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Syracuse men’s basketball: Justin Taylor offers more versatility in year two

Even out of position, Taylor has found a way to contribute

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

Imagine I asked you, before the season, who would be leading the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team in rebounds through 10 games. Unless you’re a time traveler, you probably would’ve guessed wrong. It’s Justin Taylor.

The guard/forward has taken a massive leap forward on the boards in his second year with the Orange. Taylor’s averaging 6.2 rebounds per game this season compared to just 1.8 last year. He eclipsed the five-rebound mark once in 2022. The sophomore’s tallied that number or more in nine of SU’s first 10 games this time around.

So, how did Taylor become more involved on the glass? Let’s start with the obvious: there’s a lot more space down low. Jesse Edwards is gone after putting up a team-best 10.3 rebounds a year ago. Florida State transfer Naheem McLeod was expected to fill most of that void but is averaging less than 16 minutes played and is now dealing with a foot injury. Quadir Copeland has emerged as a force on the boards off the bench, taking chances away from Maliq Brown, who many expected to lead the Orange in rebounds this season.

This is not to take away from Taylor’s efforts. It’s more to show just how unlikely his emergence is as a top rebounder.

The key to Taylor’s success is his role in head coach Adrian Autry’s man-to-man defense. Instead of being glued to a corner in Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone, the Charlottesville native has free reign in man, resulting in him being under the basket more often. With his 6’6, 218-pound frame, Taylor’s had no problem crashing the glass, especially when playing in the JMA Wireless Dome (7.0 per game).

In addition to his rebounding efforts, Taylor’s also attacked the bucket more consistently. Last season, he almost solely operated behind the three-point line. While his percentage from deep has dropped off a bit over this campaign (38.3% to 32.9%), the guard’s elevated his game at the rim. He frequently catches defenders off balance with a pump fake or sweep after receiving a pass behind the arc, then takes off towards the hoop.

If Autry wants to maximize Taylor’s offensive potential, expect the sophomore to remain pivotal in Syracuse’s fast-paced offense. He excels in transition and is a spot-up shooter from three, but has also shown the ability to get to the rack when he chooses.

We know the offensive production from Judah Mintz, J.J. Starling and Chris Bell will be there, but there’s undoubtedly still a place for Taylor. Nonetheless, his increased hustle and aggressiveness on both ends make him an added weapon to this year’s squad.

What do you make of Taylor’s enhanced style of play so far?