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No, The 2-3 Zone Isn't Preventing Syracuse Players From Having NBA Success

The theory is that since man-to-man defense dominates the NBA, Boeheim's zone doesn't properly prepare its players for the league. Here's why that's wrong.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Sometime after Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim adopted the 2-3 zone as his full-time defensive scheme in the mid-1990s, a belief was born that playing the zone damages players' NBA potential.

The theory is that since man-to-man is the NBA's most frequently played defense, Boeheim's zone doesn't properly prepare its players for the league. Supporting the theory is the idea that Syracuse players aren't successful in the NBA, which isn't necessarily untrue. But it's not because of the 2-3 zone.

Let's start with this: in terms of being a hotbed for talent, Syracuse isn't Kentucky. Nor is it Duke, Kansas or North Carolina, other schools that have routinely produced more successful NBA players than SU has.

According to 247Sports, Syracuse has had just four top 10 recruiting classes since 2003, when 247Sports began ranking recruiting classes. In that same span, Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina have each had at least seven such classes. Kansas has had six.

Meanwhile, since 2002 Syracuse has been ranked in the top 10 of the preseason USA Today coaches poll only five times. Kentucky and North Carolina have each been ranked in the poll's top 10 nine times in that span. Duke and Kansas have been even better; the Blue Devils have been ranked there on 10 separate occasions, while Kansas has received the honor 11 times.

The point is that Syracuse isn't quite a blue blood program. It's a very good program, but SU isn't consistently bringing in the same level of talent that those schools are. If it were, its recruiting classes would be better and expectations would be higher in the preseason.

Instead, Boeheim typically recruits players that he sees as most equipped to playing the 2-3 zone -- players that usually aren't among the best talents in their classes. And because Syracuse isn't bringing in the same talent as schools like Duke and Kentucky, that explains why it doesn't have as many players in the NBA.

As of today, only eight former Syracuse players are on NBA rosters, and two of them -- rookies Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough -- haven't yet appeared in a regular season game. Since 1997 -- right around when Boeheim turned to the zone for good -- only 20 players from SU have embarked on NBA careers and appeared in games.

If the majority of those players were poor NBA defenders and didn't last long in the league because of it, I might buy the notion that playing the 2-3 zone in college was detrimental to their careers. But that's not the case.

Seven of those 20 players were in the NBA or have been in the NBA for at least five seasons, and three more -- Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant -- could very well end up having lengthy careers.

The other 10 players had careers shorter than 4.8 years, the average length of an NBA career. While that may seem like an alarming amount, seven of those 10 players -- Damone Brown, Kris Joseph, Demetris Nichols, Arinze OnuakuAndy Rautins, James Southerland and Darryl Watkins -- were either second round draft picks or went undrafted.

Second round picks and undrafted players aren't supposed to last in the NBA. Of the 90 players selected in the second round between 2010 and 2012, only 21 of them are currently on an NBA roster. And undrafted players having substantial careers is even more rare.

So those seven players didn't last in the NBA not because they played a zone defense in college, but because they weren't NBA talents to begin with.

The three players that were drafted in the first round -- Jonny Flynn, Donte Greene and Fab Melo -- fell short in the NBA for reasons other than their defensive capabilities.

Flynn made the NBA All-Rookie second team in 2010, but a nasty hip injury derailed his career. Greene was a shooter who couldn't make shots. Melo couldn't get escape the Development League because he was a completely ineffective offensive player.

Additionally, all three players accounted for more defensive win shares than offensive win shares during their careers, though it's worth noting Melo played in only six games. Greene and Melo also each had a better career defensive box/plus minus than offensive box plus/minus.

Flynn, Greene and Melo aren't outliers in that regard, either. Most former Syracuse players are or were better defenders than offensive players in the NBA.

Of the 20 SU players who have begun their NBA careers since 1997, 15 of them had or currently have both (a) more career defensive win shares than offensive win shares and (b) a better career defensive box plus/minus than offensive box plus/minus.

If anything, what this might suggest is that playing in Syracuse's 2-3 zone actually helps players in the NBA, where zone defense has become more prevalent over the years and help defense is an absolute necessity, just like it is in the 2-3 zone.

If you were to argue that Syracuse might win more basketball games if it didn't always play zone, I would listen. I might even agree, even though SU consistently has one of college basketball's best defenses.

But the idea that the 2-3 zone is impeding players' NBA success is more a myth than anything else. There's simply no data supporting it.