When Jon Rothstein made it official and passed along Jim Boeheim's decree that Michael Gbinije would be the starting point guard for the Syracuse Orange this season, it felt like there was an immediate reaction in some corners of Orange fandom.
1. I guess Kaleb Joseph hasn't improved.
2. Kaleb Joseph is a bust.
As a brief reminder, Kaleb entered last season as the starting PG for the Orange as a freshman. He struggled to find consistency and lost his starting gig as well as playing time as the season rolled on. After averaging 30+ minutes in non-conference play, he would go on to average closer to 15-20 minutes/game by the time ACC play wound down.
It was by all accounts a disappointing season for the highly-touted freshman. It was also exactly what you should have expected. Instead, a large swath of the Orange faithful decided they'd seen enough and Joseph wasn't worth any more effort. If he couldn't get it together over the summer before his sophomore season, he never will. Some folks didn't even want to give him that much time. He might as well just transfer now.
A few things...
Syracuse Basketball Fans Are Spoiled Brats
We've spilled a lot of e-ink around here trying to defend Kaleb already. Back in February, Michael Burke pointed out that Joseph is a victim of his predecessor's success. He just so happens to be at the tail end of arguably the greatest consecutive run on point guards in school history. Jonny Flynn, Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis. Not only did all of those guys find success with SU and beyond (three of them as first-round draft picks) but they all seemed to have a innate knack for the position early on.
The thing is, that's not the norm. We've just been really lucky. You can blame Kaleb Joseph for the mistakes that he makes but you can't blame him for not being Tyler Ennis or Jonny Flynn. So if you're left with blaming him for his own mistakes, you're blaming a true freshman for not being amazing. That's simply not fair.
Kaleb Shouldn't Have Been a Starter Last Year Either
That leads us to the one thing that a lot of people seem to be forgetting already. While you can't count on anything with college basketball anymore, it's clear to see that there was a "plan" when it came to Syracuse's point guard position last year. Tyler Ennis would have taken his game to the next level as a super-duper-star PG while Kaleb would have subbed in, using his freshman season as a learning experience much like Scoop got.
Instead, Ennis went pro a year before Boeheim expected (or hoped) and Syracuse's only real option was to give Joseph the ball and tell him to learn on the job. And why not, you might as well let Kaleb make all his mistakes now so he can learn and grow. Worst case, you bench him for Gbinije (which is what happened). It's not pretty but it's all you can do.
Point is, any other season, Joseph wouldn't have been the starter to begin with. He wasn't anointed. He was thrown to the wolves.
How Many Examples of Long-Term Improvement Do You Need?
James Szuba did a piece on Joseph a few months back where he took a look at comparable point guards who had to learn on the job and eventually became competent playmakers. By all accounts, Joseph's numbers lined up. Last year was rough but there's enough evidence out there to suggest he will get better this year. And even better next year. And so on.
Furthermore, we see it all the time on this basketball team. Look at just about every successful big man who has come through here in the last decade. They were almost all terrible as freshmen and left as solid contributors and team leaders. In spite of what many still think, Trevor Cooney has improved. Michael Gbinije is completing his growth from complimentary guy to leader. Tyler Roberson is probably going to make a leap this season.
That's not to say it always happens. There are plenty of busts out there that never work out. But if you give up on a guy like Joseph after one season, you might as well have given up on Rick Jackson, Rakeem Christmas, James Southerland, Trevor Cooney and a slew of other guys when they were freshmen who eventually became great players. Kaleb's crime was that he committed his freshman sins in the one position that can afford them least.
I don't know what the future will bring for Kaleb. For all I know he may indeed fizzle out and transfer and be playing for some directional school by this time next year. But probably not. At least I hope not. I'm rooting for him because he's talented and he's our guy and why in the world wouldn't you want to see him succeed? Not to mention the fact that by all accounts he seems like a model student-athlete.
There have been plenty of Syracuse basketball players who make it hard to root for them. Kaleb Joseph isn't one of them. And you've got no reason not to.