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2015 NBA Draft: Scouting Syracuse C Rakeem Christmas' Pro Potential

Before the June 25 NBA draft, let's break down Rakeem's game.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Boeheim called it.

Last May, the longtime Syracuse Orange head coach predicted Rakeem Christmas would be the ACC's most improved player during the 2014-15 season. 10 months later, Christmas didn't just win the conference's Most Improved Player award -- he ran away with it. After averaging 17.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, he also earned All-ACC first team and All-ACC defensive team honors.

More importantly, his breakout season caught the attention of NBA teams and scouts. His name began to consistently pop up on draft boards and in mock drafts. And following last month's draft combine, where Christmas averaged 19.5 points per game in two 5-on-5 scrimmages, he moved up from late to early second round in most mocks.

A year ago, it would have been laughable to suggest he would hear his name called at the 2015 NBA Draft. Now, it just might be laughable to suggest otherwise.

Of course, none of this is to say that Christmas is an ideal NBA prospect. There's a reason he's only projected as a second round pick. So before the June 25 draft, let's break down both his greatest strengths and most glaring weaknesses.


Post-up game: At best an underutilized offensive player through his first three collegiate seasons, Christmas transformed himself into one of the ACC's top low-post scorers as a senior. He finished third in the conference in scoring and most of his shots came at or near the rim -- where he shot 70.1 percent.

Christmas was so dominant that Syracuse's offense was often as simple as getting him the ball on the block and letting him go to work. It worked time and time again, as he scored at least 20 points in 10 different games.

When posting up, his go-to move is to pivot or take one dribble left before releasing a deadly jump hook with his right hand. He obviously won't be asked to score as much in the NBA as he was at SU, but if you're wondering how Christmas went from ignored by scouts to a projected pick, it's because he added that move to his repertoire.

Passer: Frequently overlooked is Christmas' ability to distribute. It makes sense, considering that the 1.5 assists he averaged as a senior were a career high. But those numbers hardly tell the full story.

As Syracuse's primary offensive threat, Christmas constantly drew double teams last season. When he opted to pass out of those double teams, he showed a knack for finding the open shooters -- even if it meant making a crosscourt dish. According to Hoop-Math, 40.4 percent of his assists came on 3s.

Improved jump shot: Christmas wasn't asked to take many jump shots at Syracuse. The wide majority of his field goal attempts came either at the rim or in the middle of the paint. A much lower volume of his shots came outside the paint, and he wasn't very effective when he did take the occasional jumper.

But if the NBA draft combine was any indication, Christmas has focused on improving his jump shot since SU's season ended three months ago. During two 5-on-5 scrimmages at the combine, he confidently attempted and converted on several midrange shots.

Christmas won't be able to post-up NBA bigs as easily as he was able to post-up younger ACC players, so he'll need to continue adding to his offensive arsenal. Becoming a reliable option from the midrange could be key.

Defense: Despite the strides he's taken on the other side of the ball, it's his defensive prowess that gives Christmas his best chance at sustaining a long NBA career.

Christmas, who's as aggressive defensively as they come, is a disruptive presence in the lane. At Syracuse, he protected the rim like few others, finishing second in the ACC in blocks last season. And even when he doesn't block shots, he finds ways to alter them.

Last season, his toughest defensive test came on Feb. 14, when Syracuse hosted Duke and future lottery pick Jahlil Okafor. Okafor's final statline -- 10-of-15 for 23 points -- looked good. And it was good. But Christmas did a great job limiting him in the first half, when Okafor was just 2-of-7 for five points with the SU big man on the floor.

Of course, Syracuse's 2-3 zone usually allowed for a help defender on Okafor. But Christmas' presence was primarily responsible for his struggles, and that's telling.



Age: At 23, Christmas is several years older than most of the other players in the draft. In theory, that means he's closer now to his full potential than those players.

As a counterargument, one might point to Christmas' late blossom in college as evidence that he might have more room to grow. That's a fair point.

Still, NBA teams love drafting based on potential, and it's hard to argue that Christmas has more untapped potential than, say, a player like UCLA's Kevon Looney. Looney turned 19 in February and, as raw as the power forward might be, has a high upside in the eyes of scouts. The same can't quite be said about the former SU big man.

Size: As special as Christmas was on defense for Syracuse, he also benefitted from playing in Boeheim's 2-3 zone. It allowed him to plant himself under the rim for the duration of possessions.

In the NBA, he won't have that luxury. Christmas will be asked to play man-to-man defense, and he'll have to overcome his size.

At 6-foot-9, he's small for an NBA center. As a result, teams have been working him out at both center and power forward. But Christmas doesn't move well enough to guard the stretch-4s that are littered throughout the NBA.

So while it wouldn't hurt if he could magically add an inch or two, Christmas is still best suited as a center, especially on the defensive end. He'll have to hope his standing reach (9-foot-3) and wingspan (7-foot-5) at least help make up for his height.

Shot selection: Christmas is a relatively high IQ player, but he did take quite a few ill-advised shots last season. Too often he would attempt hook shots much too far from the basket, even when defended well. Or, he would take turnaround jumpers in traffic, something he really shouldn't ever do.

Christmas must simply recognize when he's out of his range, and learn to only take smart shots. Fortunately, this is easily fixable, and he likely won't be shooting much anyway, at least not early in his career.

Perimeter game: If Christmas is asked to play power forward, he won't be able to only roam around the basket on offense. He'll need to develop perimeter skills and become an effective player when he has the ball outside the paint.

In the rare instances that Christmas had the ball away from the basket last season, he was usually a turnover waiting to happen. In attempts to create something by driving toward the hoop, Christmas would either travel, commit a charge, or get stripped. He looked lost, and certainly out of his comfort zone.



If you draft Rakeem Christmas, you know what you're getting. You're not getting a freakish athlete or a teenager with a truckload of potential. In fact, he'll probably never even sniff an All-Star Game.

But you are getting a mature, developed player who, in the right situation, can contribute immediately. He can score both inside and outside, and he'll always compete on the defensive end.

ESPN's Chad Ford believes Christmas could even sneak into the first round come draft day. If it happens, don't be shocked.

And remember, Jim Boeheim saw it coming.