Syracuse Hits the Court

The Syracuse University men's basketball team kicked off the post-Gerry McNamara era season today at Manley Field house, conducting a spirited practice in front of approximately fifty onlookers. After holding a Media Day event in the afternoon, the team got things started for real in the evening with the first official practice of the 2006-2007 season.

Head coach Jim Boeheim's team enters the season with several question marks.  Most notably:


  • Who will replace the production and moxie of the departed McNamara?
  • Who can be counted upon to perform in critical situations with the game on the line?
  • Where exactly does blue chip freshman Paul Harris fit in the lineup?
  • Who starts at point guard?
  • What can SU fans expect from the four seniors?


Today's practice offered a glimpse of insight about how some of these issues might play out as the season unfolds.


Practice began with several light conditioning drills and calisthenics, during which the Orange stretched and warmed up.  Coach Boeheim then picked up the speed with a fast-paced three man weave drill.  It was during this drill that a new era of Syracuse basketball was ushered in, as Harris completed the first weave by throwing down a powerful two handed dunk.  This play set the tone for how hard Harris worked throughout the remainder of practice.


From there, the Orange transitioned to a modified version of the three man weave, with the two trailing members of the rotation receiving passes from the wing.  As one player swooped towards the hoop for the layup, the other two pulled up for perimeter jumpshots.  This drill was sloppily executed, much to Coach Boeheim's chagrin.


A couple of things were evident from this drill.  First, there are four players on the team who shoot the ball with consistency:  Demetris Nichols, Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins, and Matt Gorman.  Freshman Mike Jones showed nice touch from mid range, but while Harris connected on some unguarded wing shots during drills, his touch faded later in practice when he was defended by teammates.  Second, all of the returning starters demonstrated that they were in superb physical condition by running full-speed throughout the drills without expending much effort.  Third, despite all of the above, team execution was not crisp—a happenstance which can be partially attributed to the absence of an experienced lead guard.


The team then broke into different units, with assistant coach Mike Hopkins working with the guards, Troy Murphy working with forwards, and Bernie Fine coaching the centers.  One thing that stood out was that fifth-year senior Gorman worked exclusively with the centers group, presumably due to the absence of sophomore Arinze Onuaku, who has reputedly been debilitated by a knee injury.  More on this later.


The team spent quite a bit of time doing drills that are specifically designed to develop skills appropriate for each respective position.  For example, the centers concentrate on rebounding, playing post defense, interior passing, etc. while the guards work on defending two-on-ones, moving without the ball, and working to get open against tight defensive pressure.


From the guard group, Eric Devendorf stood out.  The second year player from Bay City, Michigan appears to be in peak physical condition.  He shot the ball with confidence, worked hard throughout practice, and played with a focus that was sometimes lacking last season.  It is very likely that Devendorf will be one of the top two primary scorers on this year's team, and if today's practice was any indication, he's worked hard in the offseason to prepare for the increased level of responsibility.


Harris worked exclusively with the guards—an indication that his future, at least this season, lies primarily in the backcourt.  During full court defensive drills, Harris displayed a sick handle, crossing the ball over and dribbling between his legs effortlessly, even when closely guarded by Devendorf. 


Andy Rautins impressed throughout with his shooting and basketball IQ.  It's very clear that he is a coach's son who simply knows how to play the game.  He looks poised to see some playing time this season.


Josh Wright had an up and down practice.  At times, he was able to use his quickness to beat defenders off of the bounce and get into the lane for easy scoring opportunities.  But his shot was off today, and he struggled with the ball at time during the full court defensive pressure drills.


The player who stood out the most amongst the forwards was Nichols, who shot the ball with confidence bordering on arrogance, and looked much more aggressive at looking to create off of the dribble.  Nichols looks well suited to playing the role of the primary scorer this season.


Roberts was noticeably more vocal throughout practice, a sign that he's actively assuming more of a leadership role.  The good news is that he practices hard all the time, and that he appeared to be more focused this year than in the past.  The bad news is that his offensive repertoire does not seem to have appreciably improved.


Jones also caught my eye throughout practice.  Whether in drills or during scrimmages, he seemed to be in on just about every play—whether that meant snaring a rebound, coming up with a loose ball, or disrupting the passing lanes.  Jones is one of those players who just has a nose for the ball.


From the centers, Mookie looks about the same as last year.  He runs the court like a gazelle and practices hard, but at this stage of his development he is more athlete than basketball player.  He still needs to gather himself before he goes up, and he rarely initiates contact on the offensive end, preferring instead to attempt to finesse his way past defenders.  Although he has incredible physical tools at his disposal, he has not developed the physical style nor the killer instinct that his physique would suggest.


Gorman appears to have slimmed down a bit.  While he's fairly strong, he is a bit undersized to play full time at center.  The size disparity between he and Mookie was noticeable.  It will be even more so when he matches up against the likes of Aaron Gray [Pittsburgh] and Roy Hibbert [Georgetown].  Even so, he did an effective job of rebounding in traffic throughout practice, and he took the ball to the hole strong when he got entry passes…although he got fouled more often than he converted inside.  He's most comfortable on the wing, where he can set picks and pop out for open perimeter shots.  He range extends beyond the three point arc.


