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Marek Dolezaj back to form at perfect time for Syracuse men’s basketball

Marek resembled the aggressive playmaker he was late in his freshman year against North Florida. One who can score and create on what’s emerging as a top-tier NCAA offense.

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Syracuse Richard Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s looking to screen and find open shots to make plays,” Greg Kampe alerted the Oakland Golden Grizzlies before they faced Syracuse.

Not many Syracuse Orange players received glowing reviews from Kampe in his scouting report, but he emphasized staying alert on Marek Dolezaj. Don’t dare him to shoot. Don’t fall for the fakes. Still, Dolezaj fell under the poor free throw shooters category — still a threat to pass more than score.

Kampe’s squad largely kept Dolezaj under wraps, allowing him nine points in 38 minutes. Others haven’t had luck as he’s emerged as a player more reminiscent of the aggressive double-figure scorer that helped drive the 2018 Orange deeper into March Madness.

Dolezaj’s numbers slipped last year as he returned to the bench, now he might be the wild card if Syracuse improbably returns to the tournament

He hopped into the high post midway through the second half against North Florida and carved the Ospreys on the ball. “Magic Johnson” returned, finding Elijah Hughes on the baseline to get him to the free throw line twice in what was a tie game. Dolezaj dished eight assists, grabbed five rebounds and recorded three steals alongside 17 points.

The three-pointer has largely disappeared from his game. Jim Boeheim called for him and Quincy Guerrier to stop shooting them to avoid wasting possessions. Dolezaj’s 1-for-6 outside this season after shooting 38% on 29 tries last year. Perhaps an off-season finger injury factored into that regression, though his free throw struggles to begin this season stretched back to last year when he shot under 60% at the line. Before his recent string of scoring, he was 15-of-28 (53.6%) on free throws through six games.

That’s where he needed the most work and it became the basis of his resurgence. Dolezaj began using pump-fakes on his movements toward the rim to draw contact. Four free throw attempts followed against Iowa, then six against Georgia Tech, and he’d drill eight of them.

A simpler approach, shooting closer to the basket, while focusing on drawing contact and getting easy points at the line opened up his game. He shot 50% or better from the field over SU’s last six through Saturday.

He’s averaging 12.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists through that stretch. Though he also fouled out of three of the games, reaching three fouls in two others, a problem belaboring Syracuse’s front court.

Dolezaj has held down center of late when Bourama Sidibe struggled or ran into his own foul issues. Guerrier and Dolezaj played while SU extended to a double-digit lead late against Oakland. While he’s averaged 1.7 steals per game recently and his 97 defensive rating falls in line with last year, minutes at center bring more physical matchups and potential for fouls.

He played over 17 minutes inside against UNF and roughly 10 minutes against Oakland. The recent emergence of Jesse Edwards should help. Boeheim praised Edward’s practices after the UNF win, though said the perimeter-oriented matchup made it difficult to play him in that game.

Buddy and Joseph Girard III received passes through the high post as part of the critical run that extended the Orange from what a game within several possessions all night Saturday. They converted a pair of threes and ultimately held on by 12 after Dolezaj left with over five minutes left due to fouls. Guerrier and Sidibe attacked the offensive boards to secure victory.

“We trust (Marek) every time we give him the ball to make plays,” Buddy Boeheim said

Dolezaj ranks in the 80th percentile for both his half-court and transition possessions. He’s averaging 0.64 points per possession on his jump shots (16th percentile), but 1.26 (70th percentile) around the rim. On 150 possessions with him determining the final result of the play, Dolezaj has assisted on 34 of them with 1.36 points per possession (94th percentile).

Brilliant things happen when Dolezaj touches the ball. Including spin moves into dunks in transition. If there’s one thing that could get the Orange into March, it’s instituting a rule that he touches the ball at least once every possession.