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The Mad Professor: Jesse Edwards ready to make his mark with Syracuse basketball

Jesse Edwards prepares to make a leap as a junior as Syracuse’s starting center.

The Mad Professor never expected to be here. Growing up in the Netherlands, the sports interest wasn’t unlike most other countries in Europe in the sense that they were enraptured with soccer. That, and his two older brothers took a liking to tennis while he was sure he’d develop into a track and field star before eventually becoming a doctor.

But there’s another reason why Jesse Edwards, the starting center for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team, almost never made it to Syracuse or as a track and field star as he so hoped. He almost never made it to much of anywhere, really.

When he was 11 years old, the ever-curious Edwards wanted to know what those outlets in the wall were capable of. Is electricity a real thing? Sometimes Edwards’ spirit of inquiry got the best of him as he failed to see the hazards. So as he and his two older brothers, Rens and Kai, were playing darts one night, he decided to insert one of those sharp metal projectiles into the wall socket.

Nothing happened.

Then he put two darts into the socket.

The second time around Edwards electrocuted himself and out of surprise, he didn’t speak. He didn’t quite know what happened. Initially he thought Kai hit him.

The moments that followed were a blur for him. Kai witnessed the proceedings and informed his parents. Minutes later, a young Edwards collapsed on the floor and fainted. Soon after paramedics arrived on the scene and he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.

***

Jesse Edwards was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, to David and Simone Edwards. He grew up in a tight-knit, multi-cultural household as his Dutch mother and British father had three children together. Jesse was the youngest of three as eldest brother Rens and middle-child Kai helped him navigate through life. Kai describes his little brother as “an amazing person” who “really cares about his family and friends.”

Edwards’ grandparents are from the Caribbean and given Amsterdam’s diverse population, he grew to be open-minded and tolerant of others with various views. It made him curious about other cultures and he wanted to experience those cultures for himself. With his inquisitive nature, Edwards sometimes got himself into trouble.

“Growing up Jesse was kind of like, not in a bad way, but careless. Like he didn’t see the dangers,” Kai explains. “It’s a good thing in a certain way because he was enjoying, but he didn’t see dangers in certain things.”

Both parents wished the best for their youngest son. Edwards’ mom hoped that Jesse would find a life path in something he felt passionate about and enjoyed so he could reach his potential.

“I also hoped that he would be open-minded and respectful of others,” Says Simone Edwards. “I lived in America when I was a student so I also hoped that he would have lots of exciting experiences and adventures along the way worldwide.”

Edwards’ dad grew up in London with a heavy sports influence. He hoped all three of his sons would take an interest in sports as well. He also noticed that his youngest son had a sharp intellect from a young age and wished he would continue to advance that aspect of himself.

David, Jesse and Simone in the Carmelo K. Anthony basketball center (submitted photo)
The Edwards family during Syracuse basketball’s trip to Italy in 2019

“I always hoped that all three of my sons would enjoy playing sports and develop themselves as people that way,” David says. “Happily, they were all extremely talented in sports and Jesse excelled in multi-event athletics.”

From an early age, Jesse played tennis, golf and he also swam but he really took a liking to soccer and track and field. Basketball wasn’t even a thought.

“Not a lot of basketball growing up,” Jesse says. “I was into actually track and field a lot. Around 12, that’s when I started basketball for the first time. At that point I just did track and soccer pretty much. It was totally different.”

His older brothers played tennis but basketball wasn’t on their radar. That is until Kai discovered LeBron James highlights on Youtube when he was 13. He fell in love with basketball and decided to pick up a ball himself. Jesse soon followed.

“From that point on we all just started shooting around on courts. We had this one outdoor court and we’d go there and try to recreate what we saw,” Kai says. “He [Jesse] was around 12. We would just play together.”

A few years later, Kai moved on to play basketball at the Apollo Amsterdam club team when he was 14. Jesse tagged along and eventually earned a spot on the team too. David says Jesse’s potential was quickly recognized and encouraged.

