Syracuse is losing its four top leaders from a season ago in point guard Tyler Ennis, forward C.J. Fair, center Baye Keita and forward Jerami Grant. In total, they combined for over 63.7% of Syracuse’s scoring, 70.8% of their assists, 58.3% of their rebounds, 57.5% of last season’s steals and 50% of their blocks. That is a lot of production to lose in one season.
But it is not only that production that Syracuse is losing as they reload with immense talent year after year. The leadership of Fair, Ennis and the like were big factors in the success of the Orange’s first season in the ACC. Ennis was a calming, steady influence who distributed the ball as well as any player in the country.
Fair and Keita were senior leaders, Fair leading the team in scoring. Grant gave the Orange an athletic forward who could give them a jolt with a monster dunk at any moment.
This season, Syracuse will have a changing of the guard, literally. For the fourth consecutive season, Syracuse will have a brand new starting point guard. Following Scoop Jardine, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis is former four-star prospect Kaleb Joseph.
”All of those guys are different,” head coach Jim Boeheim said. “Scoop was different than Michael. Michael’s game was different than Tyler’s. I think Kaleb is, again, different. I think they’re all good. They’re all really good players. They had a tremendous impact on their team. All talented. I think Kaleb is as talented.”
Despite being just a true freshman, Joseph will be tasked with running the Syracuse offense. A difficult appointment for any player, but particularly so at a program like Syracuse. The good news is that Joseph has the ability to excel at the job. It just may take a little time, though his exhibition performance against Carleton suggested not as much as originally thought.
Joseph is a quick guard with strong ball handling ability and a nasty crossover. His outside shot is still a work in progress, but he should give the Orange the ability to be more up-tempo than a year ago, taking advantage of the elite athletes they have all over the floor.
”I think his progress has been good,” Boeheim said. “He’s as hard a worker as any point guard we’ve ever had. Probably as any guard we’ve ever had. He understands the game. I think he’s been very good in practices. There’s really two tests for a freshman.
”How do you handle practices, and he’s certainly done that. Now, how does he handle game conditions and game situations. Nobody knows the answer to that…Very talented point guard. We’re very happy to have him.”
Helping Joseph in backcourt leadership is Michael Gbinije, who can do a little bit of everything on the court. While he may not start, Gbinije may be as important as any player on the roster. As the sixth man, Gbinije will be the primary backup at point guard, shooting guard and small forward.
Gbinije can bring the ball up the court, has improved his scoring ability and outside shot, and is more physical on the defensive end in order to prepare for his increased role.
”The one good thing with Michael Gbinije is he’s much better,” Boeheim said. “He’s really worked hard and improved. I think we ask him to do something last year that nobody could do, realistically. Play the one, two and the three. I think that was unrealistic but we had to ask him to do that and I think he did.
”This year, he’s much more prepared to be able to play either of those positions.”
But the senior expected to step into a prominent leadership role this season is senior center Rakeem Christmas.
”This year, coach and his staff wants me to be more of a leader,” Christmas said. “I’ve had a lot of leaders over the four years that I’ve been here. I’ve learned a lot from them. I’m not trying to yell at anyone, I’m just trying to be more vocal. Just to get my point across. Just certain things we have to do and to get the job done.”
Christmas’ ability to lead will be imperative to Syracuse’s success this season. Not only to replace the leadership from a year ago, but because the depth behind him at the center position is so thin with DaJuan Coleman out.
”Rakeem Christmas is in some ways a different player,” Boeheim said. “He’s taken charge of the team from a personality standpoint. I think he wants to lead this team. I think he’s improved. He’s improved a little bit every year. I think there’s been a bigger improvement this year. He’s graduated from college. The first guy we’ve ever had to graduate in three years. It’s very difficult.
”Probably the most difficult thing you can do. Very proud of that and he’s in grad school. I think he’s kind of in grad school in basketball too. He’s gotten to the point where he’s ready to compete at a very high level. I’m excited about what he will do this year.”