THE 2-3 ZONE SERIES The Buildup Miles Ahead Arrested Development

Arrested Development

With just four Syracuse players in the NBA, is playing a zone in college too difficult an adjustment to make?

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

After a standout career at Syracuse, Triche now leads Ufficio Stampa Aquila Basket in Italy with 13 points in 28.8 minutes per game.

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.

LAST IN LINE Of the top five winningest programs in NCAA history, Syracuse has the fewest active NBA players by a wide margin. The four players currently in the NBA are Carmelo Anthony, Wes Johnson, Michael Carter-Williams and Dion Waiters.

“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

Johnson is one of the four Syracuse players still standing in the NBA. The forward has combined athleticism and a natural scoring knack to stay afloat at the professional level.

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.

Brandon Triche

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


  1. Great series of articles, but today’s listing of Jonny Flynn in the same category of the others that haven’t made it in the NBA is completely misguided. Flynn suffered a severe hip injury that was almost 100% responsible for his career turning south. He had a great rookie year, and was primed for a great career. Kurt Rambis and injury derailed that – not his background at Syracuse.

  2. There are so many assumptions made in this article. Yes, playing man to man is different than the zone, but that is not the reason for the lack of NBA success. Remember all the complaints about the lack of McDonalds All-Americans being recruited? A specific type of player is recruited. If that player is talented enough they move on to the next level. Once at that level they have to adjust, that goes for everyone.

    While Triche was a fan favorite, no one thought of him as an NBA player. That’s not the zone talking, that’s the scouts. This article is flawed in its blanket assumptions, and creates a “you’ll never make it to the pros going to SU” stigma. The lack of true understanding of the game, and individual skill assessment of this writer is obvious.

    BTW – how are all those UK and UNC players doing in the league? Davis, Gilchrest, and Noels are real impact players . Barnes is surviving by playing with Curry and Thompson. May, and Felton?

  3. great point. i think the writer fails to realize that Bowheim’s success is more remarkable when you consider he doesn’t get many elite players: It isn’t the zone it is the skill level they have.

  4. These guys weren’t at SU for enough time to blame the zone for their bad defense. Melo (one year), johnson (sat one year, played one year), Waiters (2 years), and Carter Williams (2 years, but barely any pt the first) . Others like Triche, Joseph, Fab Melo (glad he failed), Devendorf, just aren’t good enough offensively for the NBA. Flynn is the only SU guy that should be playing that isn’t, but that’s due to injury.

  5. Wonder if the pros were to get a coach with the desire to concentrate on the zone, now allowed in a form in the NBA, with a GM who drafted for that kind of defense, if Syracuse players would excel. Don’t know, but one would think that if the zone could be made more efficient, it would allow for even more energy on the offensive end…even in the pros, where defense is a joke. Of course, who can play defense when you are allowed 4 and even 5 steps after pulling your dribble….

    Not commented on was the fact that Boeheim recruits players not often favored by teams that mimic the pro-offense and man-to-man defense. These players come to Syracuse and compliment the zone even as the zone compliments their particular skills and physical make-up. With obvious exceptions, many of the front line players in Coach Boeheim’s zone would not start for other top flight schools.

    Gotta wonder at the organization of this series, though. What started out as a positive review of what by universal accounts is a very special program run by a conscientious and talented Coach and administrator, turns into an indictment in the final installment, leaving a very definite air of “sour grapes” in my mouth. Were I still in journalism, would not hire this writer until the ability to analyse and organize develops. Would be better to praise, criticize, and then balance with good comments in the final part. A half century ago, Syracuse Journalism classes taught that, along with a dedication to facts presented without pre-judged adjectives. Being a non-news article, one would expect the adjectives, but also expect balance to be maintained. Sorry it wasn’t.

