Recruit Dior Johnson and the Road Back to Elite

Boeheim Clemson
Jan 28, 2020; Clemson, S.C., USA; Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim speaks with reporters following a 71-70 loss to the Clemson Tigers at Littlejohn Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Mark Turcotte, The Juice Online.

You must be able to recruit!

Years ago – don’t ask me when or where – I saw a video of Dick Vitale making a speech on what it takes to win at the highest level in college basketball.

ESPN’s BMOC of analysts kept emphasizing the ability to recruit the best talent as a key to winning. Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney will surely attest to that, if you want to talk college football.

On the college hardwood, Coach K and John Calipari assume the roles of top two talent dogs. Year after year, both coaches routinely lure some of the most talented freshmen to their campuses to major in NBA Draft 101 for two semesters before doing a meet-and-greet with Adam Silver.

Schools such as North Carolina, Kansas, and Arizona are right on the tails of Duke and Kentucky when it comes to collecting high school talent the way kids used to collect baseball cards.

So where does Syracuse fall in the college basketball recruiting landscape?

It’s no mystery that the Orange has struggled to recruit blue-chip caliber players the past handful of years.

And many frustrated fans churn out the same old excuses:

“JB’s lost his fastball.”

“Syracuse hasn’t been able to recruit since Hop left for Washington.”

“Kids don’t want to play zone. It’s tired and stale.”

“NBA GMs don’t like Syracuse players because they don’t play man-to-man defense.”

Many of those excuses are as old and stale as Doug Gottlieb crying that Syracuse never leaves New York in the out-of-conference schedule. *Yawn*

File the excuses because SU’s recent struggles on the court and on the recruiting trail can be directly attributed to two factors, as my colleague Jim Stechschulte detailed back in December.

Scholarship reductions due to NCAA sanctions and unexpected NBA early departures.

It’s really that simple.

And in a sport where sometimes perception is reality, especially on the recruiting trail, the right commitment from the right player at the right time can alter a program’s perception in, well, a New York minute.

Dior Johnson, the 5-star point guard from California by way of New York, just might be the next high-profile recruit to kick-start the Orange recruiting mojo again.

» Related: Syracuse NCAA hopes fade with close loss to Florida State

Johnson is a member of the Class of 2022. Yes, he’s still two years away from his Dome debut. But the fifth-ranked player in the country, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, not only pledged the Orange but said he’ll be able to bring other players with him.

One of those players could be Chance Westery, a 4-star SG from Pennsylvania. Westry is ranked No. 26 in his class. He’s scheduled to visit Syracuse the weekend of February 29th for the last regular season home game against the Tar Heels. And the kind folks who are in the business of Crystal Ball picks seem to like Westry’s chances (no pun) of following Johnson’s commitment with one of his own.

So how do two sophomores in high school help the Orange return to the upper echelon of the ACC and competing for high seeds on Selection Sunday?

Remember, perception is reality. And kids want to play for a winner.

Do you really think that JB, Red, Griff, and G-Mac won’t be telling the kids in the Class of 2021 who they’ve already got lined up to be their teammates one year later? Of course they will!

Plus, kids today recruit each other.

Syracuse’s return from the sanctions’ graveyard could’ve started two years ago.

Remember the name Darius Bazley?

Bazley was the 5-star forward out of Ohio who committed to Syracuse in July 2017 and signed an NLI that November. Months later he opted to purse a professional career as opposed to playing at Syracuse.

A year later, Bazley was selected with the 23rd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He’s played in 53 of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 55 games averaging 4.5 PPG and 3.7 RPG in 17.2 MPG. And he’s making just north of $2.2 million this season. Hard to say he made the wrong decision.

But let’s play the What If game.

What if Bazley played for the Orange last season?

Would he have helped Syracuse improve on a 20-14 record? Would he have provided more offensive punch from the forward position? Would he have helped Oshae Brissett on the backboards? Could he have alleviated some of the scoring burden that Tyus Battle, Elijah Hughes, and Brissett felt each game? Could he have competed for a spot on the All-ACC Freshman team? Would he have dunked on Zion?

The answer to almost all those questions is probably yes.

Then he could’ve departed for an NBA pay day at maybe a higher spot than 23.

And the perception around college basketball and in recruiting circles would’ve been, “look at Boeheim. The NCAA handcuffs him with sanctions but he still brings in a stud recruit and lands him in the lottery.”

Would having Darius Bazley listed as a Syracuse player in the NBA have helped this past November with 4-star PF Isaiah Jackson out of Michigan? Jackson’s final three were Syracuse, Alabama, and Kentucky.

Jackson went with Kentucky in the early signing period. And it’s hard to criticize the kid for picking Calipari and the Wildcats. But Jackson’s size, length, and athletic ability seemed made to anchor the back of the zone the way players like Fab Melo and Etan Thomas did.

And Syracuse’s recent run of being left at the recruiting altar for stud players continued.

Former Big East Commissioner Dave Gavitt once said that the difference between college basketball and the NBA is that college basketball is about the name on the front of the jersey.

But if you want to be a dominant college program, you better recruit players who can get to the league with the names on the backs of the jerseys.

And if Dior Johnson is good enough to make the NBA, then his skills – along with his reputation – will help make the school name on the front of his college jersey matter again.

Vitale was right.

You must be able to recruit.

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About Steve Auger 165 Articles
Steve Auger is a freelance writer whose work has covered a variety of topics including sports, pets, parenting, healthy living, local government and human interest stories. Steve’s been a diehard Syracuse sports fan for over 25 years. To this day, the words “Smart takes the shot” still make him cringe. And according to Rutgers' fans, he's "not a take."