Jim Boeheim declared before the season began that incoming 6-foot-6 transfer Elijah Hughes was a forward. He could’ve played at the two or the three at his size, but that was that.
Hughes has started every game in the front court since.
In shrinking his starting lineup slightly, Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange continue to rank among the best defenses in the country. That’s in part because his 6-foot-6 swingman is a shot-blocking menace, who hits 3⁄4-court shots and can also drill seven from three-point distance (one with his foot on the line).
Hughes chased down Zach Johnson’s transition run in the second half of a 20-point win over Miami and leaped to the rim to reject him at the highest point — one of three blocks in the game. The Carrier Dome exploded in a standing ovation before Syracuse closed the game on a 15-9 run.
“On the breaks like that,” Frank Howard said. “I might try to slow up a little bit, if I see him running. You know you gonna get that. Just got to try to find the ball after he blocks it.”
“He’s got a good spring,” Boeheim said. “He gets a running start on people, he can go get it. That’s what he does. He goes and gets it.”
That bounciness propels Hughes to the occasional flashy dunk, makes him competitive in the rebounding game and produces blocks uncharacteristic of a player who would likely be playing guard if Tyus Battle went pro. He isn’t putting up Paschal Chukwu block numbers — 36 in 18 games — but he’s posting 33 percent of that (12) with eight fewer inches of height.
The hops started during his days between Beacon and Kennedy High Schools when he began working on his athleticism, and then he felt it enter his game in his senior year at South Kent Prep in Connecticut.
“I wasn’t really the most athletic guy my whole life,” he said. “But I’ve always had good timing, good instincts so when I worked on my athleticism it just came together.”
Howard watched Hughes when he first arrived from East Carolina last season. Restricted to practice as a transfer in 2017-18, he learned the zone and took deep threes that Howard wasn’t sure would transfer to the game.
The marksmanship, at least, did as Thursday’s 6-for-9 performance raised Hughes’ three-point percentage to 37.9. He takes 62.8 percent of his shots from three. That skill is common throughout college basketball, but only Boston College’s Ky Bowman (0.65) and North Carolina State’s Devon Daniels (0.68) average more blocks per game (Hughes 0.63) in the ACC among players 6’6” and shorter.
Howard saw Hughes block shots in those practices too.
“He’ll have a crazy block in practice,” Howard said. “But at the end of the day it’s still practice. Today was definitely the craziest block I’ve seen. He met that guy at his highest point, athletic dude.”
Over eight minutes remained Hughes approached Johnson on the fast break. Two of Johnson’s teammates shot up and froze as Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga watched him spring into his leap several steps away from the basket. That early start, he said, would’ve made a highlight dunk for Johnson. Hughes had other plans.
He’s probably four or five inches taller than Zach Johnson,” Larrañaga said. “(He) was taking off from a long distance away from the basket, it would’ve been a spectacular dunk, but it brought Hughes right into the play, because he was just a half step behind him. And with his size and length and jumping ability, he was able to get it at the peak of Zach’s jump. You have to give him a lot of credit for that, that was a beautiful defensive play.
Battle said that in both practices and games, Hughes tries to block everything regardless of whether he gets dunked on. Most of the time, he added, Hughes gets the block. Like the rest of his game, he’s blocked at a steady rate, recording one in four consecutive games against Ohio State, Cornell, Northeastern and Georgetown.
Thursday marked his first multi-block game since the Arkansas State win, and third of his college career, with a two-block performance with Eastern Carolina in 2017 against then-No. 22 Cincinnati. Hughes blocked 11 shots that season, a mark he passed on Thursday.
The win over the Hurricanes expounded on his scoring, rebounding and passing with three blocks and steals in his most complete performance of the season. With more plays that mark moments in games for the Orange.
“You can hear it,” Howard said. “Whether we’re on the road or at home, at home it’ll get loud, on the road it’ll be quiet. His dunks, his dagger threes, or the blocks. Those are huge momentum plays for us. That’s why you always see us trying to capitalize off it and not let those moments go to waste ... those plays that he was making kind of changed the game.”