Freshman Devin Brennan-McBride appears to be in a bit over his head right now.  On the positive side of the ledger, he is an impressive athlete.  He runs effortlessly—he's not a plodder, like many big men his size are—and in transition he finishes with aplomb.  But he appears to be clueless when it comes to understanding the finer nuances of the game. He is almost always out of position on both ends of the floor, and runs around without really knowing where he's supposed to go.  That is presumably indicative of the poor coaching he's had thus far in his young career, something that is correctable with time and patience.   The lingering effects from a previous shoulder injury appear to still hinder him, as well.  On one defensive play, he was caught badly out of position by Gorman, who spun around him with a deft drop step for a power jam.  In the ensuing contact, Brennan-McBride appeared to hurt his shoulder, and had to go to the sidelines for several minutes to limber up [luckily, he returned shortly thereafter and finished practice].  The time that he spent away from basketball while recuperating from his injury seems to have impaired his physical conditioning.  While the reports about his athleticism appear to be true, he clearly is going to need some time to work himself into peak physical capacity.


When positional drills ended, the team broke into five-on-five full court pressure drills.  As it had been during the modified three man weave drill, the team's execution was often sloppy throughout this segment of practice.  The scrimmage was similarly disjointed—lots of physical defense, hard fouls, poor passes, and sloppily executed offensive sets.  Was this due to the defense being ahead of the offense at this stage of the season?  Was it attributable to the lack of an experienced lead guard?  Unfortunately, today's practice did not offer a definitive answer to either question.


Practice Summary


The thing that I enjoy most about attending preseason practices is having the opportunity to gauge first hand the level of improvement that players have made in their games from one season to the next.  With four returning starters, four seniors, and the addition of Paul Harris, expectations for this year's team run high amongst Syracuse fans.  Based upon today's practice, it's not hard to envision the team struggling while the players adjust to having to play without a four year starter at point guard.  While I believe that the team has the potential to challenge for the Big East conference championship and make a splash in the NCAA tournament, it's clear that the team still has a lot of work to do.


Other observations from today's practice:


  • Roberts and Watkins still suffer from defensive lapses.  They expend a lot of energy on the court and work hard, but appear to suffer from lack of concentration on the defensive side of the ball.
  • Josh Wright hasn't appreciably improved his physique.  But he appeared to be much more aggressive than he was in previous seasons—a sign that perhaps he is ready to challenge for a bigger role.
  • With only 10 scholarship players, depth isn't as good as it was last season.  Based upon what I saw today, it's not hard to envision Boeheim primarily utilizing a 7 ½ player rotation.  If you assume that the starters will be Devendorf, Nichols, Roberts, Watkins, and Harris, then the bench becomes Wright and Gorman, with a dose of Rautins and Jones sprinkled in, depending on the situation.
  • I would expect to see quite a bit of a smaller lineup this season—as Boeheim alluded to during the Media Day press conference.  This lineup would feature Wright and Devendorf in the backcourt, with Harris sliding to the small forward position.  The combination of players manning the other two positions would vary depending on fatigue, foul trouble, etc.
  • There were no noteworthy walk-ons to report on.


Player Assessments


Eric Devendorf:         Devendorf has a look in his eye this season that signifies he is ready to step up his game.  He's shooting the ball well, and appears to be an even better shooter from three point range than he was last year.  He handles the ball confidently, is unselfish, and displayed the uncanny body control that enabled him to get to the rim so frequently last season.  Expect big things from 8-Mile this season.


Paul Harris:                Harris is an absolute monster—even his muscles have muscles.  I was pleased to see that he worked so hard in practice, as I strongly believe that work ethic and attitude often trump talent.  Fortunately, Harris has all three qualities.  He was a terror defensively throughout practice.  During one part of the scrimmage, he was matched up against Nichols, and really made the senior work.  On one physical exchange, Harris and Nichols were locked up, Nichols cleared some space with a hard dribble and pulled up for a jumpshot…that Harris recovered from and BLOCKED, despite clearly being three inches shorter than Nichols.  As for Harris's height, whoever it was who measured him at 6-5 must have been the same individual who once proclaimed that Stevie Thompson was 6-4.  I'd say that Harris is 6-3, tops, but he has a long wingspan and quick hands and feet.  If there was a negative that I saw today, it's that Harris attempted too many perimeter jumpshots.  He made some during drills, but didn't make many while being guarded.  At this stage of his development, he's not especially accurate outside of 12 feet.  I see him starting in the backcourt this season alongside Devendorf.  With his ability to rebound, he'll trigger the fast break quickly, where his handle and unselfishness will lead to more transition opportunities for the team.  However, I think that the team will also struggle a bit more to execute half-court offensive sets with this backcourt combination.


Demetris Nichols:      Nichols looked like an all-conference player today.  The key will be whether or not he has improved his ability to create off of the dribble.  If he hasn't added improved in this area, he'll again be one dimensional, which makes it easier to shut him down.  But he ran the break like a deer, scored TONS of transition baskets, and shot the ball with the quiet confidence you expect from a senior starter.  I would be surprised if he doesn't average 17 points and 6 rebounds this season.


