Like many sports stories, the tired tale of hopeful rookies becoming veterans is told time and again throughout the years. Junior big man Bourama Sidibe explained how he learned the ropes from Paschal Chukwu, who others assisted, after themselves pulling from the players before them. So on and so forth.
Marek Dolezaj’s rise to becoming one of the chief spokesmen for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team rings differently from common ascents. He spoke at ACC Media Day alongside Elijah Hughes, after years of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard monopolizing the microphones there.
Dolezaj had joined them in SU’s locker room because Adrian Autry took a flier on a random email. Autry followed tip, knowing Dolezaj’s coach through a mutual acquaintance, and it eventually led him to Europe to recruit the Slovakian.
He could barely speak English before committing to Syracuse over pro teams in Europe in May, 2017. Now, entering his third year, he went to media day not only as a highlighted talent, but as an effective enough speaker to represent the entire Orange team. It’s something he never pictured happening, as he told News Channel 9.
“He barely knew anything, the word no, yes. Stuff like that,” Howard Washington said. “Now, he’ll initiate a conversation with you, ask you how you’re doing. It’s crazy ... going on the third year, you can just see the improvement every year. He’s way more outgoing now. Text you first, hit you up. Stuff like that, and you can just see the growth in him.”
Dolezaj and Washington arrived at Syracuse together in 2017, after Taurean Thompson departed and Matthew Moyer appeared to be the future in the front court. Dolezaj soared through the rotation when Syracuse’s front court desperately needed depth.
By February of 2018, he rose to starting power forward after Moyer’s ankle injury and retained the spot from there. He established himself as an energy rebounder, slasher and oddly had a knack for passing — unexpected for a prospect so unheralded.
Boeheim took great joy in announcing that Dolezaj began dating an SU cheerleader. She helped him progress as an English speaker, with teammates, teachers, tutors and advisors chipping in.
Game of Thrones helped. Money Heist probably worked better for his Spanish, but it all encapsulated in him expanding on questions more than he ever has before at media day.
Within a year, he won an ACC Tournament game, dropped 17 points in a March Madness game against TCU and Oshae Brissett called him Magic Johnson (Marek Dolezaj is an Absolute Magic...Johnson). But when ESPN requested a post-game TV interview after his 20-point career night in the 2018 ACC Tournament, he declined. They could get it this season, if that production reemerges.
Boeheim maintained the 180-pounder couldn’t bang with the centers inside. He went to him anyway last season, as Chukwu occasionally faltered and Sidibe struggled to regain form after knee surgery. The role routinely sent Dolezaj crashing to the floor, but he said he got used to it.
He packed on five pounds this summer, “just a lot of food,” finally retaining weight through workouts. Boeheim opened the door to center minutes, with a renewed opportunity to make plays.
Credit chicken, mac-and-cheese and — of course — pizza.
“(Dolezaj) helped us right away our freshman year, which nobody thought would happen,” Boeheim said. “I know he didn’t. I don’t know if I did. But he stepped in, in a really crucial situation, and really made a difference with our team. I think he’s gotten better, I think that he’s a guy that does a lot of things for us when he’s out there, wherever he’s playing. He’s a playmaker, and there’s not that many 6-foot-10 guys that are playmakers. He certainly is one.”
Autry believes minutes could continue to flow to Dolezaj at center too. As John Bol Ajak and Jesse Edwards develop at the position though, he presents an intriguing layered passing strategy for an Orange team that already showed more motion and pace on Friday.
At the Orange vs. White scrimmage, Dolezaj ran a delayed pick-and-roll where Edwards cut and Dolezaj rolled, then he lobbed the ball to Edwards from the elbow. Boeheim limited Dolezaj’s playmaking opportunities last year with Battle, Howard, Brissett and Hughes ahead of him.
Dolezaj’s minutes and statistics decreased as he returned to the bench. That’ll change on a team that needs layered creation due to uncertainty at guard. Both Hughes and Dolezaj project to help create for SU.
As Dolezaj’s voice in the room grows louder, it’s still uncertain where he fits on the court after he sat out the Italy scrimmages with a broken finger. Quincy Guerrier dominated from the four position while Dolezaj sat injured on the bench and helped coach teammates.
Dolezaj is the stronger passer, and has more height. Guerrier projects to score and rebound more. They could play together, but it’s something that’ll be sorted out early in the season. Neither Boeheim nor Autry would elaborate on rotations yet.
“I see him as a guy who’s going to have to do a little bit more,” Autry said. “People seem to think when you say a little bit more, they think about scoring. Obviously, he’s going to have to score. But I think a little bit more of what he does. I really believe we got guys that can make shots and I think he’s versatile. I think he will play some five at spots. It’ll help us.”