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C.J. Fair Made the Right Call Coming Back to Syracuse

C.J. Fair announced Wednesday that he is returning to Syracuse University for his senior season. That is reason for Orange fans everywhere to celebrate. But I think Fair will be able to celebrate a higher draft position next year because of it.

Headband placement - yet another thing he needs to work on.
Headband placement - yet another thing he needs to work on.
Andy Lyons

For a moment, let’s all set aside our Syracuse Orange fandom and try to be impartial about Wednesday’s NBA Draft decision by one Carl Keith Fair, Jr. I know it’s hard, but we should do it anyway.

C.J. Fair made the right decision to return to Syracuse for his senior season, and it has nothing to do with how he will help SU next year.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that he is coming back. SU now has a bona fide leader, scorer, and face of the team as they head into uncharted ACC waters. His presence vaults them from a fringe top 25 team to a conference title contender. We can get to the whys and how another time. But as someone who has watched his fair (ahem) share of NBA games over the past 25 years or so, I don’t think he is ready for the NBA, plain and simple.

Here’s why.

Fair’s 2012-13 season reminded me a lot of John Wallace’s junior year back in 1994-95. Wallace was a great second banana behind Lawrence Moten, much like Fair took a backseat to more heralded teammates like Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche. Wallace was a 6’8” forward who was considered a little too slow to play small forward in the NBA, but too small to play power forward. A classic ‘tweener’, in NBA-speak. So is Fair. But after strongly considering leaving school early to enter the ’95 draft, Wallace returned to SU for his senior season and led the Orangemen to the 1996 national championship game.

It could be argued that Wallace’s stock dropped a few slots by coming back for another year. But he was going to be a first rounder either way. Fair’s 2013 stock was not so solid. I have checked several reputable draft websites, and none of them had Fair going in either the first or second round. Hell, he wasn’t even the highest rated guy named C.J. on the board! Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum and North Carolina State’s C.J. Leslie have him beat by a long shot.

Fair is a very good college basketball player. Very good, but not great. He does a lot of things very well, but nothing spectacularly. That’s the problem. I pegged him all year as the team’s MVP, and he pretty much held the team together in late February and early March when everyone was in the doghouse. But that doesn’t make him an NBA-level talent, at least not yet. I think another year in school will do wonders to sharpen his skills and elevate him into the first round, where a rookie’s contract money and years are guaranteed.

So let’s look at what Fair does well, and what he needs to improve.

At 6’8” and 215 pounds, Fair has a good body for an NBA small forward, provided he puts on a little more muscle. The NBA is getting smaller and more athletic, and versatile players like Fair are more in vogue now than in the past 40 years. However, there are probably 50 guys in the NBA with similar size, and better skill or athleticism. Hell, there are probably 100 guys in the D-League that also fit that description. Just ask Demetris Nichols. Or Kris Joseph. While you’re at it, ask Joseph about the difference between a first round pick and a second rounder. After being selected in the second round (51st overall) by the Boston Celtics, Joseph made the team out of training camp (yay!), was up and down between the NBA and D-League for most of the fall, then was cut in essentially a salary cap move before the trade deadline (boo!). Joseph spent the rest of the season in the D-League before getting a ten-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets to fill out their roster as the campaign drew to a close. Meanwhile, former teammate Fab Melo, with a multimillion dollar guaranteed contract in hand, is on the Celtics roster for the playoffs after spending 33 relatively stress-free games honing his skills in the D-League and not worrying if he was going to have a job the next day.

Fair is a very good college rebounder, but not what I would call ‘elite’. Rick Jackson was a glass eater in college, and he too toils away in the D-League. We don’t really know for sure how good of a man-to-man defender Fair is, for obvious reasons, but his activity on the wings of the zone was top notch and one of the primary reasons SU’s defense was so highly respected. He shot an impressive 46.9% from three (30-64), so there’s a chance he could turn into a real outside threat if he spent more time on his shot. He has shown a slight ability to drive to the basket, but his tendency to go to his left on nearly every drive is something ne needs to work on to get to the next level. Basically, he should spend every waking moment dribbling a ball with is right hand wherever he goes on campus. He also showed flashes of a crafty post game, but again not often enough to call it an integral part of his offensive repertoire.

Again, I think the biggest criticism about Fair is that he does many things well, but nothing great. He’s a good shooter, but not great. Good rebounder, but not great. Good overall scorer, but not great. Good defender… you get the idea. The same could be said about Wallace 18 years ago. I haven’t even mentioned the intangibles that come with being the unquestioned leader and top scorer on a team. Fair will be the guy who gets all the shots he wants, the guy who is looked upon to take the last shot in a close game, the guy whose face we see on magazine covers and press conferences and whatever else. There’s something to be said for being exposed to that sort of scrutiny off the court as well as on. It can help to mature a player, and teach him invaluable lessons that you can’t learn sitting on the end of an NBA bench.

C.J. Fair announced Wednesday that he is returning to Syracuse University for his senior season. That is reason for Orange fans everywhere to celebrate. But I think Fair’s wallet – and his game – will have cause for celebration too.