Edwards was always the smallest player growing up competing with his brothers, which resulted in him having guard-like skills despite becoming an eventual big man. That might explain his soft touch around the rim and smooth shooting stroke despite his stature. As Edwards reached age 14, he hit a growth spurt that followed his start with the club team.

***

At age 17, Edwards started to make major strides with his club team while Kai was playing basketball at Northern Colorado. The year before, he took a visit with his mom to see Kai play and that’s when he started to have interest in college basketball. He was excited by the university setup and it motivated him to do well. Shortly after he hit another growth spurt.

“I came back that summer, he’d grown an insane amount,” Kai says. “And it was funny because he was talking to my coaches a little bit and they were like ‘just keep working hard’ and then two years later they were recruiting him. It’s crazy how quick it can shift. First he would’ve been super excited just to go to a school like I was at. Two years later he grew to 6-11 and was getting offers from a lot of places. It went really quick.”

Edwards continued to grow as a player and helped his Netherlands U18 team in winning a championship. He broke his wrist playing in the National semifinal, but was determined to play in the last game.

“The final was one week later but Jesse obtained permission from the doctor to play the final with a special brace.” David said. “He only touched a basketball for the first time again in that final but played a major role in helping his team to win the championship.”

Edwards speaks modestly of his determination: “I mean afterwards it’s definitely something I can be proud of when I look back. During it I was just focused on trying to win the game.”

European sports aren’t embedded into school or university the way they are in the United States, so the idea of playing prep school basketball in the states was initially foreign to Edwards. American prep schools started to reach out to him during that stretch.

He graduated from high school in the summer of 2018 and decided to do a post-graduate year in the U.S. He had Brewster Academy vying for his services, but he eventually decided to enroll at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It was then when his basketball recruiting profile took off. Within three months he received offers from Georgia Tech, Providence, and a few Ivy League schools, among others. It all happened fast.

He met Syracuse assistant coach Allen Griffin during that time and received an offer from Syracuse in February of 2019. At that juncture, Edwards didn’t have much of a sense on the Syracuse program or its history. He had no idea who Jim Boeheim was.

“The whole college traditions or big schools, like Syracuse or Boeheim, we didn’t know about it yet,” Kai said of he and his brother’s college basketball initiation.

Given the U.S. is six to nine hours behind Central European Time, it made watching American basketball difficult. College basketball wasn’t much of a thought.

“I just knew it was kind of big in the U.S. but it’s never something I… I used to watch NBA,” Edwards says. “Knowing about college, that wasn’t really until I came to the U.S. when I started learning about different conferences and all those things.”

Edwards scheduled a visit to Syracuse in April 2019. That trip all but sealed the deal. He met the coaching staff as well as the team. He fell in love with the Syracuse campus and the cavernous Carrier Dome. It felt like home — he committed days later.

***

Last season was particularly arduous for Edwards as a true sophomore. He was thrust into the backup center role when Bourama Sidibe went down with a torn meniscus in the team’s first game against Bryant. Suddenly, Edwards was playing center behind Marek Dolezaj.

He showed flashes of his potential. He had at least five rebounds in every game in which he played double-digit minutes. But sometimes he was caught out of position defensively and struggled to get out to corner 3-point shooters. Boeheim would yell and Edwards wanted nothing to do with it.

But he kept working hard with centers coach Allen Griffin. The two spent extra time together and Griffin helped Edwards with his conditioning. By the middle of ACC play Edwards was earning more playing time, yet his head coach said in multiple post-game press conferences that he still wasn’t ready.

“There were times for sure where it was tough,” Kai begins. “Because he felt like, ‘I’m probably the best option right now.’ So it was definitely challenging for him. It definitely helped him as well just because he gives you that extra anger and you want to prove yourself. But it also definitely added some tough times where he was like, ‘Damn, am I at the right place? Am I ever going to get my chance?’ But that’s kind of normal if two years go by and you don’t get a lot of playing time.”

In those times, Edwards sought advice from two former Syracuse centers: Roosevelt Bouie and Etan Thomas.

“They helped me a lot,” Edwards says. “With understanding when I had a rough time, when I wasn’t playing a lot.”

