This is the year we’ve been waiting for. Yes, our chance to execute one of the greatest upsets in the NCAA tournament since Baylor came out of nowhere has passed. Yes, scandals keep breaking. Yes, Boeheim seems to be getting meaner. Yes, we are allergic to free throws. However, this is the year we’ve seen Rakeem Christmas come alive.
The big-man rotation has been pretty murky since the departure of Arinze Onuaku. Fab Melo began to live up to the hype just in time to be suspended, essentially ruining our best chance at winning a NCAA title in recent history. When Rakeem Christmas came in, he seemed to be following in the footsteps of many of our touted recruits: he didn’t quite live up to the expectations set by high school highlight reels. Experts had told us he was good, but we were waiting to see some consistency from our true-power-forward-reluctantly-playing-center for three years. His athleticism was apparent, but he couldn’t put it together. His post game lacked, well, game.
Cut to the 2014-2015 season.
Suddenly, he’s shooting twice as many shots as he was last year, and his shooting percentages are nearly the same at around 60%, but with six games left. Part of that is he’s playing over 20% more minutes than he was last season, but this year we rely on our post positions to score because our perimeter (and mid-range) shooting is so inconsistent. Christmas is taking the shots he used to hesitate on, and they’re connecting. He has shown us that he can dunk and pass before. This year, he can pump and twist into a smooth jump hook. But best of all, he’s shown us the power along with the athleticism and ball-handling skills. In an interview with Donna Diota earlier this season, Christmas talked about the work he put into his game. Christmas told her that to be more aggressive in the post this season he is “being more assertive, not fading away from the basket, just going toward the basket. When he “[gets] the ball at the top of the key, [he just tries] to find an angle to go straight to the rim.” Even knowing the effort that goes in, at this point it seems like muscle memory.
In light of the recent ban, it might seem like this would damage his draft stock. But all hope is not lost. First, with the development in his post game there is no way his recent excellent play can be chalked up to a fluke, or due to his increased role on the team. The latter helps, but Rak is a different player out there today than he was last year. Secondly, has anyone taken a look at the end of the Syracuse schedule? We play teams ranked at 8, 11, 18, and 2 according to the current Pomeroy ratings. Four of our last six games are against teams in the top 25 in the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Coach’s Poll.
If we played in the NCAA tournament, we probably wouldn’t have made it much past the first couple rounds anyway (let’s not kid ourselves here), and we wouldn’t be playing teams as good as Duke, Virginia, Notre Dame, and Louisville. I won’t even get into the NIT. The point is, Rakeem Christmas has his chance to shine in the eyes of NBA draft scouts in the rest of our regular season. A strong finish here and now—without a sad and shameful early-round tournament elimination—might just be the best-case scenario.
The best part is, Rakeem Christmas actually deserves to go to the NBA and prosper. He is a solid player turned team centerpiece that has somehow graduated in only three years and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in education. He has weathered the 2012 loss to Ohio State, a Final Four loss, the Bernie Fine scandal, the Fab Melo/Southerland scandal, a Conference change, and the current post-season ban. The last four-five years have been some of the most tumultuous in program history, and Christmas just keeps working hard.
Furthermore, regardless of his on-court persona (he’s got that scowl down), he’s a sweet, calm guy. His instagram is filled with inspirational quotes and pictures of his dog. In his interview with Donna Diota, he talks about watching cartoons religiously and how much he loves kids. In the locker room, he is one of the few players whose sparse post-game comments do not seem to be the product of Eye-of-Sauron-esque management. And serious photos of him often have a glimmer of laughter at the brink of eruption.
NBA scouts would be foolish to discount him because of the lack of post-season play, particularly in light of the recent announcement of his addition to the the Naismith Watch list. In Rakeem Christmas there is the potential for an immediate role-player. An athletic defensive player off-the-bench who can score in the post. A player who is willing to humble himself and learn, and who knows when it’s time to step up. A man who can weather a franchise scandal or two, but will not be the cause of it. Rakeem Christmas is ready for the NBA, and for the first time in a long time, Syracuse fans were the first to say so.