SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Coming into the 2013-14 season, most were hoping junior big Rakeem Christmas would give Syracuse adequate play. Nothing special, nothing flashy, just solid basketball. That was a hope, as his first two years were riddled with inconsistency.
As this campaign began, he showed flashes. There was the 12-point, five rebound performance in just 27 minutes against Cornell. That was followed shortly by a scoreless, three rebound outing against St. Francis.
At some point, however, something clicked. Maybe it was DaJuan Coleman's injury which forced Rak to move to the middle permanently. Maybe it was his 15 point performance against Eastern Michigan. Or maybe it was simply the normal development of a talented big man.
Regardless, it is truly remarkable to think about what Christmas was prior to the start of the season compared to what he has become. He has only had four double digit scoring games this season, and only two double digit rebounding tallies. But his game has developed into a strength for the Orange on the inside.
It started with the development of the baby hook. He worked on that vigorously in practice, and turned into an effective weapon in games. Then, Christmas added the seal. He would seal his defender with a blockout, giving a willing passer a lot of room with which to work.
Over the last three games, that has resulted in easy dunks in each.
Next came the footwork in the low-post. His ability to dribble, fake one way, turn the other using his pivot foot to get a good look at the basket.
Over the last three games, Christmas has compiled 27 points, 21 rebounds, 11 blocks, two steals and three assists. All while shooting 67% from the floor and 87% from the free-throw line.
Not only have his numbers significantly improved, but he is a legitimate offensive weapon with the ball in his hands. In Saturday night's performance over North Carolina State, Christmas added two more moves to his arsenal that he showed-off to the Carrier Dome crowd.
To start the game, Christmas caught the ball along the baseline about 10-feet from the basket. Square up, he took a jumper without hesitation and it hit all net. A swish that surprised most, but not the big man himself.
"Yes it has (become more comfortable shooting jumpers)," Christmas said. "I took that jump shot in the game and we take many jump shots during practice."
The most impressive move on Saturday came later, with 7-foot-1 center Jordan Vandenberg guarding him along the baseline. He starts with his back to Jordan, turns and faces, and then uses a beautiful drop step to go right past the slower center for an easy dunk.
It was a gorgeous move that Christmas had not shown to be part of his arsenal until he victimized Vandenberg.
Add to those the baby-hook Christmas has developed out of the low-post with his back to the basket, and you have a center with several moves at his disposal. He has always been a natural shot blocker, but is adding to his game offensively.
The big man can pass as well, as you saw him kick out to Cooney against Pittsburgh. A few times per game he comes to the high post and runs the offense from there.
Christmas' footwork is much improved, his offensive game more diverse and he has become consistently aggressive on both ends of the floor. Those features were the difference in Syracuse remaining undefeated Saturday night.
"I thought he was really the difference in the game – seven blocks, 14 points, 12 rebounds," head coach Jim Boeheim said. "He made his free throws. All of those free throws he took and made were crucial. When it was 50-45 we were in real trouble and we made some really good plays right there one after another but Rakeem was really good."
Christmas understands the system and his assignment now. He has earned the trust of Jim Boeheim, something he clearly did not have during prior seasons. His maturity in the mental game has improved as well, as is evident by his explanation of the final sequence.
"We tried to get the trap in the corner," Christmas said. "The player I stole the ball from was the only one there. I figured that was where the ball was going, so I tried to jump it really quick."
Syracuse finally has the true low-post threat they have been looking for over the last couple of season. Christmas has gone from unknown enigma to consistent weapon for the Orange. From seemingly nothing to offer offensively to four or five moves that he can use to score. And he's still getting better.
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