Carmelo Anthony, Gerry McNamara and C.J. Fair. All three former Syracuse basketball players were guys in recent history that you could trust with the ball in their hands when you needed a basket. Add Demetris Nichols, Michael Carter-Williams and Jonny Flynn to the list of guys who could fill the basket and the points column in a box score. We could pile on Brandon Triche, Scoop Jardine and Rakeem Christmas…
…(cue the record scratch)…
Ladies and gentlemen… your 2014-15 Syracuse go-to scorer!
Now, all offseason, coach Jim Boeheim told us the offense was going to run through Christmas. So, putting that label on Christmas may not come as a shock. The fact that he has lived up to the billing through the early portion of the season may be a bit more surprising.
Furthermore, it’s not often a Syracuse post player is looked at as the main offensive cog. Through seven games, Christmas has averaged a team-best 17.1 points. To find the last time a post player led Syracuse in points, you have to go back to the 2004-05 season when Hakim Warrick’s 21.4 points per game.
Sure, along the way you had guys like Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson. But, those guys were more of the 8-12 point variety, as opposed to being in the upper teens.
But, when it comes to Christmas…did we really see this coming?
At least with Warrick, there was a natural progression. From six points a game his freshman season, Warrick raised that average to nearly 15 in his sophomore year, nearly 20 in his junior campaign…all the way to 21.4 in his final year, which yielded a Big East Player of the Year award.
After being a McDonald’s All-American, though, Christmas showed no signs of being a go-to scorer in his first three years on the SU hill. To put things in perspective, his average of 17.1 points so far this season is more than the averages of his first three seasons combined (2.8, 5.1 and 5.8). His field goal attempts per game this season (11.0) is also more than all three of his previous seasons combined. Ditto for foul shots. If not for a rising foul rate (3.9 per game this season, which can’t be much worse), the disparity in his offensive numbers this year in comparison to previous ones might be even more drastic.
Now, are Christmas’ numbers a product of a lack of other trusted weapons around him or were these skills hiding in the cupboard all along?
Christmas, as a senior on a young team, is finally allowed to showcase the full array of his talents in ways he was not able to when he was younger and still learning how to fit in Boeheim’s system.
But, more to the point, look at those around him.
Teams in years past were filled with guards and wing player like Anthony, McNamara, Kueth Duany, Nichols, Fair, James Southerland, Triche, Tyler Ennis, Andy Rautins…the names go on and on. All good-to-great guards that were adept at scoring the basketball. These were all the guys that were asked to score the ball.
This year’s team features Trevor Cooney (an underachieving shooter), two talented, but green freshmen in Chris McCullough and Kaleb Joseph and a bunch of role players. McCullough and Joseph may eventually be trusted scorers, but nobody currently is of the caliber of the list above. Christmas has to score in bunches if this Syracuse team is going to make the NCAA Tournament.
In that same timespan, look at the big men Syracuse ran out there besides the aforementioned Warrick, Onuaku and Jackson: Craig Forth, Jeremy McNeil, Darryl Watkins, Fab Melo, DaJuan Coleman and Baye Moussa Keita. Nobody would mistake those guys with offensive stalwarts. Fab Melo was closest to that label, but was still too young and raw to achieve that potential before he left.
What we are watching with Christmas this season doesn’t come along too often at Syracuse. A system which favors guards and wing players will have a true big man as its leading scorer. And while the ACC conference schedule may have something to say about where his final points per game average will fall, Christmas will most likely do something that hasn’t been done in a decade.
This time of year in the Syracuse basketball world will indeed be known as Christmas season.