Justin Taylor stood in the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team’s locker room following a tough defeat to Clemson and answered the hard questions. Taylor, a sophomore starter who has been asked to play out of position at the four, has struggled shooting the ball in ACC play. When asked about those shooting blemishes he didn’t shy away from the question.
“I’m obviously struggling shooting the ball. It happens. Shooters go through stuff like this,” Taylor said. “It’s my job to stay level-headed and not listen to the outside noise. A lot of people try and comment on it but they’re not with me every single day trying to get back to how I was.”
Taylor scored in double-figures in the road defeat to Wake Forest last Saturday, but by and large the shooting has been a tough row to hoe for the Charlottesville native. In total, Taylor has shot 13/50 (26%) from the floor in conference play across 13 games. He’s heard the criticism of his shooting. He knows it comes with the territory.
“People can talk about it all they want,” Taylor said. “It’s my job just to get out of my own head.”
It’s not all on Taylor. Most of his shots are coming off contested looks from the perimeter or inopportune fadeaways in the post. When Syracuse doesn’t get out and score in transition, the halfcourt offense struggles and at times devolves into one-on-one basketball. The Orange have gone to a basic horns set on the offensive end at times, but the overall offense lacks structure within the halfcourt. Syracuse ranks No. 148 in the country in offensive efficiency (KenPom).
Instead of consistently running modern offensive sets, Syracuse’s attack emphasizes spacing and guard freedom to create off the bounce or includes high-ball screens from Maliq Brown. With such ball-dominant guard play, Syracuse’s shooters have too often faded to the background. To be sure, the Syracuse backcourt is talented and that’s where the vigor of the offensive attack lies. But there’s a tradeoff and when shooters haven’t been freed up off screens for open looks, it means Taylor hasn’t been utilized to his strengths. Not to mention he’s fulfilling an ask to play out of position when he plays the forward spot.
“It’s definitely different for me. I haven’t really ever played the four before. So adjusting to that this year is something I’m trying to get used to,” Taylor said.
With other teammates unavailable in the early season, Taylor has done what the coaching staff has asked of him. In the early going Adrian Autry said Taylor was “reliable” when asked about his starting position. He’s since credited him for rebounding and knowing where to be defensively. He’s also taken the assignment of guarding out of position. He’s been asked to defend some of toughest power forwards in the league, including some seven footers.
Taylor, broad-shouldered and with a strong upper body, has been asked to defend North Carolina’s Harrison Ingram, Wake Forest’s Andrew Carr, Florida State’s Baba Miller, Pittsburgh’s Blake Hinson, Clemson’s Ian Schieffelin, and Duke’s Kyle Filipowski. Those would be difficult defensive assignments for anyone, but in the 6-foot-6 Taylor’s case, he’s always giving up height.
“Defensively I’ve done a pretty good job battling with those bigger guys down low. But like I said just trying to find my groove playing that spot on the offensive end,” Taylor said.
On the opposite end, that usually means those tall, long forwards are guarding Taylor. It can be more difficult for shooters to get a shot off against athletic players that are taller. Taylor came into Syracuse billed as a shooter. He’s proven himself before and knows what he can do, it’s just a matter of getting back to that.
“Trying to find my groove, get back to what I know I can do,” he said. “Just having trust in myself, trust in my teammates and just continue the work no matter what.”