Three days before 7-foot-2 center Paschal Chukwu confirmed he would transfer from Providence College to Syracuse, former SU center Rakeem Christmas was selected 36th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Christmas being drafted at all was a serious testament not only to him, but to Syracuse's coaching staff. Unlike with Chris McCullough, who was regarded as a potential lottery pick before he came to SU, Christmas developed over four years into an NBA prospect under the guidance of coaches Jim Boeheim and Mike Hopkins.
Now, Boeheim and Hopkins will hope they can mold something similar out of Chukwu, their newest big man. He and Christmas aren't quite the same physically; Chukwu is slimmer and a few inches taller than Christmas. But you can find similarities between Chukwu and a young Christmas, both in their playing style and levels of production.
Like Christmas always was, Chukwu is a defensive-minded big who rebounds well and naturally protects the rim. And his stats last season were awfully similar to Christmas' freshman season stats. Take a look, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
Chukwu did have a considerable edge over Christmas in one area: field goal percentage. His 66 percent clip from the field should indicate that, though he has room to grow, Chukwu isn't completely inept on the offensive end, as some have suggested he is.
He averaged only 2.6 points per game last season but played only 9.9 minutes per game. And when he did see the floor, Chukwu proved at least capable as a low-post scorer. He shot 71.1 percent on 45 attempts at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.
That isn't to say he's even close to fully polished as a post-up scorer. He still needs to develop a go-to move and, more importantly, add strength so he can finish through contact around the basket.
But Chukwu has shown he can use his physical tools to score in other ways, including off of lob passes. He's plenty tall enough to catch such passes above defenders and athletic enough to catch and finish most alley-oop passes. For those same reasons, he's also a threat to score on offensive putbacks.
It's no secret, however, that Chukwu is most comfortable on defense. You can't teach height, and you can't teach the rim protection that comes with a 7-footer. Chukwu averaged 2.7 blocks per 40 minutes last season and blocked four shots in a Jan. 3 loss to Marquette despite playing only 12 minutes. He'll be an ideal defender in Syracuse's 2-3 zone, which will enable him to plant his feet under the basket and simply protect the rim.
Thanks to his height, he's also a solid rebounder. His offensive rebound percentage of 11.5 percent last season was a better mark than any of Syracuse's rotation players, including Christmas.
Of course, all of this comes with a disclaimer: Chukwu last season played a total of only 335 minutes, fewer than both B.J. Johnson and Ron Patterson played for SU. That's too small of a sample size to know exactly what he's capable of in a full-time role.
But it should be encouraging to Orange fans that Chukwu will get plenty of time to grow before he actually plays for Syracuse. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he'll have to sit out the entire 2015-16 season, and it will probably benefit him. It means Boeheim and Hopkins will have an extra year to refine his game. It also means he'll get an extra year to mature physically, which should help him on both ends.
When Chukwu is finally eligible to play in the 2016-17 season, it's reasonable to expect that he'll be a significantly different player than he was last season at Providence. It's probably unfair to compare him to Rakeem Christmas before then, but Syracuse has built a reputation for turning big men who are projects into stars. Maybe Chukwu is next.