They were all handpicked for Jim Boeheim’s system.
Jonny Flynn, a spry point guard from Niagara Falls, N.Y., primed to pressure the ball and jumpstart the fast break; Brandon Triche, a local 2-guard with a wide wingspan and innate scoring ability; Fab Melo, a raw 7-footer, the quintessential rim protector; Eric Devendorf, a sharpshooter just quick enough to sufficiently sit atop a zone.
It’s a never-ending list. The chosen ones. The players plucked out of cities, suburbs, playgrounds and packed high school gyms to be links in Boeheim’s barbed-wire fence. When Boeheim decided to run the 2-3 zone almost exclusively around 1996, he also started to develop his prototypical recruit.
Each one destined for collegiate success — and possibly more.
“Syracuse guys are picked in the lottery year-after-year,” said former Syracuse guard Jason Hart.
Yet there are just four Syracuse players currently in the NBA: Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Dion Waiters and Wesley Johnson.
It’s a proverbial cloud that hangs over Syracuse — the inexplicable lack of NBA success alongside other perennial powers including Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky that have churned out a wide mix of starters and role players in the last decade. The only glaring difference between the Orange and these programs is the Syracuse zone, patented but potentially problematic.
Former SU players didn’t attribute their professional inadequacy to the zone, but did say there are adjustments to make in the pros — challenging adjustments that no other rising players have to make.
“I don’t think playing zone hurts your ability to play man-to-man but it doesn’t help,” Triche said in an email. “Playing zone can hide some deficiencies as a defender.”
Courtesy of Ufficio Stampa Aquila Basket
Next to a list of former Syracuse stars is a catalog of fallout stories.
Flynn was the sixth pick in the draft in 2009 only to leave the league by 2012. Melo was taken 22nd in 2012, played six games with the Boston Celtics and now runs with the NBA Developmental League’s Texas Legends.
Second-round picks Kris Joseph and Andy Rautins played a combined 15 games and 78 minutes as rookies before taking to France and Spain, respectively. Demetris Nichols made three NBA stops in two seasons and now plays in Russia.
Duke has 15 active NBA players; North Carolina has 16; Kentucky, 21. Syracuse has as many active pros as Baylor, Colorado and the Ohio Valley Conference.
“The game is faster, guys are bigger and guys are stronger,” former SU center Arinze Onuaku who now plays with the D-League’s Canton Charge, said in an email. “It’s an adjustment everyone has to make to move onto the professional level.
“It’s two different games, college and the NBA. It’s two totally different games.”
Then add in an extra obstacle — jumping back into man-to-man after playing it only in practice in Syracuse.
Former Syracuse players said they were familiar with man-to-man after playing it growing up and in high school. But they did acknowledge there were a host of adjustments to make after college.
Onuaku said the coverages at the pro level were extremely different from Syracuse’s zone. Devendorf rattled off backside rotations, doubling the post and helping on drivers as aspects of man-to-man that hindered him at times. Hart said that “cutting the court in half” had to be worked back into his defensive approach.
They all took a hiatus from traditional basketball at Syracuse and learned a system that doesn’t directly translate to the NBA. By itself, relearning backside rotations or the timing of double teams isn’t anything insurmountable.
But when all the intricacies are added together, it becomes a sizable task.
“I just think the defensive three seconds was big,” Johnson said. “We got to sit in the paint (at Syracuse). That was probably the main thing. I got caught a lot (in the NBA), just sitting there and waiting.”
Courtesy of Wally Skalij | The Los Angeles Times
Some players handle the transition better than others.
Hart was a defensive stalwart at the top of Boeheim’s zone and is Syracuse’s all-time steals leader. He played 10 NBA seasons as a role player and was known for his ability to lock down opposing guards.
He’s part of the exception, not the rule.
“I’m a defender, I always have been,” Hart said. “I know I played in a zone in college but once I got to the pros, I was just the same defender individually. For me, it was about desire.”
Like Hart, Triche played four seasons at the top of the zone at Syracuse. His gangly arms were a perfect fit next to Scoop Jardine and then Carter-Williams, but he’s not a player who naturally excels in a man-to-man scheme.
Syracuse works on man-to-man in practice scrimmages, but Triche admitted that playing man in college games would have helped his development.
After graduating from Syracuse last spring, Triche played with the Charlotte Bobcats in the NBA Summer League. He didn’t get signed and is now with Trento in Italy.
We are just more technical with the fundamentals of the zone more than man-to-man. I personally wish I was able to practice man-to-man more. It’s a different focus and it doesn’t come as easy to me as it may come to others.
Then there are the four active players. Anthony is a prolific scorer. So is Waiters. Johnson’s offensive versatility makes him a good fit for the spacing of the NBA game and in half a season Carter-Williams has succeeded as a long point guard.
But even they have their defensive deficiencies. According to the advanced statistic defensive rating, which measures the number of points a team gives up per 100 possessions, the Lakers are a more efficient defensive team without Johnson on the court. The 76ers are the same when Carter-Williams sits.
Anthony, the ring leader of Syracuse’s small NBA contingent, leans on the defensive play of teammate Iman Shumpert. When Anthony plays with Shumpert, the Knicks’ defensive rating is considerably better. When Anthony’s on the court without him, the Knicks’ defensive rating raises almost six points.
The difference for these four is that their other strengths overshadow any defensive insufficiencies. Their transitions to the NBA weren’t seamless either, but show that for a certain type of player, it is possible.
“It wasn’t too much of an adjustment,” Johnson said.
Easy for him to say.
With the multitude of former SU players that have and continue to enjoy successful careers abroad, there is a pipeline between Central New York and professional basketball.
It just doesn’t lead to the NBA.
Banner photo courtesy Alex Gallardo | The Los Angeles Times
Published on January 30, 2014 at 3:37 am