From starting 17 games to scoring double figures during the Syracuse Orange’s March Madness run to his cheerleader girlfriend, it would’ve been difficult for Marek Dolezaj to surmount his freshman role on the hill this year. Fewer minutes and shots heightened the difficulty, but Dolezaj accomplished it through efficiency.
Dolezaj sat on Syracuse’s bench for over half of the first four games. On the court, he hit every shot (4-for-4) in the first three, then finally missed one against Oregon to start 2018-19 85.7 percent from the field. In a win over No. 16 Ohio State on Wednesday, his greatest contributions occurred in a losing first half, but one that set an active tone that the Orange desperately needed on offense.
Dolezaj’s shooting numbers are fun to marvel at, he hit 3-of-4 vs. OSU, including 2-of-2 from deep, but the ball funnels out of his hands to others more than it flies toward the rim. Syracuse has shooters (occasionally), point guards and defenders, but Dolezaj (and more recently Oshae Brissett) fill the lane of secondary playmaking that an effective offense needs.
Where Brissett attacks, then feeds from the extra attention the defense shows him, Dolezaj regularly scans the floor to pass. His range — that initially expanded to 15 feet last season, then to beyond the three-point arc into March — allows him to face up defenders to get a good view.
He picks his spots as a shooter, while setting solid picks. Against the Buckeyes, he created a pair of threes for himself utilizing the pick-and-pop game, a rare success for that play within Syracuse’s offense in recent years. Early in his and Chukwu’s development, the Orange offense couldn’t depend on them to regularly set quality screens.
His assist totals aren’t gaudy, but in short minutes a pair of three-assist games against Connecticut and OSU helped raise Syracuse’s offense above the 70-point mark in each. The Orange assisted on 59 percent of their makes against OSU, with four more makes than their high of 66 percent on 18 buckets against Oregon.
In the past, Jim Boeheim described Dolezaj as a good ball handler against pressure. Despite only averaging 3.3 points per game, he holds a +25.3 net rating (+11.8 all of last season). That’s including minutes filling in at center, where he isn’t the Orange’s strongest interior defensive presence. Usually playing defense on the perimeter of the zone, his defensive box plus minus still ranks 5.4 points saved on defense above an average player through 44 career games.
His 24 minutes against Cornell marked his fourth game with 0 turnovers, slashing his average in half from last year. It also marked his third straight game surpassing 20 minutes of playing time, an uptick following Dylan’s call for more before the OSU game.
Rotations on the Orange sat in a flux through early season injuries, but Boeheim seems intent starting Elijiah Hughes in small ball lineups and playing him, Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle all for heavy minutes. That limits opportunities for Dolezaj, unless he is displacing Paschal Chukwu. Boeheim said he’s sour on Dolezaj at center due to his size, but he has entertained it, most prominently in the Connecticut game.
Dolezaj’s mobility, passing, pressing capabilities and shooting could maximize the Orange’s offense, though they do lose substantial amounts of defense with Chukwu (87.1 defensive rating) off the floor. SU needs balance, but while they’re winning games 63-55 as they did against Cornell, they need to maximize their defensive performance more.
Dolezaj is a better perimeter defender, with a propensity to get beat back door at center on plays that Chukwu has more range to defend. This block played a crucial role in the outcome of the OSU win.
While this play shows up on Dolezaj’s center tape several times.
Dolezaj could be playing exactly where he’s suited. He contributed in over half the minutes of the past three contests, can facilitate offense with the second unit and step into any role SU is missing when needed. Yet he’s also the missing link in reuniting the starters from last season, and currently playing the most efficient basketball on the Orange.
Leave it to me to refute Boeheim finally embracing small ball, but Dolezaj could represent the link that threads solid play on offense and defense for Syracuse.