Under Jim Boeheim’s tenure, his Syracuse program has a long history of developing four-year players from sparingly used freshmen to well-rounded, all-conference first team type seniors. From Lazarus Sims to Todd Burgan to Hakim Warrick to James Southerland. The latest in that long line of talented Orange hoopsters is Rakeem Christmas. And oddly enough, his senior year to date resembles the senior season of another former Orange who suited up for SU not too long ago; Rick Jackson.
Big men tend to take more time to develop. That was the case with Jackson, although, his role on the team during his freshman year was in a back-up function at the power forward and center positions. He averaged just under 13 MPG while scoring a scant 3.7 PPG and grabbing 3.0 RPG. Jackson earned a starting spot 12 games into his sophomore year and never relinquished it over the next two and a half seasons. His production increased each year; 8.3 PPG and 5.8 RPG his sophomore year and 9.7 PPG and 7.0 RPG his junior year. When his senior season commenced, Jackson fully emerged. He averaged a double-double for the year with 13.1 PPG and 10.3 RPG. That was good enough for a spot on the All Big East Second Team. More impressively, he was voted the Big East Defensive Player of the Year as he led the league in rebounding and blocked shots per game.
Christmas arrived at Syracuse as a highly touted high school player and in the same recruiting class as current teammate Trevor Cooney and former Orange, and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams. Both he and Carter-Williams were named to the prestigious McDonald’s All American team.
Unlike Jackson, Christmas has been a starter from his first game freshman year. But like Jackson, he wasn’t the focal point. His numbers improved with each passing season; 2.8 PPG and 2.9 RPG his freshman year, 5.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG his sophomore year, and 5.8 PPG and 5.1 RPG last year. As he entered his final season, that would have to change after Syracuse suffered massive personnel losses the past two season between graduation and early departures for the NBA riches.
For anyone not paying attention, Christmas has erupted into an offensive and defensive force in his senior season. About the only functions he’s not performing for Syracuse are selling popcorn in the Dome and handling post-game press conferences for Boeheim.
Through 17 games, Christmas is averaging 18.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG and 2.4 BPG. He’s second in the ACC in scoring, fourth in rebounds, second in blocked shots, and fifth in field goal percentage. He’s also developed a flair for the dramatic. Christmas sank the winning free throws at Georgia Tech with 12 seconds remaining to ice a one-point victory. Two nights ago, he exploded for a career-high 35 points to go along with nine rebounds in an overtime win against Wake Forest. Eight of those points came in the overtime session, six of which were from the free throw line. He did that while playing the last eleven minutes of the game with four fouls.
Syracuse still has two games remaining with Duke which means a match-up against super frosh Jahlil Okafor, home games against Louisville and Virginia, and a road trip to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels. With Chris McCullough sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, Christmas will need to play even bigger than he already has. But if he keeps dominating on both ends of the court like he has, it will feel like Christmas in Syracuse all season long.
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