I try not to get too hyped up about potential recruits. Once a guy has made his decision to play for Jim Boeheim, I’ll pore over the most minute of details about his game, style, personality, haircut, anything. But until then, I try to keep my distance. I’d rather not invest too much, getting all excited about how amazing next year’s team could be, only to have my dreams crumble to dust. And with Nerlens Noel about to announce his decision on tomorrow’s signing day, I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t be too bothered if he decides to go elsewhere. Syracuse already has put together a great team for 2012-13, one that should contend for the Big East title (again) and an upper-echelon NCAA seed.
A couple weeks ago I watched the All-American game in New Orleans, featuring Noel, Dajuan Coleman and Jerami Grant. It was a weird game because the teams were loaded with big men. Grant was the only guy on his team’s roster listed as a forward; it was something like 5 centers, 4 guards, and Grant. And the other team was similarly constituted. So the style of play was unlike any normal game, and it was hard to tell how these guys would perform in a more standardized setting. But I liked a lot of what I saw, and it’s clear that Coleman and Grant both have plenty to offer the Orange.
If, for the sake of argument, we do not assume Noel will join the team, SU is nonetheless going to be plenty stacked. Losing three of your top four scorers, along with your leading rebounder/shot blocker/defensive presence, would be a huge blow for most programs. You’d expect a step back, a rebuilding year, that sort of thing. Not for this team. They’re going to be loaded with talent. We’ve been drooling over MCW and fully expect him to be ready to run the team alongside Triche. CJ Fair will have to adjust to getting more attention from defenses, but he’s made big strides in each of his first two seasons and that ought to continue. Southerland has also finally become a legit player and should have a solid senior season. And Rakeem Christmas looks poised to make the “sophomore jump” — a summer of workouts in the program should turn him into a force. Heck, that’s a pretty solid starting lineup right there, if necessary. I’d take that lineup against just about any starting five from the Big East this past year.
This is not to say that will be the lineup. There’s a serious chance that Coleman starts at center and Christmas remains the power forward. Dajuan almost has to play center for the Orange. He does not appear to have the mobility to play the wing on the zone. He’s just too big. Not that he is fat, oh no. He’s a solid block of muscle. But he about as far from the prototypical Boeheim forward as one can get. The best recent comparison would be Arinze Onuaku. He’s going to be a load to handle in the paint for any defender. He is going to get layups galore, just by using his shoulders to create space. Defensively, he is not going to be the shot-blocker that Fab was, but he’s a much better rebounder. SU’s struggles on the boards this past season should be mitigated by Coleman’s presence.
Grant, on the other hand, is the prototypical SU forward. Long and lanky. Kind of skinny as a freshman but with a frame that will fill out in a year or two and make him much more of a force. Can’t shoot free throws. He reminded me somewhat of freshman Hakim Warrick, though Grant did not display the freakish level of hops that Hak did. But that’s the career that he should be aiming for. He did appear to have a bit of a jump shot already, which Hak did not have until his junior year. He will definitely contribute this year as a raw, athletic backup forward.
Then there’s Cooney, who will surprise a lot of people. We all know he can shoot, but with a year of practice under his belt he is going to be ready to come in and contribute in all facets of the game. He knows the zone. He has a year of strength and conditioning training. And don’t forget — he’s 6′4″. Another guard with “length” to play the top of the key. While Triche and MCW will be the lead guards, there isn’t going to be a ton of drop-off when Cooney comes in. In fact, we might be looking at another season just like this past one, with a talented three-guard rotation in which any two of the three can play alongside each other at any time.
(And Mookie Jones will be back! I actually think he’ll make an impact in his senior season. Maybe I’m letting my optimism get the best of me. But he has clearly matured as a player and knows what is expected of him. I think he’s still got a part to play.)
Looking at that array of talent, there is ample reason to think that SU’s roster is in good shape for another excellent season.
But what if Noel does come upstate? Where would he fit into this scheme? (And yes, I am fully aware that I began this post by saying I don’t like to drool over guys who may not come here. But this is all just a hypothetical tossing of ideas. Just as a thought exercise. Not a full-blown Nerlens slobberfest.)
It’ll be an interesting decision by Boeheim as to how he would want to use his two freshmen bigs on defense. Noel would bring an element that the roster currently lacks, which is the shot-blocking, mistake-erasing center. Christmas has shown some talent in that area, but he’s really the only one who has. Keita is still too eager on his feet and easy to pump-fake into fouls. Coleman has blocked some shots but has mostly just used his superior size and wingspan to do so; he has not yet shown himself to be a natural defensive anchor. Noel on the other hand appears to be Conrad McRae. So you would expect Nerlens to patrol the paint on defense. Yet that would put Coleman out on the wing, which would be a challenge for him as he would often be called on to stay in front of quicker players, especially against a typical three-guard lineup. Noel, being the rangier of the two, would seem like a better fit for the wing spot. But then you might be wasting his shot-block talents. (Though he would have the opportunity to get a ton of those “weak-side help blocks”.)
Of course, JB could decide to just rotate the two of them at center. But a straight-up platoon will make neither guy happy, which could damage the team’s morale. And anyway, Boeheim’s philosophy has always been to get his best players on the floor as much as possible, regardless of what position they play. So if both are on the team, we’ll doubtless end up seeing them on the floor together for long stretches of game time. But also figure on something akin to the Arinze Onuaku/Rick Jackson combo of 2009-10. When both were in the game, Rick was the forward. But when Arinze went out, Rick immediately slid over to the center spot. He (Jackson) probably logged nearly an equal amount of time at center and at forward over the course of the year. You would expect a similar breakdown this season, if Noel comes to town.
But while we worry about who will play where on defense (heck, maybe they’ll just start playing some man-to-man again — it’s not impossible), what is undeniable is the offensive advantage such a pairing would give the Orange. Two big men who can both score. Once again, it harks back to the Arinze/Rick duo. Few opponents have the personnel to adequately defend two big guys when both of them can post up and score around the rim. SU exploited this advantage in 2009-10 all the way to a number one seed — and it vanished when Arinze got hurt. I think ever since that year, Boeheim has been hoping to recreate that scenario. He tried it last season with Fab replacing Arinze, but Fab was totally unready for NCAA play and Rick ended up playing a ton of center. He tried it again this year with an improved Fab alongside Rakeem Christmas, but even though each of them had flashes of offense, neither guy really had a developed, reliable post-up game. That’s why this year’s offense relied almost exclusively on pick-and-rolls and guard penetration.
But Coleman definitely has a post game already. Noel has one too, though it’s a little bit less polished at this stage than Coleman’s. If both of them are ready to play college ball (and there is no reason to think they aren’t), we could suddenly be back to the days of 2009-10 when SU led the nation in FG%.
But (back to reality here) even if Noel doesn’t come to Syracuse, pairing Coleman with an improved Rakeem Christmas could provide much of the same benefits. While Rak is not at Noel’s level, it’s not like he’s Dave Siock. Christmas is a talented F/C who made big strides in his freshman year and will continue to improve. I fully expect that he will develop his post game this summer, to the point where he will be a legitimate option on offense. Which is why, as I started out saying, SU is going to be just fine, even if Noel decides to go elsewhere.