Catching up: Syracuse players in the NBA

Fun fact: Syracuse currently has seven players in the NBA, tied for 11th best in the NCAA — UCLA is first, with 14, about half of whom are point guards.

Recently, when the Minnesota Timberwolves went to Denver to play the Nuggets, not only did we get three of those players in the same place, we got the last three top-10 draft picks out of the ‘Cuse: Jonny Flynn and Wes Johnson for the ‘Wolves, and Carmelo Anthony for the Nuggets. Truly, this was the perfect opportunity to catch up on some old friends in the pros.

Wes started the game for Minnesota, and he’s managed to translate a lot of the skills that made him last year’s Big East POY to the NBA. His jump shot looked smooth, and for his size, he’s a good rebounder and shot blocker. On a good night, he can really make it rain from outside. But just like in college, he’s still not great off the dribble, and he’s still not an alpha dog. He isn’t going to post up or demand the ball, and with guys like Kevin Love and Michael Beasley on the team, his volume is going to stay low until he can diversify his game.

Jonny was still in the process of coming back from a hip injury, so it’s tough to evaluate him thoroughly. That aside, he’s been in the league for more than a full year and at this point, I honestly think his ceiling is Nate Robinson. He’s a better ball handler and passer than Robinson, but not as much as he thinks he is. He dribbled himself into trouble more than any starting point guard should despite only playing backup minutes. He’s also been consistently mediocre from the field, especially from 3-point land. He can still salvage his career with better decision-making and defense, but I’m not sure he’s heading in the right direction.

Speaking of defense, every year, Syracuse players enter the draft with the same stigma attached: can it play defense outside of the 2-3 zone? It isn’t always a fair question, especially for the bigs, as playing the center of the zone isn’t all that different from the help defense commonly seen in the NBA. Etan Thomas, one of the best ever to man the middle for the Orange, has managed to stick around the league for 10 years due almost entirely to his defense; he currently fills in on occasion for the Atlanta Hawks.

If you watched the ‘Wolves-Nuggets game, though, you saw some pretty good examples of why people keep bringing this up. As I mentioned, Jonny is still coming back from an injury, but Ty Lawson ate him alive and took home leftovers. Flynn’s defense was the perfect combination of poor foot movement and obvious yet completely pointless reach-ins. Wes was much more effective on the ball, but his help defense fluctuated between mediocre and terrible. He spent too many possessions in no-man’s land, doubling just enough that he couldn’t recover to his man in time, but without enough intensity for the double-team to be effective. And when you’re guarding a 40-plus 3-point shooter in Aaron Afflalo, that’ll get you benched.

Now Carmelo was his usual self — some astounding offensive plays combined with decent rebounding, a few questionable shots and middling defense. Right now, it’s not about him on the court, it’s about the Knicks (or who knows, maybe the Nets). I don’t know if they’ll get a trade set up, but I will say this: Carmelo fits better in New York than LeBron James ever would. Everyone wanted to tell LeBron that he would rule the city, but that’s a ridiculous thing to say. New York is too big, too hostile, and it will turn on anyone in a second if they don’t play it right.

You have to play it the Derek Jeter way. He plays hard, says the right things to the media, occasionally shows up with a new hot girlfriend and that’s it. What else does anyone know about him? He’s spent more than a decade sharing the spotlight with Broadway, Madison Avenue and a half dozen other sports teams. Do you really think LeBron would be willing to do that? Do you have any doubt that Carmelo could?

Quick check-in with our last three alumni before we go:

  • Hakim Warrick brought his dunking prowess and solid offensive game to the Phoenix Suns this year. He’s been good on that end, shooting more than 50 percent from the field and about 75 percent from the line. Steve Nash loves him on the fast break. On defense, he’s still an undersized power forward, and always will be.
  • Donte’ Greene continues to waste away on a terrible Sacramento team with an underdeveloped game. After some progress last season, he’s regressed badly. He’s a 6’11” forward who doesn’t rebound or block shots well and is shooting terribly. All of you who thought he left too early: you were right.
  • Andy Rautins is still sporting a fabulous faux-hawk for the New York Knicks.
  • We only get a few years to enjoy some of our favorite players while they’re wearing orange. It’s great to see a few of them keeping the dream alive at the next level, and hopefully they’ll have some more company in the next few years.

    Mike Chandler is a staff writer for The Juice Online.