Edwards created a relationship with the two former Orange stars in his freshman year and he stayed in touch, seeking knowledge and wisdom. They gave advice on how to stay present and how to prepare for every game as if he would get meaningful minutes so when his number was called upon he’d be ready.

Edwards kept working and by the end of the season he was providing valuable minutes at center. He came on in the post-season and played an important role in Syracuse getting to the Sweet 16. When his chance came he seized the moment, recalling those tough times, remembering how hard he worked.

Syracuse v Houston
Edwards blocks a shot by Houston’s DeJon Jarreau
Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

“The end of the year definitely helped him and gave him great confidence going into this year just because at the end of the year he did get minutes and did get a chance,” Kai said. “Because I feel like if the year would’ve ended and he wouldn’t have played at all it definitely would’ve been tough, you know?”

Boeheim wanted more from Edwards in the early season, but he also suspected it would take time for him to develop.

“That would be expected from a guy that didn’t play much coming out of high school,” Boeheim said. “It just takes time for guys like that. Particularly big guys but especially guys that haven’t had a big (basketball) background.”

Edwards took what his head coach said last year as a lesson. He says the most important thing he’s learned from Boeheim is getting better at what you do every day.

“I would say it’s been a learning experience. It’s been a lot of ups and downs. Just becoming more of a whole player. In my mind, knowing that each and every day is just another day and you have to put in work. You can’t get too upset with yourself when you do bad and you can’t get too happy when you have a good game. It’s just becoming more professional, I guess, in a way about my game,” Edwards finished.

Syracuse v Houston Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When Edwards was a kid he wanted to become a doctor. As he reached his mid-teens, a working experience in an old folk’s home helped shape him, which led to him eventually picking a biotechnology major at Syracuse.

“Jesse worked in an old people’s home in Amsterdam as a volunteer when he was 16 for a summer. He served meals to the residents and sat down to eat with them. He was surprised to see how they would try to steal his and each other’s food. He learned how age impacts you and changes people particularly in terms of their mental capacity and understanding. That stimulated in his interest in biology and medicine,” Simone Edwards said.

Edwards was trying to get practical work experience and he says it’s a path he was trying to go down because he never thought basketball would lead anything serious.

“That was because I never really pictured me playing at a high level until it was really possible with Syracuse and IMG. Before that I was also really trying to become a doctor when I was younger. That was my main thing,” He said.

Because of his interests and a few other hobbies (more on that in a bit), Edwards earned a nickname from his old man.

“My dad would always call him The Mad Professor,” Kai revealed. “Science or medicine would be a great career path or something he can definitely do. When he gets into things or when he gets interested in things that’s when he’s really good at it. He’s a really smart guy.”

Edwards hopes to continue playing basketball when his time at Syracuse concludes, but science or medicine might be a path he wants to revisit later in life.

“That’s definitely something I want to follow up with after I’m done playing,” He says. “Right now basketball is the main thing.”

***

The extended time away from home has been difficult for Edwards, he admits. Growing up as the youngest in his family, he grew accustom to having his parents around and his two older brothers to show him the way. Such is part of growing up, but playing a demanding sport in another country adds another layer of difficulty.

In the time away, Edwards has found creative ways to keep in touch with loved ones through activities that he enjoys. He FaceTimes Kai frequently. He plays his dad in strategy games.

“I started playing piano a little bit since I was young,” Edwards divulged. “And chess.”

When he’s in Syracuse, Edwards will play chess against his dad online. On his own, he plays piano and keyboard. It’s become his favorite activity to engage in outside of basketball. When he has free time at Syracuse he’ll go back to his apartment to play his keyboard to disconnect from the stresses of everyday demands.

“Keyboard is what he really finds peace for him when he’s not practicing,” Kai says. “We practice a lot. We’re busy with basketball a lot. To have certain things that you like to do in your off-time to relax your mind is important.”

The Edwards family has a piano at home. In the summer time, it isn’t uncommon for Jesse to play some soothing tunes in the early day.

“It’s nice in the summer when we’re home and in the morning you’ll hear him play piano,” Kai continues.

