During his four years at SU, Rakeem Christmas has seen plenty of his teammates leave early for the NBA.
After his freshman year, Fab Melo and Dion Waiters left. In his sophomore season, it was classmate Michael Carter-Williams. Last year, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant made the quantum leap.
During that period of time, Christmas has gone from fringe starter to featured scorer at SU. The senior center led Syracuse with 15 points and 16 rebounds as Syracuse defeated Hampton 65-47 on Sunday.
“We lost key players after last year so we need to keep up our pace,” Christmas said. “Coach wants everyone to play off me. He wants me to assert myself early in the game and be aggressive.”
He’s been exactly that to start the season, taking on a leadership role on and off the court. He secured 21 points and nine rebounds in the first regular season game against Kennesaw State.
On Sunday, SU struggled against Hampton’s zone defense and went 5-18 from beyond the arc. But Christmas was able to make up for the poor shooting with six offensive rebounds, which led to easy points in the paint.
After Hampton cut SU’s double digit lead to 45-40 with 9:12 left, Christmas went to work inside, pulling down a Michael Gbinije missed 3 to extend the possession. Gbinije then found Christmas for a layup that sparked a 10-0 run that allowed Syracuse to take control.
“[Christmas] is somebody you have to get the ball to,” SU guard Michael Gbinije said. “He has been producing in every game and he is very physical. He’s improved a lot and we are going to keep giving him the ball this season.”
The season figures to be arduous and games will be close, but Syracuse has put a lot of confidence in Christmas. That should make up for a young and inexperienced supporting cast, which is looking to find its identity early in the season.
“We are nowhere near where we were last year not even close,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We were more consistent offensively last year. It’s not going to happen over night. We are not going to have many easy games and I think it will be a battle every night.”