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Elijah Hughes exceeded expectations as Syracuse men’s basketball’s leader

Hughes, who’s NBA-bound, scored double figures in all but the two games he was injured in, boosting the Orange above .500 through one of their roughest seasons in recent memory.

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Tournament-Syracuse vs North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Josiah McCall couldn’t recognize his former teammate Elijah Hughes’s game when his town of Beacon, N.Y. gathered to watch nationally televised games during Hughes’ first season playing for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team.

McCall knew his face, though — “ugly,” as he’d jokingly text in his hometown group chat whenever the HD cameras zoomed in on Hughes’s mug. He first saw it when Penny, Elijah’s mother, babysat McCall as a toddler. Hughes and McCall eventually teamed up to play CYO hoops.

“It was hell to get the ball from him,” McCall remembered in August 2019. “He wasn’t trying to give that up to nobody... now he think he Ray Allen or something. He wants to shoot mad threes. He’s gone through mad different phases.”

The people who have known Hughes longest witnessed him go from a ball dominant scoring role as a child to a pure point guard in 10th grade. He played off the ball alongside Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett six years later, shooting 6.9 threes per game compared to 3.9 inside the arc — the Orange’s catch-and-shoot specialist.

Departures raised uncertainty. How would Syracuse’s top remaining scoring threat thrive? With Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard all gone, he would be forced to dribble, pass and garner more defensive attention.

It didn’t matter — Hughes led the ACC in scoring (19.0 PPG), matched his 2018-19 true shooting percentage (56%) despite the additional attention, and dished nearly two more assists per game. The conference named him to its First Team, another seamless transition to a new role that’ll send Hughes to his next adjustment: the NBA.

Hughes’s career arc was a strange one while on the hill.

During his first season — a mandatory redshirt as an East Carolina transfer — he practiced with the walk-ons and felt distant. He knew he could provide shooting as the Orange surged toward Omaha and the Sweet 16, where they faced Duke starving for offense averaging fewer than 60 points.

He joined the same team, only Howard and Brissett regressed with Hughes’s scoring unable to make up the difference. He provided 25 points in the NCAA Tournament against Baylor — a team that turned out to under-perform in the regular season too given its AP No. 1 status the following season.

“I’ve always had a stroke. No matter where I am on the court,” he said. “I had a lot of space, a lot of shots to take. So most of my shots were threes. But I’ve been working on putting the ball on the floor and making plays for myself and others.”

That sparse attention Hughes received ramped up as he reminisced in August. Once overlooked at the same tryout that Howard, Matthew Moyer and Cam Reddish participated in at the Dome, every team preview read the Orange would go as far as the player they passed on as a high schooler would take them.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Soon, goofy videos emerged, “duh duh duh” dubbed over Hughes zooming in on Robert Braswell on his Instagram stories. No teammate was safe from the clowning. Hughes’s subtle humor engulfed the room, yet his commitment to the game provided a singular stability the team hadn’t had recently.

“You use your voice a little more,” Hughes said. “Understanding what you’re doing is being watched, whether it’s on the court or off the court. So you’re just being mindful of that. If I’m acting a fool off the court, other guys think it’ll be cool to act a fool.”

The guitar-strum celebrations flowed and staredowns met any roaming cameras. No opponent let that fool them. As The Athletic’s Matthew Gutierrez then reported, Oakland’s scouting supported Hughes’s claim about shooting from anywhere. He never topped his iconic shot from 2019 in the Duke upset that proved that range.

Three defenders stood around him 75 feet from the basket, as he launched a calculated shot that had to avoid the scoreboard overhead. It swished, three points in a four-point win.

Hughes defined himself instead by his steadiness in 2020. The Orange likely would’ve finished finished 13-8 in ACC play without his injuries against NC State and Miami. Elijah contributed heavily in every other game — still the best 6-foot-6 shot blocker I’ve seen — while building a top-25 (per KenPom) offense largely through himself, Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard III.

Wayne Hughes doesn’t remember his son ever being visibly angry. He became more frustrated over Elijah’s circumstances through portions of his basketball growth than Eli did, who would exude the mantra what can we do? That same energy played for the highs. Hughes followed his best performances asking what’s next.

So it’s no surprise he’s grasping the opportunity to play professional basketball after one of the best individual Orange seasons this century. Coach Boeheim — usually deterring his non-draft-lottery-bound players from moving on — simply threw up a “Hail Mary” this time: they’d win the ACC with him back.

That’s difficult to believe given how this past season went, with transfers leaving and replacements sparse. Hughes maintains an open mind to returning whether the NBA Draft process yields results he deems unfavorable. That’s also unlikely given not only his broad range of skills, but front offices growing more interested in habits and personality types.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Several yards from his locker room, students piled into SU’s new Barnes Center to lead a protest against Syracuse’s response to racist graffiti in November. Other players didn’t notice it, or avoided the issue, while the elder Boeheim initially defended the university.

Hughes, along with Jim’s son Buddy acknowledged what was happening on their campus. If he wasn’t playing, Hughes said, he’d be in Barnes with them. Days later, Hughes and Buddy walked into Barnes alongside Coach Boeheim to address the protestors.

If that all didn’t encapsulate his career at SU, Hughes’s finale against the Tar Heels did. With the specter of coronavirus overhead, Elijah drained two shots in the lane in 30 seconds that put Syracuse up by 20 on UNC before halftime.

Fans stretched their arms out to high five him as he hit the locker room, but Hughes clenched his arms to avoid them. Less than 24 hours later, the ACC cancelled its tournament — Hughes’s SU career ending in a victory that lacked finality. His reaction on Twitter (a simple “wow”) seemed to say it all... about both the circumstances and his final minutes in an Orange jersey.