Head coach Jim Boeheim’s team enters the season with several question
marks. Most notably:
- Who will replace the production and moxie of the
- Who can be counted upon to perform in critical
situations with the game on the line?
- Where exactly does blue chip freshman Paul Harris
fit in the lineup?
- Who starts at point guard?
- What can SU fans expect from the four
Today’s practice offered a glimpse of insight about how some of these
issues might play out as the season unfolds.
Practice began with several light conditioning drills and calisthenics,
during which the Orange stretched and warmed
up. Coach Boeheim then picked up
the speed with a fast-paced three man weave drill. It was during this drill that a new era
of Syracuse basketball was ushered
in, as Harris completed the first weave by throwing down a powerful two handed
dunk. This play set the tone for
how hard Harris worked throughout the remainder of practice.
From there, the Orange
transitioned to a modified version of the three man weave, with the two trailing
members of the rotation receiving passes from the wing. As one player swooped towards the hoop
for the layup, the other two pulled up for perimeter jumpshots. This drill was sloppily executed, much
to Coach Boeheim’s chagrin.
A couple of things were evident from this drill. First, there are four players on the team
who shoot the ball with consistency:
Demetris Nichols, Eric Devendorf, Andy Rautins, and Matt Gorman. Freshman Mike Jones showed nice touch
from mid range, but while Harris connected on some unguarded wing shots during
drills, his touch faded later in practice when he was defended by
teammates. Second, all of the
returning starters demonstrated that they were in superb physical condition by
running full-speed throughout the drills without expending much effort. Third, despite all of the above, team
execution was not crisp—a happenstance which can be partially attributed to the
absence of an experienced lead guard.
The team then broke into different units, with assistant coach Mike
Hopkins working with the guards, Troy Murphy working with forwards, and Bernie
Fine coaching the centers. One
thing that stood out was that fifth-year senior Gorman worked exclusively with
the centers group, presumably due to the absence of sophomore Arinze Onuaku, who
has reputedly been debilitated by a knee injury. More on this later.
The team spent quite a bit of time doing drills that are specifically
designed to develop skills appropriate for each respective position. For example, the centers concentrate on
rebounding, playing post defense, interior passing, etc. while the guards work
on defending two-on-ones, moving without the ball, and working to get open
against tight defensive pressure.
From the guard group, Eric Devendorf stood out. The second year player from
Michigan appears to be in peak physical
condition. He shot the ball with
confidence, worked hard throughout practice, and played with a focus that was
sometimes lacking last season. It
is very likely that Devendorf will be one of the top two primary scorers on this
year’s team, and if today’s practice was any indication, he’s worked hard in the
offseason to prepare for the increased level of responsibility.
Harris worked exclusively with the guards—an indication
that his future, at least this season, lies primarily in the backcourt. During full court defensive drills,
Harris displayed a sick handle, crossing the ball over and dribbling between his
legs effortlessly, even when closely guarded by Devendorf.
Andy Rautins impressed throughout with his shooting and basketball
IQ. It’s very clear that he is a
coach’s son who simply knows how to play the game. He looks poised to see some playing time
Josh Wright had an up and down practice. At times, he was able to use his
quickness to beat defenders off of the bounce and get into the lane for easy
scoring opportunities. But his shot
was off today, and he struggled with the ball at time during the full court
defensive pressure drills.
The player who stood out the most amongst the forwards was Nichols, who
shot the ball with confidence bordering on arrogance, and looked much more
aggressive at looking to create off of the dribble. Nichols looks well suited to playing the
role of the primary scorer this season.
Roberts was noticeably more vocal throughout practice, a sign that he’s
actively assuming more of a leadership role. The good news is that he practices hard
all the time, and that he appeared to be more focused this year than in the
past. The bad news is that his
offensive repertoire does not seem to have appreciably improved.
Jones also caught my eye throughout practice. Whether in drills or during scrimmages,
he seemed to be in on just about every play—whether that meant snaring a
rebound, coming up with a loose ball, or disrupting the passing lanes. Jones is one of those players who just
has a nose for the ball.
From the centers, Mookie looks about the same as last year. He runs the court like a gazelle and
practices hard, but at this stage of his development he is more athlete than
basketball player. He still needs
to gather himself before he goes up, and he rarely initiates contact on the
offensive end, preferring instead to attempt to finesse his way past
defenders. Although he has
incredible physical tools at his disposal, he has not developed the physical
style nor the killer instinct that his physique would suggest.
Gorman appears to have slimmed down a bit. While he’s fairly strong, he is a bit
undersized to play full time at center.
The size disparity between he and Mookie was noticeable. It will be even more so when he matches
up against the likes of Aaron Gray
[Pittsburgh] and Roy Hibbert
[Georgetown]. Even so, he did an effective job of
rebounding in traffic throughout practice, and he took the ball to the hole
strong when he got entry passes…although he got fouled more often than he
converted inside. He’s most
comfortable on the wing, where he can set picks and pop out for open perimeter
shots. He range extends beyond the
three point arc.
