Roberson averaged 14.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game and shot 51.6% from the field, primarily doing yeoman’s work on the offensive glass or getting out on the break for one of the few fast break opportunities that the team saw this season. The key for Roberson will be developing his midrange jump shot, and improving his confidence. There times when he still looked skittish when he caught the ball, but in the moments where he made quick, decisive moves to the basket, he looked terrific. If he can add a consistent 15 footer to his repertoire, he’s got a chance to earn All-Conference honors next season.
Of the newcomers for next season, Malachi Richardson is the player poised to make the biggest impact early on, and not just because he’s a McDonald’s All-American. Richardson, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, will immediately become one of the team’s best pure scorers when he arrives on campus. He’s got ideal shooting guard size, and while he’s not an elite athlete he’s certainly explosive enough. But it’s his jump shot that has most fans excited about having him suit up for the Orange. This season he’s averaging 18.6 points and has knocked down 69 three pointers in 26 games played. Richardson has the ability to fill it up in a hurry, and the biggest issue regarding his impact as a freshman will be how quickly he can pick up the 2-3 zone to earn minutes, and how many minutes Jim Boeheim will be willing to give up from the combination of Cooney and Gbinije.
Probably the next best scorer coming to the Orange next season is also arguably the most under the radar recruit in the class, Tyler Lydon. Lydon ranks more highly than Frank Howard in the top 100, for instance, but Howard’s been getting a bit more national attention because he plays alongside highly touted forward VJ King and has been on TV several times this season. Lydon’s biggest hurdles to immediate playing time are the logjam at the forward position, as well as how quickly he can add some mass to his very skinny frame.
But make no mistake about it, Lydon’s combination of size, athleticism, and skill are going to make him a fearsome matchup problem for opposing coaches over the next few years. At 6-foot-8 he’s a legitimate three point threat with deep range, but he’s also got excellent athleticism that for whatever reason often gets overlooked, with people tending to focus on his shooting stroke rather than his explosive leaping ability. If Lydon can earn some playing time at either forward position – and as he told me not so long ago, he’s focusing more on being able to play small forward right now – he has a chance to have a huge impact for the Orange next season.
Obviously, the idea situation for Syracuse would be to have Cooney get back closer to his sophomore form, when he shot 37.5% from three point range, and for Gbinije to gain more consistency. While Jim Boeheim has said that Gbinije is perhaps his best point guard, it’s noteworthy that his struggles seemed to coincide with the ball being put almost exclusively in his hands. He’s a much better player off the ball, so Kaleb Joseph’s development is going to be one of the biggest keys to Gbinije’s development going into his final year of college ball.
Syracuse has a lot of options offensively, but right now they’re all either inconsistent, raw, or unproven. Big things are expected for next season after the disappointment that was 2014-2015, in large part due to the returning talent as well as the excellent recruiting class, which also includes power forward Moustapha Diagne. However, until the offense shows that it can put points on the board at a consistent clip, we should probably all hold off on penciling the Orange in for a Final Four run next year.