Marek Dolezaj’s presence overtook the final moments of Syracuse’s win over Pittsburgh. The same way his absence demoralized the Syracuse Orange during their 71-70 loss to Clemson on Tuesday.
Dolezaj contributes everywhere for the Orange: as a center, wing defender, primary passer, secondary passer, rebounder and — more recently — a double-figure scorer. He immediately became a top hidden-gem of a find in SU history his freshman year and is scoring enough to join the ACC’s top role players in his third season.
“We’ve had a few guys who can do some of those things,” Jim Boeheim said, to put it lightly. “But he’s a really versatile player, plays center, plays forward, he handles the ball, takes it out.”
Since 1992-93, only Todd Burgan, Paul Harris and Ryan Blackwell averaged 10.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game as Dolezaj is.
The Orange missed his touches after Tevin Mack tagged him with his fourth foul while cutting on the back line. Boeheim, who ranks No. 40 in the country in two foul participation (KenPom), inserted Dolezaj not even three minutes later. Syracuse shot 0-for-3 with two turnovers in five possessions with him off the floor.
The Orange maintained offensively, shooting 5-for-11 after Dolezaj exited for good, but lost the closing stretch 16-14. Without him, they lost the in-bounding, bailout buckets and rebounding that helped Syracuse close a similarly close game against Pitt.
“Marek is our guy,” Elijah Hughes said. “I don’t know if we would have 10 wins without Marek. People disvalue him that don’t know basketball, but that’s fine. We know what he brings.”
“Coach and Elijah always tell me to be more aggressive and how they’ll have a tough time to defend me. It’s just really one-on-one for me” — Marek Dolezaj
Each game day, roughly an hour before tip-off, Dolezaj, Bourama Sidibe and Jesse Edwards join a shorts-clad Adrian Autry to work on touch around the rim. They spin, post-up, turn and flick the ball off their wrists repeatedly.
The habit intrigued me, considering Dolezaj and Sidibe have posted-up 63 times all season. What was the point?
It became evident in Dolezaj’s scoring resurgence. While he rarely attempts traditional post-up possessions, he often drives or creates space with his back to the basket. His improved touch in those situations helped him return to scoring 10 points each game after a season where he averaged only 4.1 PPG.
“We shoot a lot, he and me personally, we try to get up about 300 makes every day,” Autry said.
With Boeheim shutting down Dolezaj’s three-point shot, he needed extra touch around the rim to score and found it. Autry prefers him in face-up situations, where he can navigate into that shot.
“I thought the big key was Elijah’s drive, when he got it all the way there and missed, Marek was right there because his man was helping and he got it and put it back in” — Jim Boeheim
Dolezaj and Sidibe break free often while opposing defenses face-guard either Hughes or Buddy Boeheim, with Joseph Girard III drawing additional pressure too. The same goes on rebounds, where defenders that move over to help on drives leave Syracuse’s bigs open for put-backs.
Most of Sidibe’s offense comes from those and Dolezaj has his share too, none bigger than his one against Pittsburgh with 1:44 remaining. Pittsburgh scored on nine straight possessions in the second half to reach within 61-58. Quincy Guerrier missed a pair of free throws, Hughes drilled a layup in traffic and then missed a shot in the lane.
“I was in the right spot at the right time,” Dolezaj said. “My defender went somewhere.”
In conference, Dolezaj averages over 8.4 rebounds per game (4th in ACC) while Sidibe grabs 6.3 each night despite the weight of 4.4 fouls in those games. Guerrier averages 6.0 rebounds, part of an Orange team that ranks third in rebounding in 10 conference games.
This massive issue from earlier in the season is mitigated when Dolezaj and Sidibe share the floor. That didn’t happen late against Clemson due to foul trouble and the Tigers racked up 11 offensive rebounds in their win.
Primary and secondary passing
“When I recruited him, on the Slovakia National Team, in the European championships, he played the point. His vision and his feel, I had a chance to see that” — Adrian Autry
It feels like the only time Sidibe can get a pass into the low post, it’s coming from his fellow big man Dolezaj. In a recent sample stemming back to Jan. 7, Dolezaj assisted five of Sidibe’s last 13 makes.
Since Syracuse doesn’t run much pick-and-roll, using Dolezaj as a secondary outlet at 6’10” counteracts aggressive shifts by the defense on SU guards. Dolezaj uses his height, free space and feel to find space left open by defensive overreactions. With Syracuse’s smaller guards, he gives them an outlet to move off the ball or react to traps.
“He always makes the right play,” Hughes said. More succinctly, Oshae Brissett once called him Magic Johnson.
Though Syracuse doesn’t opt to have him generate offense directly at the point often, he can play the top of the three-point arc and find cutters. Hughes and him haven’t connected on their favorite back-line cut play recently, so they’re due for one soon.
Taking the ball out-of-bounds
“We’re fortunate that Marek’s really good there. He waited and waited on Elijah and then he got the long pass. That’s what we’re looking for there” — Jim Boeheim
Pittsburgh nearly forced Syracuse to play the free throw game on Saturday. Hughes missed a three and Justin Champagnie scored for a second straight time on the baseline. Back within three, the Panthers pressed having already picked off Boeheim and Dolezaj when they pulled the extra pressure out down 13 points.
Trey McGowens covered Hughes on the in-bounds, so Hughes drew up a route in his head and ran it. It took several moments for him to break free, as Dolezaj eyed him.
“I was kind of scared they were going to call five-seconds,” Dolezaj said.
The refs didn’t and Dolezaj launched the pass to an open Hughes, free to slam home a dunk for a five-point lead with less than one minute remaining. It’s an underrated area of his game Syracuse missed late against Clemson, turning to Girard and Howard Washington to in-bound two critical passes to Hughes with under 10 seconds left that didn’t turn into points.
Face-up and use of body on smaller defenders
“His freshman year, he was kind of a timid little skinny dude. He would get in the mud here or there, but he was just so timid, he was shy. He’s playing with aggression now, he’s talking a little smack here or there ... he has a little Slovakian accent, it’s funny” — Elijah Hughes
When Dolezaj took Gerald Drumgoole and Tevin Mack to the bucket on face-ups in back-to-back games because the two could not matchup with him height-wise, Dolezaj’s aggression transformed his season. Not many wings stand at 6’10” and players that big don’t share his speed.
“People don’t understand how fast and quick he is. He can make one or two dribbles in the lane, and he has great touch,” Autry said. “Especially when he goes to the five, that’s a hard matchup for a lot of teams.”
Dolezaj threw in some fake passes, shots and used his body in the lane to create contact and reach the free throw line this season. His 103 attempts at the line already shattered his freshman mark of 76, though he needs to convert more than 69.9%.
Oakland warned its defenders early in the season to avoid Dolezaj’s fakes. He draws 4.9 free throws each game and with a better touch isn’t solely relying on contact to get bailed out by referees. Dolezaj scores through players too.
The Dolezaj growth curve remains enormously fun to watch. He’s far from perfect: the back line remains a problem with him at center, the three disappeared from his arsenal along with his stroke at the line. Though his mind supersedes those deficiencies, making him the x-factor in how far the Orange go.
“Traditionally we’ve had 6’9”, 6’10” guys who can put it on the floor and make plays,” Autry said. “I just think he’s different. He still has that European flavor to him.”