Freshman Devin Brennan-McBride appears to be in a bit over his head right
now. On the positive side of the
ledger, he is an impressive athlete.
He runs effortlessly—he’s not a plodder, like many big men his size
are—and in transition he finishes with aplomb. But he appears to be clueless when it
comes to understanding the finer nuances of the game. He is almost always out of
position on both ends of the floor, and runs around without really knowing where
he’s supposed to go. That is
presumably indicative of the poor coaching he’s had thus far in his young
career, something that is correctable with time and patience. The lingering effects from a
previous shoulder injury appear to still hinder him, as well. On one defensive play, he was caught
badly out of position by Gorman, who spun around him with a deft drop step for a
power jam. In the ensuing contact,
Brennan-McBride appeared to hurt his shoulder, and had to go to the sidelines
for several minutes to limber up [luckily, he returned shortly thereafter and
finished practice]. The time that
he spent away from basketball while recuperating from his injury seems to have
impaired his physical conditioning.
While the reports about his athleticism appear to be true, he clearly is
going to need some time to work himself into peak physical capacity.
When positional drills ended, the team broke into five-on-five full court
pressure drills. As it had been
during the modified three man weave drill, the team’s execution was often sloppy
throughout this segment of practice.
The scrimmage was similarly disjointed—lots of physical defense, hard
fouls, poor passes, and sloppily executed offensive sets. Was this due to the defense being ahead
of the offense at this stage of the season? Was it attributable to the lack of an
experienced lead guard?
Unfortunately, today’s practice did not offer a definitive answer to
The thing that I enjoy most about attending preseason practices is having
the opportunity to gauge first hand the level of improvement that players have
made in their games from one season to the next. With four returning starters, four
seniors, and the addition of Paul Harris, expectations for this year’s team run
high amongst Syracuse fans. Based upon today’s practice, it’s not
hard to envision the team struggling while the players adjust to having to play
without a four year starter at point guard. While I believe that the team has the
potential to challenge for the Big East conference championship and make
a splash in the NCAA tournament, it’s clear that the team still has a lot of
work to do.
Other observations from today’s practice:
- Roberts and Watkins still suffer from defensive
lapses. They expend a lot of energy
on the court and work hard, but appear to suffer from lack of concentration on
the defensive side of the ball.
- Josh Wright hasn’t appreciably improved his
physique. But he appeared to be
much more aggressive than he was in previous seasons—a sign that perhaps he is
ready to challenge for a bigger role.
- With only 10 scholarship players, depth isn’t as
good as it was last season. Based
upon what I saw today, it’s not hard to envision Boeheim primarily utilizing a 7
½ player rotation. If you assume
that the starters will be Devendorf, Nichols, Roberts, Watkins, and Harris, then
the bench becomes Wright and Gorman, with a dose of Rautins and Jones sprinkled
in, depending on the situation.
- I would expect to see quite a bit of a smaller
lineup this season—as Boeheim alluded to during the Media Day press
conference. This lineup would
feature Wright and Devendorf in the backcourt, with Harris sliding to the small
forward position. The combination
of players manning the other two positions would vary depending on fatigue, foul
- There were no noteworthy walk-ons to report
Devendorf has a look in his eye this season that signifies he is
ready to step up his game. He’s
shooting the ball well, and appears to be an even better shooter from three
point range than he was last year.
He handles the ball confidently, is unselfish, and displayed the uncanny
body control that enabled him to get to the rim so frequently last season. Expect big things from 8-Mile this
Harris is an absolute monster—even his muscles have muscles. I was pleased to see that he worked so
hard in practice, as I strongly believe that work ethic and attitude often trump
talent. Fortunately, Harris has all
three qualities. He was a terror
defensively throughout practice.
During one part of the scrimmage, he was matched up against Nichols, and
really made the senior work. On one
physical exchange, Harris and Nichols were locked up, Nichols cleared some space
with a hard dribble and pulled up for a jumpshot…that Harris recovered from and
BLOCKED, despite clearly being three inches shorter than Nichols. As for Harris’s height, whoever it was
who measured him at 6-5 must have been the same individual who once proclaimed
that Stevie Thompson was 6-4. I’d
say that Harris is 6-3, tops, but he has a long wingspan and quick hands and
feet. If there was a negative that
I saw today, it’s that Harris attempted too many perimeter jumpshots. He made some during drills, but didn’t
make many while being guarded. At
this stage of his development, he’s not especially accurate outside of 12
feet. I see him starting in the
backcourt this season alongside Devendorf.
With his ability to rebound, he’ll trigger the fast break quickly, where
his handle and unselfishness will lead to more transition opportunities for the
team. However, I think that the
team will also struggle a bit more to execute half-court offensive sets with
this backcourt combination.
Nichols: Nichols looked like an
all-conference player today. The
key will be whether or not he has improved his ability to create off of the
dribble. If he hasn’t added
improved in this area, he’ll again be one dimensional, which makes it easier to
shut him down. But he ran the break
like a deer, scored TONS of transition baskets, and shot the ball with the quiet
confidence you expect from a senior starter. I would be surprised if he doesn’t
average 17 points and 6 rebounds this season.
