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Syracuse men’s basketball: the curious case of John Bol Ajak

JBA’s journey from unwanted commodity to unexpected contributor for the Orange

Oakland v Syracuse Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

At the beginning of the 2022-23 Syracuse Orange men’s basketball season, there were many questions about where much of the production on both sides of the ball would come from. With six freshmen joining the roster and no less than two starting jobs available, it seemed like getting them all meaningful minutes would be a challenge.

And nobody thought that junior John Bol Ajak would be in the mix.

Yes, the same John Bol Ajak that tried to transfer in 2021, then returned to Syracuse and was buried in the depth chart last season, has found himself in the unlikely position of earning significant time on the floor. And make no mistake: he has earned it.

Ajak has appeared in 10 of the 15 Orange games to this point, reaching double-digit minutes in half of them. SU has won eight of those 10 contests, including the last seven. It’s no secret that JBA isn’t a scorer, but he has excelled in nearly every other aspect of play this season - and the advanced stats prove it.

According to Stats-Reference, Ajak has filled the distributor role on offense extremely well. He is averaging a team-best 6.6 assists per 40 minutes. Judah Mintz and Symir Torrence are next in line with 5.3, so the gap is pretty wide. It’s estimated that Ajak assisted on over 25% of teammates’ made field goals while he was in. This shows that during his playing time, JBA is working the wings better than anyone else on the Orange roster, setting up the main scorers like Mintz and Jesse Edwards for opportunities inside the paint and working the backdoor play with Joe Girard.

He’s also one of the better rebounders on this Syracuse squad, outpacing every SU starter except Jesse in total rebounds/40 (8.0). Additionally, he’s grabbing about 10% of all available second chances on the offensive side of the ball. That’s something that is very underappreciated for a program that has struggled mightily on the boards in recent years.

One final stat to look at is JBA’s win shares/40, which essentially evaluate how much a player’s complete skill set contributes to the team’s performance. For context, an “average” player contributes .1 win share/40, and Ajak is just above that at .105 (take away Louisville, where he played a whopping one minute, and it jumps to .116). By comparison, Benny Williams has the exact same rating, and JBA is significantly higher than starter Chris Bell’s .071.

I realize this may just sound like cherry-picking stats - but these are categories that NBA scouts rely on to evaluate talent, so they do mean something. John Bol has his limitations, but in a season of uncertainty, it’s nice to see him embracing a role that few others would. Add in the fact that he seems to really enjoy being at Syracuse, as he’s supported other teams on campus before, as well as his past charitable contributions, and you’ve got some legitimate reasons to cheer on #2 for the rest of the season.