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Who is Syracuse basketball’s best fit at center?

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Spoiler: It seems like it’s not Bourama Sidibe.

Syracuse v Duke Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team has a center problem. This isn’t news. How much of a problem is it, you ask? Let me paint you a picture.

Syracuse’s traditional centers, Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe, are miserable on the offensive end. The offense uses plenty of ball screens, but gets no contribution on the roll from Chukwu or Sidibe. Neither of the two can score reliably with their backs to the basket, has a jump shot or is even slightly reliable with the ball in their hands. The only way the two contribute on offense are on put-back offensive rebounds — and they combine to average just four offensive rebounds per game. Those four offensive boards are no sure thing, either. Sidibe will you show you for himself:

There is that Dolezaj guy...

Syracuse has used Marek Dolezaj at center for 8-11 minutes per game this season. Dolezaj has a clean jump shot, is a good passer and is reliable with the ball in his hands. His offensive capabilities far exceed what Chukwu and Sidibe offer. He is not just capable, either. Dolezaj is a threat to opposing defenses and will make defenses pay for not guarding him.

Syracuse guards are frequently double-teamed over screens. Dolezaj being a capable shooter makes him a threat to score which defenses will have to acknowledge. Ohio State didn’t and Dolezaj made them pay.

If defenses begin to respect Dolezaj’s abilities to score off of “popping” after setting a screen, this will allow more space for Syracuse’s ball handlers to operate. This is preferred considering Syracuse’s ball handlers are the strongest part of the team.

Dolezaj helps space the floor in non-ball screen situations, as well. As Syracuse fans know far too well, ball movement frequently stalls and the Orange offense becomes isolation-heavy. In these situations, Dolezaj presents a capable scoring threat which can pull his defender outside of the paint to allow more space for Syracuse’s play-makers to operate. Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe stay close to the basket and hardly demand the attention of their defenders which leaves another defender for Syracuse’s play-makers to beat even after they pass their first defender.

One more thing that Dolezaj can do that Chukwu and Sidibe can’t? Make this pass:

But... defense

“They don’t need to contribute on the offensive end, though. They’re the best interior defenders we have.”

Thanks for the counter argument, me.

Well, I watch a lot of film (weird brag), and I started counting just how many times Syracuse’s centers got beat for baskets on the defensive end. Check it out:

These numbers were collected over Syracuse’s last three games.

The table might suggest that Paschal Chukwu moves the needle a bit defensively, but 1.6 points per 40 minutes is not a significant difference. What’s most notable is how not good Bourama Sidibe has been.

Sidibe is a raw mix between long, strong and athletic, but hasn’t figured it all out yet. He is below average in all three facets which makes him a below-average defender across the board. The data I collected suggests he might even be worse.

Conversely, Chukwu is long and puts that to use as he is among the nation’s leaders in blocks per game. This, however, does not lead to a significant advantage in points allowed per 40 minutes over Marek Dolezaj.

Dolezaj mixes a combo of length (6-foot-10) and agility to remain competitive in points allowed per 40 minutes.

What about Oshae Brissett?

The Daily Orange published an article yesterday that suggested that Oshae Brissett could be the solution to Syracuse’s problems at center. At 6-foot-8, Brissett is shorter than Chukwu and Dolezaj, but he is arguably stronger and is both quicker and more athletic than either of the other players.

Which is exactly why the Orange should not use Oshae Brissett at center.

Part of the responsibility of the wing defender in the 2-3 zone is to both defend shooters until the guard recovers to defend the shooter on the wing and ensure that a pass is not made into the corner or toward the baseline. Here, Brissett makes sure to guard against the shot while also denying the pass toward the baseline:

Brissett’s combination of size and athleticism allows him to do such things.

Wings are also tasked with rotating to guard on the opposite side of the floor when the defense has been broken down with quick passes. Elijah Hughes executes perfectly here:

Hughes hustles over to guard the player on the baseline from his position on the opposite side of the floor. Making this defensive rotation requires foot speed and anticipation. Put simply, the wing is the most difficult position to play in the 2-3 zone as it demands a combination of length and quickness. Brissett is Syracuse’s best combination of the two as he has quick feet and a 6’11” wingspan.

The center of the zone requires far less agility than the wing. Oshae Brissett is quicker than Marek Dolezaj and it would be a waste of his lateral quickness for Brissett to play the center.

#FreeDolezaj

It started when I wrote a piece that declared Dolezaj the key to winning at Ohio State. He then went out and made me look smart — mind you, it takes a lot for someone to do that. His on-court performance made me realize I didn’t go far enough by saying he was the key for that specific matchup. The 6-foot-10, slender, handsome, cheerleader-dating, Slovakian stud known as Marek Dolezaj is actually the key to unlocking Syracuse’s potential.

Three games of data shows that Dolezaj is giving up just 1.6 points per game more than Paschal Chukwu. If Dolezaj can add 1.7 points per game to the offense, Syracuse is already headed toward more productive play from its center position.

For Syracuse basketball analysis, news and more, follow Dylan on twitter @dfines31.