Terrance Roberts:     Roberts is a gregarious kid who would often clown around during practice in previous seasons.  This year, he's acting like a captain.  That said, I was disappointed to see that he hasn't improved his offensive game from last year.  Although he spent quite a bit of time shooting mid range jumpers, he still has an unorthodox shot with a quirky release, so it's not surprising that consistency eludes him.  Without diversification to his offensive game, Roberts will remain an athlete first and a basketball player second.  On a positive note, he did appear to have improved his free throw shooting—an obvious developmental opportunity that needed to be rectified.


Darryl Watkins:         Watkins has a rare combination of physical tools.  Even at the NBA level, there are few players that combine his athleticism, speed, size, strength, leaping ability, and quickness.  If he were a little more aggressive, he'd be a shoo-in as a first round pick.  Watkins doesn't seem to have improved his skill set much from last season, although it looks like he might be in even better physical condition.  I'd settle for him being a double figure scorer this season—which could easily happen.  But he still misses too many dunks for my tastes, and doesn't take the ball up as strong as you'd expect for a player with his size and athleticism.


Josh Wright:               Perhaps more than any other player, Wright holds the keys to the team's success this season.  I was disappointed to see that he had not improved his physique in the offseason.  At his size [or lack thereof], he struggles to defend against more physical guards.  Although he looked for his shot more than when I've seen him practice in the past, he didn't shoot the ball well at all today.  He still has a low release point, where he releases the ball from in front of his head.  Again, this is attributable to lack of strength.  I'm also not convinced that he has a strong handle.  But I didn't see enough today to formulate an informed assessment on that point.  Another important issue is that Wright is relatively inexperienced, having not played as a freshman and having a significant portion of his sophomore season derailed by injury.  If Wright can elevate his game, he'll see ample playing time this season.


Matt Gorman:            With the Onuaku injury, Gorman's opportunity for playing time effectively doubled.  He played a lot over the last 1/3 of last season, and had several impressive games against quality opponents.  I look for him to have more of a green light this season as a fifth-year senior, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Boeheim give quick hooks to either starting big man if they are ineffective, with Gorman available on the bench.  He is one of the top shooters on the team, and could prove to be a consistent three point marksman if given the opportunity to let fly from beyond the arc.  He rebounded fairly well today, but having him play extended minutes at the center position would be disadvantageous, especially defensively.


Andy Rautins:            Rautins is a player.  Period.  He's clearly put on some muscle in the offseason—not a lot, but he's not the human hyphen he was last year.  Rautins is a shooter—not just a three point shooter, but also a good mid range shooter, which is a rare commodity these days.  He really puts the ball on the floor confidently, and is a slick passer off of the bounce.  Although his slight physique might suggest otherwise, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Rautins carve out a consistent niche in Coach Boeheim's rotation.  He has the skills, confidence, and most importantly the basketball acumen to help this team.  Also, because he understands the game so well, he's always in the right position, and rarely gets caught making a bad defensive play.


Mike Jones:               Like Rautins, Jones is a player who has a nose for the ball.  Whether on offense or defense, he always seems to be involved in the play.  He has a sweet shooting stroke from mid range, and both the quickness to defend guards and the size to tangle with forwards.  Jones is a recruit who got lost amidst the Harris hoopla, but I predict he will develop into a major star during his time on the hill.  He might get lost a bit in the numbers shuffle behind Nichols, but if given the opportunity, he'd help this team.


Devin Brennan-McBride:     Right now, practice is moving a bit too quickly for Brennan-McBride.  He is clueless when it comes to positioning, and often had to be redirected by coaches.  He is in desperate need of quality instruction.  But on the plus side, he is an impressive athlete.  During layup and fastbreak drills, Brennan-McBride showed his speed in the open floor and ability to elevate.  But he completely lacks a left hand, his jump shot is atrocious, and he relies upon his athleticism to chase rebounds.  He reminds me a lot of Etan Thomas at the same stage of their respective developmental curves—namely, a player who's athleticism far exceeds his knowledge of the game.  The Onuaku injury takes away any possibility that Brennan-McBride will redshirt, which is too bad, since he could use the extra year of developmental work.


Arinze Onuaku:          Onuaku sat out the entire practice on the sidelines in sweats, and didn't even participate in shooting drills.  Coach Boeheim was evasive during the Media Day press conference when asked about both the severity of Onuaku's injury and what the recovery timeframe will be.  Taking both items into account, it appears dubious that Onuaku will be ready to play this season.  That's a big loss for four reasons.  First, Onuaku offers more size at the center position than Gorman does.  He's also a better rebounder than Gorman.  Lastly, having Onuaku at his disposal would have given Coach Boeheim a viable substitution option if Watkins is ineffectual.  Lastly, Onuaku projects as the starting center next season, so losing the opportunity to get more game playing time and practice time scrimmaging against the likes of Watkins and Roberts is a missed opportunity.

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