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Elijah Hughes to fight for ACC scoring title as he leads Syracuse, inspires Beacon

Syracuse’s star nearly never made it to East Carolina due to grades and a fast-food diet. He represents Beacon and in May spoke to its children to urge them to avoid those mistakes.

BEACON, NY — Dogtown.

Stray hounds once filled Beacon, long before New Yorkers hopped on 90-minute trains to visit its brick-adorned Main Street. Restaurants of diverse origins line the same stretch as the local glass company. The old Yankee Clipper diner will soon host patrons from its new neighbor, an apartment rising nearby.

Yet tourists leave Chipotle behind in NYC. Prices are rising, but Beacon retains its feel. An old man greets kids as they cross. Josiah McCall and Trey Herring couldn’t walk down Main without seeing girls who questioned why they haven’t talked recently. The old-fashioned stretch, sandwiched between the Hudson River and Beacon Mountain, runs downhill toward Loopers Basketball Court: the town’s main event.

“If you play basketball and you’re from Beacon, that’s where you get your competitive edge from,” said McCall, Elijah Hughes’s friend and former teammate. “Everybody goes to the games. Your family is out there, all your friends. You don’t want to go out there and get embarrassed. So you got to go out there and put on your best show.”

The outdoor court molded Hughes’s basketball fixation. It put a three-star recruit in position to compete for the ACC scoring title with the Syracuse Orange. Before he faces Virginia on Wednesday in pursuit of that, it brought him home, to speak to Beacon’s children. Ones he hopes avoid mistakes he made.

Main Street in Beacon, NY.
Bobby Manning

Quincy Guerrier showed up to Syracuse’s summer practices in preparation for a trip to Italy in Spongebob-themed Kyrie 5s. They impressed Hughes, the Orange’s resident sneaker-head. Elijah wouldn’t wear them himself — they don’t fit his feet right — but he loves them.

Hughes instead fills his locker with Kobe 4s, 6s, LeBrons and he never lacks Jordans. The monthly check he receives from Syracuse often begins his next search for size 14s. His obsession took off when he boarded at South Kent High School during his senior year.

“It’s just out of control,” said McCall. “Every time you look he’s got a new pair of sneakers.”

Elijah’s father, Wayne Hughes, remembers his son taking off his shoes during car rides and tossing them at the windshield from the back seat at two-years-old. Wayne and Penny Hughes arrived in Beacon in 1994. Their house, where they raised seven kids, once filled with noise every day. Each child required distinct parenting styles, but all the siblings loved Elijah. So much that Penny had to stress precaution against an outside world that would challenge him more.

Hughes’s parents started him in CYO basketball. Talah, Elijah’s older sister by two years, thrived most among the family’s athletes. A parent suggested to Wayne that she should play AAU, so he contacted Kenney Dawson, a coach in nearby Poughkeepsie. Elijah joined Dawson’s team as a throw-in. He found his passion.

“He just likes playing basketball,” McCall said. “So any opportunity we’re like ‘you hooping?’ He like, ‘alright we hooping.’”

Wayne drove Elijah all over as he connected with people that opened doors to play basketball. He didn’t remember an athletic or physically gifted child, but Hughes’ basketball IQ stuck out. He could naturally read defenses. Wayne invested in home exercises and whatever else would improve Hughes’ athletic stature.

Talah and Elijah teamed up with McCall in the Beacon Hoops league at Loopers. She would score 1,000 points for Saint Peter’s while earning her master’s degree. Looper’s double rims and half-moon backboards tested even the best players. Under the lights, Hughes hit a game-winner at an all-star game in front of his dad, coaching on the sideline.

“I did the Kobe fist pump,” Hughes said. “I almost punched my dad in the face by accident. Because he was right there, I didn’t know.”

Elijah Hughes in Syracuse’s preseason scrimmage.
Bobby Manning

People around Beacon were only beginning to hear about Hughes’s talent then. Scott Timpano gained a job coaching junior varsity at Beacon High School when the previous coach won the mayoral election. Tom Powers, the varsity coach, alerted Timpano about a 6’0” eighth-grader.