He’s evolved in his time away as he’s been forced to rely on himself, to become more independent and more disciplined in school and basketball. Part of that process has been putting more focus on nutrition and executing in the weight room.

“He has learned a lot from his trainers at IMG and Syracuse about the approach needed to develop his body and fitness effectively in his role as an agile and athletic big man. He is also very interested in nutrition and his cooking skills are improving every day,” His parents say.

“It’s more like the frequency and when,” Jesse says. “Instead of the different things [foods], it was more important to eat on a regular scheduled basis because sometimes I would skip a meal.”

submitted photo
The Edwards family (from L-R: Kai, Rens, Simone, David and Jesse)
submitted photo

Edwards continued to work in the offseason and added weight to his frame. He also returned home to Amsterdam and spent time with his family. They went on a vacation to Greece. He regrouped with his Netherlands national team and practiced alongside his brother. It was a chance to reconnect as Kai plays basketball in Spain. He’s in second season with Tau Castellon in Valencia.

“To be able to live in the same house and drive to practice together, it’s crazy. We talk a lot about basketball being in different countries and continents and suddenly during the summer for a couple weeks just to be able to go practice together for the national team is always a cool experience. We enjoy that for sure,” Kai said.

Kai and Jesse with their Netherlands national team (submitted photo)

It’s also a chance for Jesse to continue to develop his basketball skills and knowledge. His coaches run a completely different different system than Syracuse. His Netherlands team plays man-to-man defense. Edwards focused on his body in the offseason to prepare for the upcoming year, to battle with the bigs in the ACC. He put on 10 pounds of muscle. “It’s not like I’ll lose control of my body,” He said. “It’s not a dramatic change.”

“Over the summer it was a lot more weight and body work,” He continued. “Maybe a little less skill work. Generally just good lifts. A lot more focused on what I eat, when I eat and how much. Some of the people I work with back home help me with that. So yeah, changing how I look at food and what I put into my body.”

When Edwards returned to Syracuse his improvement was noticed by coaches and teammates. Boeheim says he’s lightyears ahead of where he was last year and that he’s more aware of what he needs to do. His teammates believe he’s ready to be the starting center and to pick up where he left off last season.

“He’s just getting started,” Buddy Boeheim said. “I think his ceiling is as high as it could get. He’s ready to take that jump and build off what he did last year.”

”Now his junior year he’s really learning how to take care of himself off the court,” Kai says. “And that translates to on the court, being more mature, knowing how to act when you make mistakes. It’s like a project. Now it’s translating to him playing better on the court.”

As Edwards prepared for his junior season, he dyed his hair with a blonde stripe on one side of his head. He says he wanted to do both sides, but settled on getting one done. He liked it this way and affirms he’ll leave it for now. That’s not how Edwards would’ve outwardly expressed himself a year ago.

“He came in as a shy kid, very raw. Every day he’s been working hard. He’s one of the nicest guys around so you want to root for him,” Buddy Boeheim says. “You want to see him do well. He’s a great teammate. He has a smile on his face. Really caring, nice guy and he’s getting a lot better too. He’s got a ton of potential obviously with quick moves and finishing around the rim.”

“Jesse’s been a lot better just based off confidence,” Joe Girard added, his junior counterpart. “I think that’s a big thing about this game is confidence. I think the end of the year really helped him. When he got those minutes, he produced. That’s what he has to do. I think it’s obvious we’re going to have to rely on him this year even more so than last year.”

This is all part of the Edwards evolution, coming into his own and feeling more confident, more sure of himself. It’s hard to look back now and see how far he’s come, well before he picked up a basketball and was inserting darts into wall sockets.

“The dart story, looking back that was one of the ones where... damn that was really crazy,” Kai said. “My parents had to call the ambulance because his body was so tired from the shock. It took so much energy from him.”

It’s taken a lot of energy for the Mad Professor to get to this point, too. After years of experimenting, Edwards will be the one looking to shock others as he gives his Syracuse team a jolt.

For Syracuse basketball stories and updates, follow @NunesMagician and @JamesSzuba

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