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Syracuse basketball preseason player profiles: Elijah Hughes

The scoring load shifts to Elijah Hughes this season, a low-key transfer who’s now the face of the Syracuse Orange.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

This week we continue along with our Syracuse Orange basketball preseason player profiles. Today, we take a look at Elijah Hughes. In case you missed earlier profiles, check out Brycen Goodine and Howard Washington by clicking the links under their names.

Position: Forward

Class: Junior

Vitals: 6-foot-6, 210 lbs

Stats: 2018-19: 32.7 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 1.9 TOV, 42% FG, 36.9% 3-pt, 74.2% FT.

Italy trip: Vs. Varese (36 min) 18 pts, 7 reb, 3 ast, 2 stls, 1 blk, 2 TOV 8-for-19, 2-for-9 3-pt.

Vs. Oxygen (16 min) 7 pts, 2 reb, 2 ast, 5 stls. 2 TOV, 3-for-9, 1-for-4 from 3-pt.

Vs. Siena (18 min) 13 pts, 4 reb, 2 ast, 4-for-10, 3-for-9 3-pt.

Scouting report: During Syracuse’s 2017-18 season, a transfer from Beacon, NY sat on the bench wishing he could contribute.

That summer, Jim Boeheim declared Elijah Hughes one of the best offensive talents Syracuse had in quite some time. What appeared hyperbole became an understatement. Hughes surpassed Oshae Brissett’s scoring, then blocked shots during his debut season at SU nearly as well as any 6’6” player in the country.

Whispers of Hughes’ excellent practice performances floated around the program in 2018. The shaky stats from his freshman year rendered his eventual role a mystery though. He attended East Carolina due in part to his grades, and shot 35% from the field and 27% from three.

The team faced internal strife, a mid-season coaching change and Hughes suffered an injury. He decided to transfer and Syracuse called, an easy “yes” for a long-time Orange fan who played for SU grad Scott Timpano at Beacon High School.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Hughes’ games became events in Beacon when he finally took the court at the Carrier Dome. Boeheim placed him at small forward, where he held down the weak side defensively. Hughes started every game and became the lone constant on a turbulent team.

Frank Howard, Tyus Battle and Brissett traded lulls all season. Hughes, rarely breaking from his stone-faced demeanor, tallied what felt like a steady 13 points on the wing every night.

He dropped 21 in a narrow early-season win over Morehead State. His four three-pointers drove a crucial upset over Ohio State on the road. While the Orange dropped duds against Old Dominion, Buffalo and Georgia Tech, Hughes scored double-figures in 15 of his first 17 games.

The 17th was the Orange’s marquee win, a 95-91 upset over No. 1 Duke aided by his 20 points in 45 minutes — and a full-court heave that found nothing but net.

Hughes benefited immensely from the eyeballs that Battle and Brissett drew from defenses. They found him floating on the three-point line, and his game became predicated on converting catch-and-shoot opportunities. He attempted 133 twos and 236 threes.

While Howard and Battle handled the brunt of Syracuse’s distribution on offense, Hughes provided a third outlet for isolation. He could shoot step-back jumpers, and occasionally flashed a tight crossover and euro-step to the rim.

His spacing and handling gave a starving offense the ability to run through four different players when Marek Dolezaj joined them. And Hughes loved receiving the back-door cuts while Dolezaj passed from the top.

ACC defenses honed in tighter on him midway through the conference schedule. His excessive dribbling in isolation hurt him with rising turnover numbers. He regained form toward the postseason, and nearly willed Syracuse through Baylor with 6-for-11 three-point shooting that held SU in the game with everything else faltering. Now, he returns to lead the youngest Syracuse team in recent memory.

How he fits: Fits? It’d be scary to think about this team without Hughes. He’ll play nearly every minute of every game and become the definitive face of the Orange. He’s already assumed a leadership vibe on social media. He regularly posts teammates on his Instagram story, usually clowning Robert Braswell, or whoever else is within camera’s view.

Hughes will return to the small forward position in the zone. The larger adjustment comes on offense. He’s transitioning from an off-ball scorer to the focal point of Syracuse’s offense. Jalen Carey will lead from point with no proven track record of success in college. If point guard options falter, Hughes will command the distribution, scoring and movement on offense. It’s a heavy load and massive leap from how he succeeded last year, but games like Baylor, where he attacked the defense on his own, provide hope he can lead.

With Hughes, Syracuse will integrate sharpshooters like Brycen Goodine, Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard. Boeheim’s father can court ultra-spacey lineups that could open driving and slashing lanes for Hughes. If he follows through and plays some man-to-man, Syracuse could benefit from intriguing pace-and-space lineups around him. They already followed his lead in Italy, shooting more threes as a team than twos.

Ceiling: If Hughes thrives as the Orange’s frontman, he will finish the season among the most successful players in the ACC. The conference player of the year award is wide open, with phenoms like Zion Williamson largely absent this year. Hughes’ preseason performance already alerted Andy Katz to his growth; he included Hughes among his five impact players from summer trips.

Hughes also made the regional cover of Athlon Sports.

Floor: Hughes’ largest concern is transitioning from an off-ball to on-ball role. His greatest struggles last season came when he over-dribbled. He could dribble but, like Brissett, largely attacked directly. Floor vision, passing in the lane and finishing in traffic will all need to come quickly to him. If Carey can’t escape his freshman struggles, an even larger load dumps on Hughes.

Five of Hughes’ worst performances last year coincided with 3-5 turnovers. He thrived as a slasher, shooter and cutter last season. Now he’ll be pressed with creating for others on the dribble, where those turnovers often occurred. That could create the inconsistency that rose late last season. Greater shot volumes bode well from three, but he’s only floated around 40% from the field for his college career.

Other areas of interest: Hughes played the air guitar in celebration often last year. It’s unclear if it’ll continue in 2019-20. He’s an avid shoe collector and his Instagram is a must-follow.