  6. The article and some of its reasoning might be partially flawed, but that doesn’t mean it can be fully dismissed. We CAN take two salient points from this piece:
    1 / “Syracuse has as many active pros as Baylor, Colorado and the Ohio Valley Conference.”
    Not sure how anyone could realistically assert that Syracuse doesn’t recruit more “elite athletes” than do those schools.
    2 / As Triche, Johnson, and Devendorf said or implied, the zone ‘doesn’t HELP,’ and sometimes impedes or complicates the transition. Why does an SU fan need to deny this? What is bizarre and troubling to me is that, although we supposedly practice Man so much, we have been unable to employ it in games, even against the scrubbiest of preconference opponents. In recent years, we actually tried it, and invariably ended up with a deficit. That should not happen with a team that also, invariably, has enjoyed a significant talent advantage over those same opponents.

    The problem with this article is that it attributes the full nature of SU players’ reasons for not making the NBA grade to their defense. That is silly and a reductive simplification of facts. Our players have had many other reasons for not making nba teams. Defense has been ONE of them, true. But this article paints everything in one color with one fat brush, and ‘generalizations are never true.’

  7. Regarding “What is bizarre and troubling to me is that, although we supposedly practice Man so much, we have been unable to employ it in games, even against the scrubbiest of preconference opponents. In recent years, we actually tried it, and invariably ended up with a deficit. That should not happen with a team that also, invariably, has enjoyed a significant talent advantage over those same opponents.”,

    You are forgetting that Boeheim recruits into his schemes, which is why the players he recruits (with exceptions of course) are built to play in his zone. That’s why some of SU’s best players over the Boeheim era were NOT heavily recruited. If he wanted to play man, he would recruit entirely differently, and arguably not as successfully. If you’ve read the other articles in this series, or others from those ‘in the know’, you’d understand that he chooses to play 100% zone because he believes it is a better defense than man, no matter the athletes. That is why it has enjoyed so much success. It’s not a question of trying man against the scrubs, it’s a question of fine tuning the zone against them.

  8. The only time Carmelo has played defense in his career was at Syracuse. Since when has the NBA been a league about lock down defense and holding teams to under 60 a game. Boeheim recruits for the zone and hence why alot of them aren’t elite players but they are long and athletic. If they stay for 4 years they may become lottery picks, for example CJ Fair. Heck if some players like Donte Green, Fab Melo, or Billy Edelin didn’t get in trouble or stay there might have been 15 players in the NBA from SU.

  9. Hope this doesn’t degrade from discussion to argument.
    • Even if we agree that Boeheim recruits players who are better equipped to play zone than man, that doesn’t counter the article’s assertion that these players, subsequently, are ill-prepared for the NBA.
    • I don’t agree that “some of SU’s best players…were not heavily recruited.” The qualifier of “some” sorta invalidates the entire thought. But, ‘irregardless’ of syntax, which of these best players were you thinking of? Either way, why does it matter? More of SU’s best players WERE heavily recruited, and one might make the assertion that the few that weren’t MORE heavily recruited weren’t because they were already ‘locks’ to attend SU.
    • I also don’t buy into the argument that a player who is suited for the zone is therefore NOT suited for Man. It’s not a mutually exclusive situation.
    • I would disagree with JB’s assertion, if he made it, that the zone is a better defense “no matter the athletes.” That is a ‘logic’ that had us in trouble for a few years, when our personnel wasn’t as effective as it has been in the last few years.
    • “That is why it has enjoyed so much success.” — This is a statement i also have a bit of a problem with. On several levels. A) The stats so often attributed to zone success are often misleading. If one looks at our Scoring Defense, especially this year, the stat is low (good). But, one also must note how many teams have slowed down the game, to maximize their odds of defeating us. That doesn’t necessarily mean the zone was the cause. B) Media ‘mis-attention.’ In every game, the zone is discussed ad nauseum. Because it’s such an obvious talking point, and announcers are nothing if not obvious. But, when the other, less-talented team is holding US to an equally low field goal percentage (such as last night), no one says a word about their defense. Happens in every game. When we struggle, it’s because we’re “missing shots.” When the other team struggles, it’s because of “the vaunted 2-3 zone.” C) A lot of CBB fans across the country would argue that 1 national championship in 38 years is not exceedingly good. Personally, i’m on the fence about this, because i count Finals Appearances as 50/50 games, but it’s a fact that Syracuse recruits better than almost all of its opponents, and so its overall win percentage should not be seen as inordinate, irrespective of JB’s coaching or decisions. So, when someone says we’ve “enjoyed so much success,” i have to wonder what that person’s baseline/standard/expectation is. My problem is that I expect more. But, that expectation doesn’t usually cross logic, and is ‘never’ based in optimism or denial. And, lastly, D) Are you really saying that we practice so much Man (predominantly, it has been said) and have experimented with it against pre-conference opponents at times… because it’s a way to “fine tune the zone against them?” I would also have a problem with that. If JB really believes zone is 100% of the time a better defense, why not practice it as much as possible, so as to avoid the mistakes as much as possible — the mistakes that cause him to have searing, freak-out attacks on the sidelines during games? I mean, I sometimes wish he had a personal medic at his side….

