In the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball NCAA Tournament game against Baylor last season, Elijah Hughes offered a glimpse into the future of what was to be of his time in Orange. The then-sophomore poured in 25 points on 6-11 shooting from outside to go along with 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 block.
The 2018-19 season ended in that first round against the Bears, but Hughes showed why he would turn into the leader of the team the following season. Tyus Battle declared for the NBA Draft as soon as the season concluded. Frank Howard had exhausted his eligibility and while Oshae Brissett reserved his right to return to Syracuse, he ultimately decided to turn pro.
As Jim Boeheim does at the end of every season, he met with his players in May and gave them an honest assessment.
“Get ready to fill some big shoes,” Boeheim told Hughes.
Hughes heeded that advice. During the summer it became clear that he would be the leader of this 2019-20 squad and he turned to his assistant coaches at SU for guidance on how to lead.
“I’ve had a lot of sit downs with Griff and Gerry and (Autry). Just talking about little things where I can help guys here and there. That’s really helped me take that jump to leadership. They were all leaders on their teams when they played here. They know. It’s easier to talk to coaches when you know they’ve been in your shoes before.”
Hughes didn’t stop there. He also sough advice from his inner circle, including the leaders from last year’s team.
“I’ve also talked to Tyus (Battle) and Frank (Howard) and Oshae (Brissett). Oshae’s like my best friend. We talk every day.”
Hughes has answered the bell for Syracuse this season. He’s scored in double-figures in every game thus far. He’s currently the second-leading scorer in the ACC at 19.8 points per game, trailing only Louisville’s Jordan Nwora (20.2 ppg).
But the kid out of Beacon is doing much more than just putting the ball in the bucket. Last game he finished just one rebound and one assist shy of the first triple-double at Syracuse since Allen Griffin accomplished the feat in 2001.
“Elijah is doing a great job moving the ball, making plays. I mean 19, 9, 9 rebounds. I mean he was close to a triple-double. He’s playing great,” Boeheim said after the Niagara game.
“He’s a great leader. He’s doing everything for us,” Marek Dolezaj said seriously, before striking a sarcastic undertone. “He’s scoring, he’s passing, first time he’s rebounded the ball.”
When asked why he wears No. 33, Hughes says there’s no particular reason. That is before he segues into a mention of former Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, citing his versatility.
“Scottie Pippen kind of did it all. Not that I compare myself to him, but just a guy I look at.”
Maybe their playing styles differ, but Hughes has done it all for Syracuse. He’s played the from forward spot and even the point for stretches at a time. He’s a heady defender within the 2-3 zone and at 6-foot-6, he punches above his weight class in the blocked shots department. He’s scored with the best of them, while being unabashed in doing the dirty work.
The numbers speak for themselves: Hughes is averaging 19.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 41.2 percent from deep. No other player in the country is putting up the kind of numbers he is.
Hughes has been Syracuse’s leader in more ways than one. Following multiple racist and anti-Semitic incidents on the Syracuse University campus in November, Hughes stepped forward.
Syracuse students protested. Some made their voices heard by boycotting Syracuse basketball games. During protests at the Barnes Center, Hughes showed up alongside Jim and Buddy Boeheim to offer support.
He also made efforts to support the #NotAgainSU movement. Hughes told Syracuse.com’s Chris Carlson that he talked with student protestors and came up with the idea of wearing #NotAgainSU t-shirts during warmups.
Hughes then approached his head coach about the idea. Once Jim Boeheim gave the green light, he pitched the idea to his teammates.
It didn’t take much convincing. The team came out with them in warmups against Cornell.
After Syracuse lost Penn State in the Preseason NIT, Hughes called a team meeting. With two straight losses and a 4-3 record, a dour mood hovered over the Syracuse locker room like a dark cloud.
Hughes felt the need to rally the troops. So he called a team meeting.
“Just getting our spirits back up, two losses at our second home that’s not really good. Everyone was kind of down, in bad spirits. So just getting everyone back up,” Hughes divulged.
The intent was clear and the message was simple. Hughes closed by saying, “Let’s go practice. Let’s compete and get better.”
Teammates say that Hughes has a good balance to him. He has an easy-going, jovial personality. He frequently jokes and busts chops off the court. He knows when to keep things light and when to turn it on and be serious. Freshman guard Brycen Goodine says he respects Hughes, but that he’s not the type of austere leader that others are intimidated by.
“He’s a guy that likes to laugh,” Goodine says. “It’s always fun being around him. And when it’s time for business he knows the difference.”
Hughes is the veteran on this senior-less Syracuse squad. As a redshirt junior, Hughes has the most experience on this team. He began his college career at Eastern Carolina in the 2016-17 season and transferred to Syracuse the following year.
With four years of college basketball experience (while playing three), the freshmen have looked to Hughes for guidance on the struggles of adjusting to high level college basketball.
“He’s talking all the time but when you do something bad or something wrong, he’s going to tell you and try to help you up,” Dolezaj says of his junior forward counterpart. “He’s trying to help you to improve, the younger guys like Quincy (Guerrier), Jesse (Edwards), they need a little help. They need to know how coach is, you know, he’s going to yell. He’s going to do this. But the younger guys need help.”
“He’ll try to give me confidence when I’m out there. He’ll say ‘Yo, do your thing! I know you can do it.’ It makes me prepared to play when I’m out there. It makes me feel better,” Goodine said.
Hughes has coaxed the freshmen along. After all, he can empathize.
“I was a freshman before too so I can understand it. I wouldn’t say struggling, but they’re just going through freshman (things). It’s all mental, being a freshman it’s literally just all mental. I know it’s hard for them, (the) transition from being that guy in high school to coming here and being where they are at Syracuse. But that’s a process. They gotta understand that and they’re learning,” Hughes said.
Outside of Syracuse, Hughes has managed all of this under the radar. An 8-5 record is wont to deter viewership, but its seems like it’s only a matter of time before people catch on. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hughes’s name to start circulating in the nba draft discussion.
“Not many people had him on their list before the year. He’s just a great player. He’s a lot of fun to play with,” Buddy Boeheim said. “I don’t think anyone else can do what he does.”
There might not be another player in the ACC as versatile as Hughes. At best, he’s put himself in position for ACC Player of the Year. Syracuse would have to have have a top finish in the ACC as the league doesn’t usually give that award to players on middle of the pack teams. But only Nwora and Vernon Carey Jr. would be above Hughes in the running as it stands now. At worst, Hughes is currently an All-ACC first-team player.
Conference play could change that. But if you ask his teammates, there’s little doubt that they think Hughes is one of the better players in the country.
“He’s our guy. ... We know he’s going to make plays and be the player he his. We trust him every night to go out and do that. He’s a special player. He’s really one of the better forwards in the country, one of the better players in the country,” Buddy Boeheim finished.