Let’s get right to it. If Rakeem Christmas or Dajuan Coleman can’t show early on that one or both can play power forward, and therefore allow Jim Boeheim to play two of his three ‘big men’ together, then someone is going to lose out on playing time. We know C.J. Fair is going to play 35 minutes a game at one forward slot. Jerami Grant will probably get more than 30 a night at the other. Tyler Roberson is going to get some run as well, not unlike Grant’s playing time last year. So where are the minutes for Christmas, Coleman, and Baye Keita going to come from?
Keita is the given. More than any other player on the roster, we know what we’re going to get from him on an average night. 17 minutes, 4 points, 4 rebounds, a block, and smart, rangy, #hardnosed defense. He won’t start games, but he’ll probably finish them. His once stone-carved hands have vastly improved over the years, to the point where he can be counted on to convert dunks and layups that were an adventure early in his career. He always seems to be in the right place, rarely makes a dumb mistake, and has the experience to be a role model for his younger teammates. I was at practice last month and watched Keita as he slid back and forth along the baseline, shouting instructions to his teammates as they worked on zone positioning – and he wasn’t even a part of the drill. He was standing out of bounds. It’s that level of intensity and dedication that has made him a rock of consistency, and one of the more underrated SU players in recent memory. Mike Hopkins went so far as to call him the "Best defender on the planet", and while that may simply be a coach pumping up his player it speaks volumes about how the staff views Keita and his contributions to the team.
However, Keita will not start. Perhaps Boeheim likes to have the veteran hand coming off the bench to anchor the second unit. Maybe the younger players have more trouble coming in cold and contributing right away. Whatever the reason, it appears that Christmas and Coleman will once again start at the 4 and 5 this year, although unlike last year it looks like Coleman will be the center and Christmas will be the power forward. Coleman told me he played center all summer in workouts and summer league games, and feels more comfortable in the middle, both on offense and defense. Clearly Christmas is the better athlete, with more quickness and leaping ability, which makes me think he’d be more suited for playing the wing of the 2-3. However, that takes him further away from the basket, where his shotblocking prowess is less useful. So it will be interesting to see how this configuration – if it comes to pass – holds up over the first few games.
I do feel like Coleman is poised to make an impact this year. He has noticeably lost weight, and says he worked hard on "everything" all summer, including a lot of conditioning, footwork, and mid-range jumpers. He says Hopkins has been teaching him how to use the hook shot to his advantage, which Hopkins corroborated with his usual enthusiasm. Hopkins says it will be important in the ACC, where quickness and athleticism are emphasized more than size and strength, for big men to be able to catch and shoot quickly without hesitating or trying to bull their way to the basket – like Coleman was known to do last year. Even with a deep roster, these guys still don’t want to pick up cheap offensive fouls when the college game is looking to move away from the physical play that has dragged down scoring over the past few years.
Christmas is the real enigma of the group. I think it’s his development that will decide playing time for himself, Coleman, and Grant. If he can play power forward, defensively on the wing and offensively in the mid-post, then Coleman will get more minutes at center. That will allow Boeheim to rest Fair and Grant more often. However, if Christmas can’t handle playing outside the paint, then one of the three centers will be the odd man out. Christmas has all the tools you could want – tall, strong, athletic, and has the pedigree of a McDonald’s All-American. But the consistency is lacking, and now’s the time for him to make that proverbial leap. We know he can do it. We’ve seen flashes of his ability, but he has yet to put it together for a full season. Will this be the year he takes his game to the next level? Or will he be one of those ‘potential’ guys who never seems to fully reach it?
I think by the time the ACC schedule rolls around in January we’ll see two of the three centers splitting the 40 minutes, with Fair, Grant, and Roberson manning the forward slots. Boeheim likes to shorten his bench as the season progresses, so unless all three really impress I’m afraid one of them will eventually fall out of the rotation.
Thursday: The Centers
Friday: Holy Family exhibition recap