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Syracuse men’s basketball: the x-factor players who will make or break the 2023-24 season

Keep an eye on these names moving forward.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There’s plenty of excitement surrounding the upcoming season for the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team as the program turns the page from the Jim Boeheim era to Adrian Autry.

Autry will have some on-court questions he’ll need to find some answers for as he and the rest of the Orange prepare for their 2023-2024 campaign, and part of that involves sorting through the current roster amid all the additions from the offseason.

The program will need to count on some of its returning players and incoming transfers to step up to the plate if the goal for Syracuse is to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2020-2021.

With that in mind, here are the most important x-factor players who will define the Orange’s season this year:

Naheem McLeod

McLeod was the Orange’s biggest add (literally) from Autry’s acquisitions through the transfer portal. The 7-foot-4 center played 28 games as a sophomore last season for the Florida State Seminoles and averaged 3.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in 13.1 minutes per contest.

While his playing time (12.3 MPG across 46 collegiate games) is incredibly limited, you can’t deny McLeod’s height and overall size translating to some success on both ends of the floor.

No, he doesn’t possess the offensive touch around the basket or the versatile post scoring from his Syracuse predecessor in Jesse Edwards. Instead, he makes up for the lack of finesse with power, getting most of his points off dunks, cuts to the basket and second-chance opportunities. His defense, however, is the biggest calling card after leading the Seminoles in blocks per game last season, where his size can really be effective if Autry commits to more man-to-man.

It’s clear Autry’s priorities over the offseason included adding more size, versatility and length on the roster. McLeod will be at the center of whether that strategy can translate to some on-court success.

Chris Bell

The spotlight this season will especially be on the Orange’s current sophomore class, and that starts with 6-foot-7 forward Chris Bell.

Bell started in all 30 games last season for the Orange and was primarily used as an off-the-ball shooter. The lack of experience showed up on the court sometimes, whether it be through rushed shots on offense or miscommunications and inconsistent effort defensively.

He’s got a solid floor to work with given both his size and the value he brings in flexing to either the two or three. Bell will likely see most of his minutes at the forward spot given Syracuse’s current guard depth, which means there will be even more value to be gained or lost based on his play.

The outside shot for Bell (35% from three on 3.8 attempts per game) will see improvement this year, and his defense will likely improve playing more man over zone. The biggest concern overall for Bell is his offensive consistency — for context, Bell almost had as many games with fewer than three points (eight) than games with 10 or more points (nine).

J.J. Starling

We already discussed the upside with a starting backcourt of J.J. Starling and Judah Mintz before, so we won’t go back into that well too much here.

Starling averaged 29.6 minutes, 11.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game in 28 games last season with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. At 6-foot-4 with a solid wingspan, the sophomore guard has an intriguing blend of size and athleticism that compliments his craftiness around the basket.

The fit next to Mintz will be fun to watch when the pairing is together; when Mintz is off the court, it’ll be interesting to see how Starling will look as the primary initiator on offense.

There’s promise, but with that comes some uncertainty.

Chance Westry

Westry might be the ultimate wildcard out of anyone on the Orange right now. He played sparingly with the Auburn Tigers last season (11 games, 9.3 minutes per game), but the tools on paper are fascinating. With his speed at six-foot-six, he can guard the one through three and has flashed some offensive creation as both an around the basket scorer and playmaker.

The two big question marks for Westry: 1) is there any hope with improving the outside shot (0/14 from three last year... yikes) and 2) can he contribute enough defensively to make up for his offensive limitations, and if so, how large will that role be?

Maliq Brown

There’s a lot of optimism around sophomore forward Maliq Brown, especially with hints about Autry giving him playing time as a small-ball center during training camp.

At 6-foot-6 and 222 lbs., he’s got a perfect blend of length and size to play at either the four or five spots. Offensively, he can’t do much scoring in isolation or from the outside. On this team, he won’t need to given the flashes he has shown as a rebounder and all-around defender coupled with his fit as an athlete who can get out in transition.

Brown gives Autry a different card to play, and will be at the forefront of the many lineup combinations we might see this season.

Now it’s your turn: who do you think are the most important “make or break” players to keep an eye on this season?