It's fair to say that expectations for Tyler Lydon were tempered leading up to this season. ESPN, for instance, ranked Lydon the No. 76 overall recruit in the Class of 2015, 26 spots worse than it ranked Kaleb Joseph in the Class of 2014.
His potential was obvious, but to expect Lydon to step in and provide immediate and substantial contributions to Syracuse as a freshman would've been mostly unfair.
Through five games, though, he's surpassed any and all expectations, averaging 11.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per contest. As those averages indicate, Lydon does a bit of everything, all of which has been on full display so far at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
After scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking six shots against Charlotte on Wednesday, Lydon scored 16 points and pulled down 12 rebounds on Thursday against Connecticut in Syracuse's first real test of the season. SU plays Texas A&M in the tournament championship today at 3 p.m., when Lydon will get another chance to continue leaving his mark at Paradise Island.
Considering everything that Lydon has contributed so far this season, it's not a stretch to say that he's been the Orange's second best player, after only Michael Gbinije. At the least, Lydon has certainly been Syracuse's second most important player.
That's largely because the highly-skilled power forward erases what would otherwise be a fundamental problem with SU's personnel.
Entering the season, there was reason to debate whether Syracuse would be smart to use small-ball lineups when center Dajuan Coleman inevitably needed rest. I personally proposed the idea of using Gbinije at power forward next to Tyler Roberson at center for spurts.
The benefit of doing that would be obvious: with four perimeter threats on the floor instead of three, it would be more effective offensively than a more traditional lineup with Roberson and the offensively-inept Chinonso Obokoh manning the frontcourt. But the disadvantage of that potential lineup was also obvious: it would likely hurt Syracuse on the boards and on the defensive end.
But with Lydon being so productive so soon, Syracuse gets the best of both worlds. At 6-foot-9, Lydon has so far proven capable of playing either power forward or center and holding his own both on defense and on the glass at those positions. Meanwhile, he himself is a threat from 3, as he's currently shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. That combination means Syracuse can play Lydon and have four capable shooters on the floor — allowing it to space the floor and generate its best offense — without needing to sacrifice a ton of size.
For the Orange, the results have been exceptional. So far this season, SU lineups with Lydon in the frontcourt alongside one of Coleman, Obokoh and Roberson are plus-49. (Meanwhile, lineups featuring two of Coleman, Obokoh and Roberson are minus-8, and lineups with both Coleman and Roberson are minus-1.)
While it's very possible that Lydon will struggle to handle opposing centers as the competition begins to get more difficult, that wasn't the case on Wednesday. Against a Connecticut frontcourt featuring the 6-foot-10 Kentan Facey and the 7-foot Amida Brimah, Lydon registered his season-high in rebounds. And in his 35 minutes of action, Lydon's 12 rebounds were two more than Brimah and Facey combined to grab in 41 total minutes.
Lydon also has the look of a very capable transition defender. He's shown an ability to move up and down the court quickly, which is crucial on a Syracuse team that has struggled to take care of the ball. In the clips below, watch as he runs the floor following SU turnovers and comes up with blocks.
Even if Lydon doesn't keep that up down the road, his offense is all too valuable for him not to get significant playing time. On that side of the ball, he's a constant mismatch for the big men who try to defend him.
Like many stretch-bigs, Lydon leaves his defenders with a difficult choice. They can either hang around in the paint and let him take open 3s, or they can try to defend him on the perimeter — where most of them struggle defensively to begin with — and free up driving lanes for players like Gbinije, Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson.
So far, defenders have typically opted to take the former approach, something Lydon has taken full advantage of. He's simply not missing many 3s, and if that continues, defenses will be forced to adjust accordingly.
Against Texas A&M later today, Lydon will match up against a frontcourt that features two 6-foot-10 players in Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos. And if the Aggies struggle like the Huskies did to figure out Syracuse's freshman wonder, the Orange could very well leave the Bahamas as champions.
Here are five more observations I have on the current state of Syracuse:
1. Slow starts, slow finishes
Syracuse only beat Connecticut by three points yesterday, but I would contend that the Orange were dominant for most of the afternoon. Here's why: SU trailed 19-9 with 13:39 to play in the first half and led 65-55 with 7:21 to play in the game. So in the roughly 26 minutes that made up the game's core, Syracuse outscored Connecticut by 20 points, 56-36.
That's encouraging for the Orange, but it also means they need to play better out of the gate and down the stretch. This isn't new, either. Syracuse let Charlotte hang around too long on Wednesday, allowed Lehigh to battle back from a 20-point halftime deficit on Nov. 13 and trailed for essentially the entire first half against St. Bonaventure on Nov. 17.
2. Still sloppy
After struggling with turnovers in their first three games, the Orange pledged before the tournament to improve at taking care of the basketball. But so far, that hasn't happened. After committing 13 turnovers against Charlotte, Syracuse turned around and committed 15 of them against Connecticut. SU now ranks 279th nationally in kenpom.com's offensive turnover percentage metric.
Most of these turnovers aren't being forced by opposing defenses, so this is something that should, in theory, be fixable. And for their sake, the Orange better fix it, because it'll just be that much more difficult to survive against good teams if Syracuse gives them free points.
3. Coleman's improvement
I've been rather impressed with how Coleman has played — albeit still in pretty limited minutes — in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He's looked far more active in these two games than he did in Syracuse's first three. He recorded seven rebounds and three blocks on Wednesday before racking up eight rebounds in only 21 minutes on Thursday. Coleman isn't going to need to score on this team, so if he's playing defense and rebounding, he'll be doing his job.
4. Offensive rebounding
The Orange were supposed to struggle to rebound this season, and they still might, but they've looked much better in that category as of late — especially on the offensive glass. Syracuse recorded 14 offensive rebounds against Charlotte and 11 against Connecticut.
Roberson is the biggest reason for that; he accounted for 11 offensive boards in those games, as he continues to showcase the fact that he's simply a gifted rebounder. That's something that will benefit SU throughout the season, especially when it begins to take on some of the country's best rebounding teams. Currently, six Atlantic Coast Conference teams rank in the top 40 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.
5. Joseph's issues continue
Five games into the season, we've yet to see significant evidence of the improvements that Kaleb Joseph supposedly made in the offseason. I still believe that he's a better player; Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim wouldn't have said as much if it weren't true. But it simply hasn't shown up on the court, and Joseph has continued to struggle in the Bahamas.
Against Charlotte on Wednesday, he went 0-for-6 from the floor in 17 minutes of play. Then, against Connecticut, he quickly committed two silly fouls upon entering the game and played only four minutes. On the season, he's now averaging just 9.4 minutes per game and shooting only 18.2 percent from the floor.