"Syracuse players can't play defense."
That's typically what you'll hear pundits and "experts" say when evaluating the draft prospects of former Orange hoping to make in in the NBA. The thinking is that even a single season playing nothing but Jim Boeheim's patented 2-3 zone ruins their ability to play man-to-man defense.
I say that's bull.
Micheal Carter-Williams is being praised for his potential as a perimeter defender, "despite" having played in the zone for two seasons. James Southerland, on the other hand, is fighting the preconception that four years in Boeheim's system has ruined his ability to defend in the League. Granted, each player has his own unique resume that feeds those perceptions. MCW's steal percentage it tops among point guard prospects. Southerland has long been derided for his barely adequate, even lazy at times, defense. But in either case, it's arguable that the 2-3 defense has very little to do with their defensive performance at the next level.
When it comes to Carter-Williams, clearly he's a ball hawk and sees passing lanes just as well on defense as he does on offense. And his size makes him able to defend both back court positions, and maybe even some small forwards. But what's largely overlooked is that playing the top of the 2-3 zone isn't much, if any, different than defending guards in a man-to-man system. It's all about keeping players in front, getting over screens and keeping opponents out of the lane. Now, of course, playing man has the added element of having to follow his mark wherever he goes on the court. But that's a fairly easy adjustment. It's not as if McDubz has never played man in his life.
The next point applies really to any player coming out of a zone system, but most helps J-Sizzle(TM) fight the notion that he has no chance of being able to guard in the NBA. James may have put up some underwhelming athletic numbers, but that doesn't doom his prospects as an NBA defender. The rules of the NBA might prohibit teams from playing a Boeheim style zone, but defenses in the League are much closer to zones than man.
No one is guarding LeBron James one-on-one. No one is guarding Kevin Durant one-on-one. No one is guarding Carmelo Anthony one-on-one. Good NBA defense is all about helping, rotations and recovery...just like a zone. In that regard, playing the Syracuse 2-3 might even be seen as an advantage. Syracuse fans know that Boeheim's zone isn't a passive, reactionary defense. It's an attacking defense where certain situations call for certain actions. I don't think Southerland will have any trouble learning the defensive rotations of any team he might land on. Rotate and recover is all he's done for four years.
So, when it comes to the 2-3 zone, I'd argue that it has absolutely no effect on the defensive potential of Syracuse players in the NBA. Some guys just aren't going to be good defenders (looking at you, Donte Greene). Some guys are just too small ( ) or too unathletic ( ) to defend well in the NBA.
For what it's worth, I tend to agree with the prevailing options on MCW and J-Sizzle(TM). MCW has the makings of a defensive monster in the mold of Gary Payton or Avery Bradley. Southerland, on the other hand, has yet to show he has the motor to be even a passable NBA defender. But when it comes to assigning credit or blame, leave the zone out of the discussion. It's not really a factor.