Roberts: Roberts is a gregarious kid who
would often clown around during practice in previous seasons. This year, he’s acting like a
captain. That said, I was
disappointed to see that he hasn’t improved his offensive game from last
year. Although he spent quite a bit
of time shooting mid range jumpers, he still has an unorthodox shot with a
quirky release, so it’s not surprising that consistency eludes him. Without diversification to his offensive
game, Roberts will remain an athlete first and a basketball player second. On a positive note, he did appear to
have improved his free throw shooting—an obvious developmental opportunity that
needed to be rectified.
Watkins has a rare combination of physical tools. Even at the NBA level, there are few
players that combine his athleticism, speed, size, strength, leaping ability,
and quickness. If he were a little
more aggressive, he’d be a shoo-in as a first round pick. Watkins doesn’t seem to have improved
his skill set much from last season, although it looks like he might be in even
better physical condition. I’d
settle for him being a double figure scorer this season—which could easily
happen. But he still misses too
many dunks for my tastes, and doesn’t take the ball up as strong as you’d expect
for a player with his size and athleticism.
Perhaps more than any other player, Wright holds the keys to the
team’s success this season. I was
disappointed to see that he had not improved his physique in the offseason. At his size [or lack thereof], he
struggles to defend against more physical guards. Although he looked for his shot more
than when I’ve seen him practice in the past, he didn’t shoot the ball well at
all today. He still has a low
release point, where he releases the ball from in front of his head. Again, this is attributable to lack of
strength. I’m also not convinced
that he has a strong handle. But I
didn’t see enough today to formulate an informed assessment on that point. Another important issue is that Wright
is relatively inexperienced, having not played as a freshman and having a
significant portion of his sophomore season derailed by injury. If Wright can elevate his game, he’ll
see ample playing time this season.
With the Onuaku injury, Gorman’s opportunity for playing time
effectively doubled. He played a
lot over the last 1/3 of last season, and had several impressive games against
quality opponents. I look for him
to have more of a green light this season as a fifth-year senior, and I wouldn’t
be surprised to see Boeheim give quick hooks to either starting big man if they
are ineffective, with Gorman available on the bench. He is one of the top shooters on the
team, and could prove to be a consistent three point marksman if given the
opportunity to let fly from beyond the arc. He rebounded fairly well today, but
having him play extended minutes at the center position would be
disadvantageous, especially defensively.
Rautins is a player.
Period. He’s clearly put on
some muscle in the offseason—not a lot, but he’s not the human hyphen he was
last year. Rautins is a shooter—not
just a three point shooter, but also a good mid range shooter, which is a rare
commodity these days. He really
puts the ball on the floor confidently, and is a slick passer off of the
bounce. Although his slight
physique might suggest otherwise, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Rautins
carve out a consistent niche in Coach Boeheim’s rotation. He has the skills, confidence, and most
importantly the basketball acumen to help this team. Also, because he understands the game so
well, he’s always in the right position, and rarely gets caught making a bad
Like Rautins, Jones is a player who has a nose for the ball. Whether on offense or defense, he always
seems to be involved in the play.
He has a sweet shooting stroke from mid range, and both the quickness to
defend guards and the size to tangle with forwards. Jones is a recruit who got lost amidst
the Harris hoopla, but I predict he will develop into a major star during his
time on the hill. He might get lost
a bit in the numbers shuffle behind Nichols, but if given the opportunity, he’d
help this team.
Right now, practice is moving a bit too quickly for Brennan-McBride. He is clueless when it comes to
positioning, and often had to be redirected by coaches. He is in desperate need of quality
instruction. But on the plus side,
he is an impressive athlete. During
layup and fastbreak drills, Brennan-McBride showed his speed in the open floor
and ability to elevate. But he
completely lacks a left hand, his jump shot is atrocious, and he relies upon his
athleticism to chase rebounds. He
reminds me a lot of Etan Thomas at the same stage of their respective
developmental curves—namely, a player who’s athleticism far exceeds his
knowledge of the game. The Onuaku
injury takes away any possibility that Brennan-McBride will redshirt, which is
too bad, since he could use the extra year of developmental
Onuaku sat out the entire practice on the sidelines in sweats, and
didn’t even participate in shooting drills. Coach Boeheim was evasive during the
Media Day press conference when asked about both the severity of Onuaku’s injury
and what the recovery timeframe will be.
Taking both items into account, it appears dubious that Onuaku will be
ready to play this season. That’s a
big loss for four reasons. First,
Onuaku offers more size at the center position than Gorman does. He’s also a better rebounder than
Gorman. Lastly, having Onuaku at
his disposal would have given Coach Boeheim a viable substitution option if
Watkins is ineffectual. Lastly,
Onuaku projects as the starting center next season, so losing the opportunity to
get more game playing time and practice time scrimmaging against the likes of
Watkins and Roberts is a missed opportunity.