Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj flew in like Batman and Robin for the Syracuse Orange. First Dolezaj, to the left of the basket facing the student section, to get a fingertip on a layup attempt by Shelton Mitchell. Sidibe followed to his right, stuffing David Skara’s futile put-back try.
Sidibe sent three shots flying in the most active performance of his sophomore season. Largely hidden behind Paschal Chukwu and chronic knee limitations that plagued his rookie year and lingered into the beginning of 2018-19, the key ingredient to his game has emerged: freedom of movement. He hit the floor, grabbed rebounds in traffic, drew fouls and Jim Boeheim leaned on him against Elijah Thomas when the game plan involved getting to the spots against him quickly.
“(Sidibe) was really good in the first half. He made some plays that really made a difference for us,” Boeheim said following the Orange’s 61-53 win over Clemson.
It’s difficult to remember a time when Sidibe was fully healthy. He developed tendinitis in his left knee that required surgery during the 2017-18 season. Syracuse mulled a medical redshirt, but he ultimately played through it (in part out of necessity given last year’s short bench) and underwent a procedure to scrape part of his tendon in April. Boeheim expected a fully healthy return for his backup center, though health and return to prior form are clearly two separate milestones.
“He’s moving better,” Boeheim said. “Spinning inside, going after the ball, blocking shots. That’s what he can do. That’s what we saw early last year. We haven’t seen it this year. It’s been a little better in practice. But I don’t know whether it’s taking him a long time to get used to being there healthy. I don’t know.”
Sidibe’s routine includes two workouts per day, practice and individual work with strength-and-conditioning coach Ryan Cabiles.
Extended minutes have helped, he said, and he views his ability to once again compile blocks as a road to more minutes. He played over Chukwu, who received zero minutes, in the Clemson game for reasons Boeheim wouldn’t explain. He scoffed at a request for an update on Chukwu, only saying that he isn’t hurt.
Sidibe may not be either, yet still hasn’t established full movement, which Boeheim asserted as his biggest strength. The trouble comes not when Sidibe is running the floor or moving laterally to defend opposing players, but rather when he’s positioned in the same location for a period of time.
“Physically I’m getting there, it’s not there yet but I’m getting there,” he said. “It’s just when I’m stuck in the same place. Trying to explode, that’s the problem.”
At center, Syracuse has found two compounding skillsets between the defensively-dominant Chukwu and the offensively-versatile Dolezaj. In Sidibe, the Orange strike a middle ground in a player who both contests shots and finishes with flare in the pick-and-roll.
He sets strong screens for the offense, something that’s been part of Tyus Battle’s arsenal to get open. The curl screens, where he catches the ball and works around Sidibe and the other centers help shake defenders into his sweet spot in the mid-range play an important role in the Orange offense.
“He played with confidence,” Battle said of Sidibe. “He was making post moves down there. Got a couple and-ones. Made some foul shots. Got some big rebounds, big blocks. That’s how we need him to play. You can tell he’s getting healthier too.”
Dolezaj said Sidibe gave the team the energy they needed in the win, “he’s a really skilled player.”
A Sidibe fully freed from knee limitations appears capable of raising the Orange to a new echelon in the sport, given the balance he strikes at the center position. Him and Dolezaj can share the floor, and regularly do so effectively. The question remains through these glimpses of hope into ACC play that seemingly nobody can answer: will he ever get to 100 percent?