Syracuse Orange head coach Jim Boeheim has spent the past 36 years developing and perfecting his 2-3 zone defense, to the point where he knows exactly the type of players he wants out there patrolling it every night. Tall athletes with long arms and quick feet are essential to the success of the zone, for they are able to cover the entire perimeter and generate the turnovers necessary to feed SU’s fast break offense.
SU’s rosters in the 1990s and 2000s read like a grocery list for the type of players Boeheim looks for to man his zone. Along the baseline, where the forwards roam, players with names such as Owens, Wallace, Burgan, Pace, Nichols, and Brown wreaked havoc on opposing offenses and helped contribute to all of those 20 win seasons and NCAA tourney berths. Perhaps the most successful forward tandem, 6’8" Hakim Warrick and 6’8" Carmelo Anthony, utilized their freakish athleticism to lead SU to the national title.
You all may remember this little gem…
That tradition continues today with Kris Joseph, C.J. Fair, Rakeem Christmas, and James Southerland on the wings, and after watching incoming recruit Jerami Grant in the Spalding Hoophall Classic Monday I’d say Boeheim has found another forward to terrorize opposing offenses for the next few years.
Grant and his DeMatha Catholic teammates were in Springfield, Mass. to take part in a high school hoops event in the town where basketball was invented. DeMatha took on Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman, led by #1 ranked senior Shabazz Muhammad. In fact, for much of the game Grant had the unenviable task of guarding Muhammad within DeMatha’s man-to-man defense. If you simply looked at the box score you’d think it was a mismatch, but I can say that Grant put in a respectable defensive effort against the consensus best high school player in the nation. Sure, Muhammad got his, to the tune of 37 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals in 31 minutes, but many of those points came on the fast break or when Grant was out of the game. In a notable pair of one-on-one situations in the post, Grant used his 6’7" frame and long arms to force Muhammad to shoot and miss over the top. Grant also showed willingness to sacrifice his body, drawing a charge to stop a fast break in the first quarter.
On offense, I think Grant will be a work in progress. Like many high schoolers of his stature, he relies on his superior athleticism to make plays. He appeared to favor the baseline jumper, sinking a pair of them and missing a third. His drives to the basket were at times awkward and mechanical, and he picked up two offensive fouls when attempting to attack the rim. He showed an eagerness to do the dirty work on the offensive glass, getting a putback dunk on one possession and having another waved off for basket interference. He also threw down a nice backdoor lob in the middle of the first quarter. However, in the grand Syracuse tradition he will need to work on his free throws, going 2-7 from the line with no makes until midway through the third. He finished the game with 12 points on 5-6 shooting from the floor, to go with 4 fouls and 4 turnovers in 26 minutes.
So what’s the prognosis? It’s hard to say from just one game, especially when Grant wasn’t the focus of his team’s offense. He seems to prefer a slasher/shooter role to that of a post player. He needs to work on his ball-handling and body control, and on a couple of occasions picked up a cheap foul or violation when his enthusiasm got the best of him. On the bright side, he showed a decent mid-range jump shot, good athleticism, a willingness to attack the rim and glass, and some hard-nosed defense.
I think Grant is exactly who you’d picture when you think of the prototypical forward for the modern day Orange. If we find ourselves watching a right-handed C.J. Fair or taller Josh Pace for the next few years then SU coaches and fans should be sufficiently pleased.