With the official announcement that Syracuse Orange 1st-team All-ACC player Elijah Hughes will enter the NBA Draft process we can turn our attention to the 20-21 Syracuse team. How will the Orange look to replace their leading scorer when they take the court next November?
Last year at this time, we wondered who would step up and replace the scoring of Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard. It was Hughes who moved his game forward going from 13.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game to 19 points and 4.3 rebounds per game this season. He also more doubled his assists per game finishing with 3.4 in 19-20 up from 1.5 the prior season. Elijah was four assists away from leading the Orange in scoring and assists on the season which means Syracuse has to replace him in a number of areas next year so let’s break those down.
Scoring and Playmaking
Not only was Hughes the leading scorer in the ACC, but he was the best Orange player in a multitude of situations according to the Synergy Sports stats. Making up the 19 points per game is the easy part, but it’s likely going to require some different offensive looks. Hughes was the best Syracuse player on spot-up jumpers, on post-up opportunities and in isolation, He was lethal in transition and without him Syracuse could struggle getting open perimeter shots.
A projected starting line-up of Joseph Girard III, Buddy Boeheim, Marek Dolezaj, Quincy Guerrier and Bourama Sidibe lacks spacing and will mean that teams will be able to play up on Girard and Boeheim, especially in pick and roll situations. As I mentioned on last week’s podcast, one counter to this would be to run the offense through Dolezaj at the top of the key with Girard and Boeheim being able to play on the wings and be in better position.
How exactly would that look? We saw some examples during the ACC portion of the season, but check out this video from SBNation’s Golden State of Mind to see some examples of Draymond Green running the Warriors offense last season
Next year’s Syracuse team will stay maintain a size advantage on most opponents. The ability of Dolezaj to pull a defender from the lane and with the threat of Boeheim/Girard on the perimeter that should open up the floor. This can allow for post-up opportunities for Sidibe or Guerrier (plus Jesse Edwards or Boeheim when matched by a smaller defender). These two players shot above 70% at the rim last year so there’s opportunities to get them more assisted shots close to the basket.
As you watch the above video you can see pieces of Dolezaj’s game which should make a shift to primary ball-handler a little easier. He showed this year the ability to push in transition to create opportunities at the rim for himself and teammates as well the high basketball IQ and half-court passing skills to lead the Orange in assists during ACC play.
Dolezaj as a point forward could especially help Girard who was most effective as both a spot-up shooter and pick and roll ball handler. Playing the two man game with Dolezaj could open room for Girard to step into shots or get to the foul line. Since both Girard and Boeheim ranked in the 30th percentile in the country in isolation plays I don’t think Syracuse can go with that familiar approach next season and be effective.
Now there are certainly opportunities for Robert Braswell, Kadary Richmond or Woody Newton to emerge as perimeter threats but it looks like Syracuse would benefit from continuing the second-half trend of getting the ball in the paint as often as possible.
Defense and Rebounding
Synergy only rated Hughes as an average defender so the Orange might find it easier to replace him on this side of the ball. While Elijah was second on the Syracuse team in defensive rebounds on the season Quincy Guerrier had much higher rebounding numbers per 40 minutes (10.4 to 5.4). Fans will remember Hughes coming from behind to block shots at the rim but his block total was fourth on the team this season.
Guerrier’s going to need to improve his awareness in the zone as he was frequently called out by Jim Boeheim for being out of position which is an area where Hughes’ experience helped. If Guerrier can make quicker decisions on the wing and avoid fouls he should be able to offset what Hughes did defensively for Syracuse.
In his limited time Braswell has shown a knack for using his length and athleticism to generate steals so he can provide a presence in the zone and on the Orange full-court press. He and Newton could provide Syracuse will more wing depth than this season and help to provide more transition opportunities for the offense.
There are no stats to display a player’s ability and/or willingness to lead. Hughes stepped out of a support role in 2019 to assume the pressure of making the Syracuse team go. He faced the best opponent defender and was tasked with playing heavy minutes and the lead scoring/playmaking role. He’s also the only Syracuse starter departing so the Orange bring back a veteran core that should not require as much individual leadership.
While Boeheim and Girard show no fear of taking big shots in late-game situations, they will also face more pressure from opposing defenses. Jim Boeheim will need to look for late-game alternatives which are more than spreading the floor and letting Hughes take his defender one on one from up top. The coach will need to find more off-ball screens and player movement to score in these scenarios.
Even Orange fans who questioned Hughes’ ability to deliver in the clutch this season will have to admit that having the ball in his hands late gave Syracuse chances against ACC opponents. It will take a group effort next year for the Orange to be as competitive as they were this season.