PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — What a difference a year makes. Or, in this case, what a difference a day makes.
Syracuse Orange men’s basketball center Jesse Edwards scored a career-high 21 points on 9-11 shooting in his team’s 92-84 win over Arizona State, a stark contrast from one day prior in which he fouled out in just 15 minutes against VCU. Edwards, the 6-foot-11 center from the Netherlands, didn’t realize he scored a career-high until the game ended. He also tied a career-high in rebounds with eight.
“The key is Jesse is in there at the end, blocked a couple shots, finished a couple plays down there. We need to have him in the game. He was smarter tonight and really was a big factor in the game for us,” Jim Boeheim said in the post-game press conference.
Arizona State eventually cut Syracuse’s 18-point lead to just three possessions with its full-court press. Edwards helped keep the Sun Devils at bay late in the game with an offensive put-back and three point play to put Syracuse up 87-77 with 2:11 remaining. As he went to the charity stripe, Syracuse fans chanted his name as well as ‘M-V-P’ plaudits.
“He kind of wore us down,” Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley declared. “If they did break pressure he was the guy late in the clock making some things happen for them. He hurt us certainly down the stretch. I thought the inability to rebound and allowing him to dunk it a few times was a problem for us.”
So, a lot changed between Thursday and Wednesday when Edwards fouled out, but what’s changed in a year’s time where Edwards went from infrequently-used backup to Marek Dolezaj to now logging 35 minutes and becoming one of Boeheim’s most trusted players?
“He’s getting stronger. He was a factor last year. This team [Arizona State] is not a physical team so I think he had a big advantage out there. They’re smaller. He’s just moving better,” Boeheim said.
Edwards is still learning and adjusting to basketball, as evidenced by a late turnover in which he handed the ball to Joe Girard before he established position in the half-court. He didn’t pick up the game until he was 12 when he and his older brother Kai fell in love with LeBron James highlights. But Edwards’ potential was on display Thursday night with his long-reach and athleticism which produced a highlight of his own.
Career-high 13 for Edwards including this .— Syracuse Men’s Basketball (@Cuse_MBB) November 26, 2021
He's also got six boards and a pair of blocks. pic.twitter.com/cExgXJqz7B
“The one thing he has is that he can finish around the basket. He can do that. He’s got good hands. He can catch and finish. We’ve got to keep looking for him,” Boeheim added.
Given the defensive attention Syracuse’s shooters receive, there’s room on the interior for Edwards to operate without being double-teamed. On a few occasions, Buddy Boeheim looked into him and he scored.
“I guess it was just the opportunity,” Edwards said matter-of-factly. “I got the green light. They gave it a big space there, I just tried to take it.”
Edwards was a difference-maker in Syracuse’s win. Coming into the Arizona State game, he ranked third in the ACC is fouls committed per 40 minutes (KenPom). Syracuse might be more reliant on him that initially thought, making it all the more imperative he doesn’t foul.
“I just try to stay down more when they try to fake,” Edwards said of his strategy against ASU, adding that he didn’t want to be ‘jumpy’ because, “I know it’s important in late situations to not be giving away stupid fouls or easy points or racking up too many fouls.”
All in all, Edwards finished with his best performance in a Syracuse uniform. It was night and day from a season ago.
“Just seeing him the past four or five months, the progression that he’s made with his body, with his mentality, with his aggressiveness has been unbelievable to see so far,” Cole Swider said. “I think (for) Jesse this is just the beginning of his potential.”