So Timpano watched the lanky teenager perform at Beacon High’s open gym. Chubby cheeks and baby fat deceived Timpano. By the middle of the junior varsity season, he told Hughes he saw no limit to his potential. Hughes mostly shot corner threes to begin the season, then assumed a dominant on-ball role against a rival.

A few years earlier, Hughes wanted an expensive pair of shoes. Wayne promised he would buy them when Elijah made varsity. His performance that year nearly landed him his reward before high school. Within a year, he donned Easter KD 4s.

“Early in high school, I feel like that’s when he was really a point guard,” Herring, Hughes’ friend since ninth grade, said. “When he went to Kennedy, he became more of a scorer. I feel like he got that assassin mentality at Kennedy and South Kent.”

“Now he think he’s Ray Allen or something,” McCall added. “He wants to shoot mad threes. He’s gone through mad different phases.”

Timpano believes deeper playoff runs with Beacon would’ve boosted Hughes’ credentials sooner as he grew toward 6-foot-6. They lost in the sectional playoffs twice. Timpano proposed a trip Syracuse’s basketball camp to receive feedback on his players while visiting family and friends. He graduated from SU and constantly brought gear to his classes and practices. Timpano would even slip Jim Boeheim in-bound plays into film sessions.

Elijah Hughes will lead the Orange offense in 2019-20.
Bobby Manning

That supplemented Hughes’s Syracuse fandom, already driven by watching Big East games. Wayne loved Georgetown for John Thompson and Patrick Ewing. Elijah grew up on Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn. It didn’t take long for him to decide to join Timpano’s trip.

“I actually have a picture with Boeheim from the (camp),” Hughes said. “I was one of those kids. I averaged 15 per game and Coach Red was there, recognized me, invited me to Elite Camp which was that following weekend.”

Hughes competed on the same floor as Frank Howard, Tyler Lydon, Malachi Richardson and Matt Moyer. Shoo-ins for scholarships, nationally-touted prospects like Cam Reddish and the eventual core of a Syracuse Final Four team served as inspiration that he belonged.

Timpano thought he outplayed Howard. Moyer received a scholarship at the event, but Hughes remained overlooked. Poor grades didn’t help. Neither did the giant chicken wing plates from Varsity and Dinosaur BBQ he ate during the trip.

Fast food, mac and cheese, soda and Buffalo Wild Wings were staples among Hughes and his Beacon friends. They still squeeze in a golden fingers wrap at Yankee Clipper — with chicken, bacon, cheese — during the offseason. Back then, Hughes didn’t pair his basketball promise with necessary complements to fill Division I shoes.

Shortly after their Syracuse trip, Hughes told Timpano he would transfer to Kennedy Catholic, nearly one hour from home. Wayne could drop him each morning on his way to IBM before taking him home at night. Hughes exploded as a scorer there, unloading on Jimmy Boeheim’s team in a tournament. Jim saw Hughes in the crowd that night, but Ken Potosnak already reached him.

“He looked to me like he could start at almost any program in the country,” Potosnak, the associate head coach at East Carolina, said.

Potosnak discovered Hughes while he coached at The Citadel. He attended Hughes’ 17-point performance against Cardinal-Spellman, following a tip from a local basketball development instructor, and deemed him an under-the-radar top-100 prospect. Hughes’ unselfish passing stuck out. When Potosnak joined ECU, so did his circumstances.

Hughes’s commute, competitive Kennedy classrooms and a new level of basketball damaged his academics. Potosnak viewed Hughes as someone with little margin for error regarding his grades.

He soon introduced the NCAA academic standards while meeting Hughes’s parents, SAT prep and the rest. They already knew. Talah thrived academically on her way to the NCAA, but the family carefully listened to Potosnak’s academic plan for Elijah.

“It wasn’t because of lack of effort,” Wayne said. “I think it was just the ability to understand how he needed to learn.”

Hughes attended South Kent in Connecticut during senior year to situate his grades. That wouldn’t be enough. He needed to forgo basketball evaluations in July to attend summer school. Jeff Lebo, ECU’s head coach, and Potosnak gave Hughes four tips: go to all classes and study halls, be on time, emphasize courses and SAT prep and do your own coursework.