    But, whatever. We’re all Orange, right?
    Lawrinson 20 (’89)

  10. Davis is turning out to be a beast, MKG is being considered as an amazing lockdown defender, and Noels is injured. Barnes is definitely struggling but he’s not exactly the focal point of the Dubs offence and is limited through minutes.

    While you are right that SU only really recruits a specific player who fits the mould of their system, the player examples you are using are ridiculous…

  11. That article had so many flaws. First off, saying we have as many guys in the league as Baylor and Colorado is true, but crap. Baylor actually recruits just as good if not better athletes than we do and even though their guys mainly suck in the NBA, they are drafted based on athleticism. I mean, they have perry Jones, Quincy miller (MCDS All americans), Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy. Not exactly on par with Melo, MCW, Dion, Wes statistically. And Colorado still has Billups who should have retired a long time ago, but otherwise they’ve got Copeland, Burks, and Roberson. Who cares how many guys a school has if those people are bench warmers making the league minimum. But just the fact that the writer makes a blanket statement that poor defense is the reason we don’t have more guys in the league is ludicrous. It’s because we don’t recruit amazing athletes (as most of you have stated), and the ones we do, are in the league as you know. I mean, Triche, Devendorf, Rautins were never NBA material for a myriad of reasons.

    Although I believe that the NBA does mostly play D, but the guys are so good offensively it makes the D look bad, you don’t need to be a good man-to-man defender to get paid. Look at David Lee, JR Smith, Kevin Love, etc. They made the NBA and tens of millions because of their offense outweighs their defense (In the eyes of GM’s). You could make the point that if Wes Johnson stayed at Iowa St, he never would have gone in the lottery (You were able to tell that Wes wasn’t great laterally, so his man defense would’ve been crap anywhere he went), and Syracuse’s offensive system was the reason he got drafted.

  12. You could argue it the other way too. Syracuse would get even more top recruits or McDonald’s All-Americans if not for Boeheim’s stubbornness in always running the 2-3 zone. Why would you go to Syracuse if your ultimate goal is to play in the NBA. Syracuse basketball will not get you ready.

  13. Are you really making fun of UK players in the NBA? Anthony Davis is an all star and only 20 years old, probably one of the top ten players in the league. It’s bizarre you’d make fun of him, do you even understand basketball? In the slightest? He’s averaging 21/11 with more than 3 blocks per game. He’s on his way to being elite on offense AND defense.

    Cousins is a beast and should have been an all-star, he’s top five in PER. John Wall is an All Star. MKG is doing quite well, actually. Rajon Rondo point guarded a team to an NBA championship. etc etc etc.

    And I’m a fan of one of UK’s rivals, sheesh. The hate is incredible, UK produces great NBA talent.

  14. Good call how about rondo, Anthony Davis , Eric Bledsoe , Demarcus cousins, John wall , Brandon knight , Terrance jones, enes kanter , Patrick patterson good role player n tayshaun prince.. Enjoy ennis 3 year career in league he’s not athletic enough.. Johnny was athletic enough he had a bad hip since he was 16 never should have had surgery it affected him awfully

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