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Oshae Brissett’s upside is Syracuse’s in 2018-19

Previewing the forward position, the glue of this year’s Syracuse Orange. Two freshman — Brissett and Marek Dolezaj — played nonstop to elevate last year’s team above expectations. Now they’ll need to hone consistency to meet preseason hype.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round: Syracuse Orange vs TCU Horned Frogs Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

A NBA type asked me in the midst of last season about “O’Shae Brissett.” There’s no apostrophe, of course, but it took time for that to sink in to most outside of Syracuse, NY. Few expected to see the University of Syracuse (that’s it, right?) and him play in March, and by the time he helped launch the Orange toward the Sweet 16, a deep 2018 draft class simply didn’t have room for one more.

Tyus Battle tested the NBA combine, and even donned a Lakers practice jersey, before ultimately returning to SU. While Brissett post-tourney run remained the Syracuse Orange’s best kept secret — still O’Shae on some sites.

Within an hour of that 69-65 loss to Duke last March, he hinted he’d return.

Oshae rang more familiar to Orange fans as he joined a list more relevant than the draft board to most of them. Brissett posted the most double-doubles of any Syracuse freshman since Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Coleman, two giants in SU hoops folk lore.

In fact, those two names pass as arguably Syracuse’s greatest NBA success stories, and given his potential, it wouldn’t be stunning to see Brissett follow their lead. On a SU team ranked in the teens in most preseason polls, obscurity will follow him no more. Brissett’s instant impact elevated the Orange above expectations, and now the sophomore will become one of the most important factors in meeting them in 2018-19.

Last year, he checked wings, crashed the boards alongside bigs and often finished with ferocity. Occasionally he air-mailed a corner three over the hoop, others hit the mark right on time. Despite shooting 27.7 percent from outside, when the buzzer rang on a then-offensive low of 49 points for the program against Notre Dame last season, Jim Boeheim eventually dubbed him the team’s best shooter after a second-half surge. Coach Mike Krzyzewski eyed the improvement before Duke slid past his 5-for-12, 15-point Sweet 16 performance.

“Brissett has just gone up. He’s averaging 18-10. And just a poised player,” the Hall of Fame head man said. “All of Jim’s kids get better, and Brissett is a great example of just how much they get better.”

The imposing nature of the NCAA’s tallest lineup stemmed as much from the bruising style of Brissett as it did from 7’2 Paschal Chukwu. Brissett’s center-like rebounding numbers (8.8), a three-point percentage (33.1) which matched Anthony’s freshman season, and his second-ranked defensive win shares (2.7) in ACC play mirror the three-and-D role exploding in popularity at the NBA level.

He also embraced contact, likely sacrificing shooting-percentage points by playing volleyball around the rim, but constantly kept balls alive. That activity inside combined with rumbling downhill drives that consistently led to contact that produced the most free throw attempts in NCAA play of any one player — 221. His free throw shooting added 4.7 points to his scoring average.

Seemingly constantly on his phone, he saw all the tags linking him to professional destinations. But he tuned them out and committed to bounce back on what he considers a top-10 team.

How much better has he become? Don’t ask Boeheim, he hasn’t seen him yet.

“I haven’t seen him,” Boeheim recently told The Daily Orange. “He hasn’t worked out, so we’ll see what happens when he’s back at practice.” (An interesting choice of words from the coach.)

The Orange will host a White vs. Orange scrimmage on Friday, possibly his first showing since the Duke loss. SU will court the same five starters from their March Madness run, something Boeheim said should allow them to maintain defensive prowess, but for all that’s returning, everything is different.

The Orange’s offense — historically inefficient and a major reason the Orange “weren’t very good,” in his Boeheim’s words — scrapped by through Battle’s volume scoring and a surge in facilitation through the Orange forwards. The notion that Brissett and Marek Dolezaj, who was largely unknown nationally in the preseason before Geno Thorpe left and Matthew Moyer went to the bench, would pour in six and three double-figure games respectively in March would unlikely coincide with an offense that ranked below 300th before that.

Brissett and Dolezaj played better through the season, and when it counted so too did their team.

Now as the competition awaits, Boeheim has lauded the scoring infusion that swingman Elijiah Hughes could provide. Further, Robert Braswell “has the ability to shoot the ball from all over the floor,” according to his high school coach and Buddy Boeheim provides an outside trigger too.

In the tourney, SU held Arizona State, TCU and Michigan State in the 50s as vehicles for victory because it had to in order to have a chance. Even as the offense reached new lows of 44 points twice, Boeheim wouldn’t touch small ball or explore overhauls. Now for 2018-19, he might have as many lineup options than through his coaching tenure.

Boeheim said Brissett will be “as important this year as he was last year,” but it’ll almost certainly be in a different manner. For one, he’ll probably get at least several minutes of rest. Brissett, and Battle for that matter, enjoyed the flow that playing entire games provided last year.

Beyond that, the necessity of isolation lessens with offensively capable players around them. Battle and Brissett scored 51 percent of the Orange’s regular season points and only averaged less than three assists per game combined.

As for Jalen Carey, Boeheim and Hughes enter lineups, there will be a greater emphasis than last year on each player feeding off each other to yield positive offensive results. That’ll also lead to Battle occasionally entering the forward fold on defense, and Brissett taking on power forwards directly. Dolezaj played some center last year, and could again sparingly if Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe need relief.

That’s a lineup shakeup that depends on nobody more than Brissett. As his Syracuse legacy develops, each portion of his game, and his role this season, should highlight his diverse skill sets, as his impact potentially could transcend one single comparison.

As the Orange seek to balance the best of last year’s defense, and raise the offense back to something closer to a 2016-17 level, the scale really could tilt on Osahe Brissett.