Hughes’ senior year demanded new levels of maturity. All-Americans joined him on the court. Daily responsibilities at the boarding school forced him to grow up. He called his mom after every dinner for four weeks.

“It was only an hour away, but it was an all-boys school,” Hughes said. “It was really disciplined, it was strict and that made it harder for me because it was in the middle of nowhere.”

Hughes couldn’t help but laugh as children shot during the Orange v. White scrimmage.
Bobby Manning

Hughes stepped into his former elementary school in May still feeling the stress of that catchup. He felt he owed it to Beacon to share with children the impact of not maintaining grades, because his family empowered him with basketball experiences they may not receive.

Grades may not seem like they matter early on, he told the kids at two elementary schools. But fourth grade establishes groundwork for the next, and so on. Without building that, succeeding later becomes twice as hard. Hughes signed and handed out sneakers at Sargent Elementary, then Timpano called asking him to visit South Avenue Elementary, a short hop from Loopers.

Fourth and fifth-graders clamored about Hughes’ full-court shot against Duke months earlier. A #FreeEli campaign gained him notoriety as he sat during Syracuse’s Sweet 16 run. Everybody in Beacon recognized Hughes.

“One of his dreams is to come back and build a rec center,” Penny said.

He’s the first player from Beacon to represent it fully, McCall says, and is still in the same group chat with his high school friends. It blew up with screenshots of an “ugly” close-ups as he appeared on national TV more.

East Carolina proved too far from that support. Hughes told Lebo and Potosnak that he would transfer after his freshman season. He left a thank you note for Jennifer Bonner and Erica Bowen, his academic advisors. His gracious departure, in spite of a frustrating season, still impresses Potosnak.

Before his first college game, Hughes felt pain in his foot. He pushed through to play East Carolina’s first two games, then could barely walk after a win over North Carolina A&T. Tests revealed a stress fracture, which knocked him out for a month.

He fell out of shape and struggled upon returning. Lebo left the team for surgery and interim coach Michael Perry reduced Hughes’ role. Potosnak doesn’t know why. Hughes blames himself.

“I wasn’t moving how I wanted to move and a part of that was because of my diet,” Elijah said.

Hughes wanted a winning environment that pushed him, with players better than him. Discipline issues and losing surrounded ECU, so he entered the transfer wire. A 35% shooting season did not lend him much momentum. But one team that lost four starters and remembered him from high school did not forget the potential they saw.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 01 UConn at East Carolina Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wayne had placed his phone on “in a meeting.” Hughes saw a 315 number pop up. Both answered, then heard Autry on the other line telling them Boeheim wanted Elijah.

“As soon as he called I knew it was going to happen,” Elijah said. “I knew I was going ... I took a few visits, but in the back of my head I knew.”

Hughes committed in May, facing a redshirt year where he transformed his body. He alerted his parents during trips home that junk food is off the table. The separation from the team and practices with walk-ons frustrated him. He didn’t feel part of the team.

McCall woke up to Elijah’s Snapchats, him already sweating hours earlier on the track. Hughes followed Ryan Cabile’s strength and food plan. It carved a physique that Boeheim raved would drive one of SU’s best offensive talents in recent memory.

His steadiness, matching his even-keeled facial expression, transformed the Orange on the wing. He hit 37% of his threes on a high volume shooting off Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett.

That success flipped McCall from a Duke to Syracuse fan. Potosnak watched proud, imagining how he’ll attend Hughes’ graduation one day. Timpano hosted a Duke-Syracuse watch party with his team.

Now the basketball world awaits the Hughes-led Orange. He’ll make plays on the ball and provide most of SU’s scoring. It’s a goofier locker room with him at the head. Robert Braswell — or “Earl” — and others try to avoid being clowned on his Instagram story. On Wednesday, that looseness tightens up. Beacon will watch him attempt to topple the defending champs.

”He wants to see Beacon come up as a whole,” Herring said. “He wants all the kids to have the opportunities that he did.”

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