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Syracuse men’s basketball season preview series: Centers

Fun Fact: All of SU’s centers were born outside of the U.S.

Syracuse basketball v TCU Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This is the second article of TNIAAM’s Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season preview coverage, which includes position and individual player profiles, amongst various other topics. Previously, we previewed the walk-ons, but today it’s all about the centers.

The 2019-20 Syracuse basketball roster has been almost entirely overhauled. With critical losses at guard and forward, this year marks a major transition from the days of Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, and Oshae Brissett.

But aside from those three, another massive hole to fill in this year’s roster is at center, where 7-foot-2 Paschal Chukwu has graduated and left some pretty large shoes to fill, both literally and figuratively.

So who are the likely candidates to see minutes at the five this year? Here are the top options for Jim Boeheim, along with an “in case of emergency, break glass” option:

Syracuse Basketball: Buffalo at Syracuse Orange Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Bourama Sidibe

Position: Center

Height: 6-foot-10

Weight: 210 lbs

Year: Junior

Hometown: Bamako, Bali

High School: St. Benedict’s Prep

Is this the year that Sidibe is finally healthy? That’s the question on everyone’s mind as we enter the 2019-202 Syracuse basketball season. And if we’re using the trip to Italy as any kind of barometer, the answer could be yes.

Now obviously we have to take the level of competition there with a grain of salt, but what I found incredibly promising to see was the way Sidibe moved both with and without the ball. He was aggressive. He was active. He crashed the boards and he owned the middle on defense. He averaged over 12 rebounds per game in less than 20 minutes. Those are impressive numbers, regardless of competition.

Basically, he did everything right. So how does that translate to the regular season? We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s certainly promising to see Sidibe move with fluidity and not be hampered by his knees.

Sidibe is the expected starter for the Orange at center, and if he stays healthy and stays out of foul trouble, he could see a lot of playing time this year. In a lot of ways, much of Syracuse’s success this year rests on if Sidibe can stay healthy and move well.

Jesse Edwards

Position: Center

Height: 6-foot-11 (going on 7-foot-6 on the John Rothstein scale)

Weight: 210 lbs

Year: Freshman

Hometown: Amsterdam, Netherlands

High School: IMG Academy (Florida)

Edwards is the first of two centers brought on in last year’s recruiting class. While Edwards is definitely rough around the edges, he’s got a very high upside. He’s only played competitive basketball for a handful of years, so he definitely still has a lot to learn and catch up on, but he has some great fundamentals.

In Italy, he made a few plays on both sides of the ball that flashed the potential he has. Like most young big men, his offensive skill set lacks polish, but he has good footwork and moves well. He also has great instincts, as showcased on a few nice blocks in Italy. He’s very slender (gee, what a shocker for Syracuse basketball) and needs to work on his strength and conditioning, but has all the tools to be a very solid player in time.

This year’s outlook is a bit uncertain for him. It all depends on how healthy Sidibe is and how well his rookie counterpart plays. Given Sidibe’s propensity to foul, I’d say there’s a good chance he sees minutes early in the year against lesser competition as he competes to carve out a niche.

Syracuse basketball v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Jon Bol Ajak

Position: Center

Height: 6-foot-10

Weight: 205 lbs

Year: Freshman

Hometown: Natinga, South Sudan

High School: Westtown School (PA)

Another “rookie” to the team, Ajak is an interesting prospect. He was ranked as low as No. 32 at one point in 2017, but since then his stock has plummeted to No. 313 nationally in the latest 247Sports list. He didn’t have a great year on the EYBL circuit, but that was mainly due to lack of playing time to develop consistency. He only averaged 5 minutes per game, which certainly doesn’t give anyone much chance to get going.

Early observations on Ajak are that he is fairly athletic, has a decent stroke, and can help to stretch the floor. He wasn’t able to participate in any of the games in Italy, so there are still a lot of unknowns about him. Does he have the athleticism and frame to hold up against big ACC centers? Does he know how to move in the zone? Will he actually be able to contribute on offense?

I think we’ll get answers to a lot of these questions early in the season as he competes with Edwards for backup center minutes.

Syracuse basketball v TCU Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Marek Dolezaj

Position: Forward

Height: 6-foot-10

Weight: 190 lbs soaking wet

Year: Junior

Hometown: Bratislava, Slovakia

High School: Karlovka

Boeheim said Dolezaj won’t play center this season. Although I see Dolezaj as an emergency center only, that doesn’t mean he won’t get minutes at the five. If Boeheim is looking to exploit an opponent’s weakness like a lack of a post player, moving Dolezaj to center could give Syracuse its most dynamic offensive lineup.

Think about a lineup that includes Brycen Goodine/Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, Elijah Hughes, Quincy Guerrier, and Dolezaj on the floor. You’ve got shooters, slashers, post play, length, athleticism, and the ability to space the floor like no other. If Carey can figure out his 3-point stroke, that lineup would be nearly unguardable on offense.

Marek at center is a liability against a team with a low post option, and so he will see the vast majority of his time at the four. But don’t be surprised to see him anchor the zone from time to time if the situation calls for it.