With the world turned on its ear by the coronavirus, questions surround the Syracuse basketball team. Going beyond the biggest one of all (“will college basketball be played next season?), the Orange are in the timeframe of what would be the normal offseason with a slew of question marks.
While there are questions like, “are both Jalen Carey and Howard Washington officially gone due to their presence in the transfer portal,” “will Alan Griffin be able to play next season,” and “with Syracuse not landing Patrick Tape, Matt Haarms, or Quincy Ballard, are they still trying to bring in a big man,” the most important one is “which SU player faces the most important offseason?”
While it seems the obvious answer is Elijah Hughes, that is not the case. Yes, Hughes’ future is uncertain and the SU program provides a soft landing place should his NBA draft dreams be put on hold due to uncertainty surrounding the league and its draft. Hughes is able to return to Syracuse and not being able to improve his draft position over the usual summer auditions may make returning to college an appealing option.
Should Hughes find himself on campus again, the Orange would be able to run it back with the primary starting five from this past season as an experienced group familiar in their roles and with each other. Of course, the same thing happened a couple years ago and SU went from a Sweet Sixteen berth to being bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the first round, so returning every starter is no guarantee of success.
That said, the answer to the most important offseason question is the tallest player on the Syracuse roster, Jesse Edwards.
While he played sparingly as a freshman, garnering just 146 minutes in 21 games, the 6’11” Edwards had a couple outings showing his tantalizing upside.
Early in the season, Edwards hung ten points and grabbed five boards in 14 minutes against Bucknell, most of that coming in garbage time. A couple weeks later, the freshman center had seven points in six late minutes in a romp over Georgia Tech, showing some nice offensive moves and chemistry with Washington, then showed some defensive savvy against Wake Forest in February.
Of course, in the game after that nice showing against the Demon Deacons, Edwards was whistled for three fouls in 3:05 against North Carolina State, two coming when he was badly out of position on defense.
Most importantly, Edwards is the eligible player on the roster at this moment who has the chance at the biggest change in role from this past season to the next.
Joe Girard III and Buddy Boeheim are basically locked in as the starting backcourt. The wings will almost certainly be either returning starter Marek Dolezaj and Elijah Hughes or Dolezaj and Quincy Guerrier.
Dolezaj is a shoo-in to start and Quincy Guerrier’s strong ACC play as a freshman (10.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per 40 minutes in ACC play, seven double figure scoring efforts, including two double-doubles) suggests he will start to provide size and help the Orange on the glass. Guerrier will likely just see an uptick from 22.1 minutes per game on conference action to around the 30-to-32 minute range.
If Griffin is eligible, he likely slots in as a backup swingman, regardless of Hughes’ presence. Griffin is undersized for the three, particularly in the 2-3 zone, so he would likely play bench minutes at guard and a few minutes on the wing.
As a result, Edwards has the easiest path to a much larger role at SU. Yes, Bourama Sidibe put it together late in the season with six straight double-digit rebounding efforts, including a monster game against North Carolina. He still committed 25 fouls in those games, getting disqualified twice. He also fouled out of six other ACC games, including four straight, three of which were SU losses. While he played well late in the season, Sidibe is no sure thing.
Should Edwards earn additional playing time, he is a potential game-changer. The last SU center who could be posted up with regularity was Rakeem Christmas, who was a power forward moved to center out of necessity. Should Edwards evolve into a threat inside, he adds a different dimension to the SU offense, including drawing attention to open up things for three-point shooters.
Edwards also showed some shotblocking ability in the middle of the zone, getting a block in every 12.1 minutes of ACC play. His per-minute blocked shot rate was actually much lower in non-conference action, suggesting a greater comfort level as the season progressed.
Having Edwards as a viable option also helps Sidibe, allowing both centers to be aggressive with a reduced concern about foul trouble. Each player would be able to fight for rebounds and contest shots with a greater degree of freedom, knowing the team will not suffer too much if he does get whistled. On the rare occasion both get in foul trouble, Dolezaj is still capable of holding down the fort for a few minutes.
Syracuse fans have seen the glimpses of Edwards’ talent. Whether or not he can develop it remains the question.