My young adult days were not spent reading novels about Hunger Games, and I’m sure back then I would’ve scratched my head at the thought of kids killing other kids as popular entertainment. No, my hours were spent watching tons of basketball – and during the 80’s, one of the premier programs was Syracuse University coached by the legendary Jim Boeheim.
Even then, we all knew his teams played nothing but 2-3 zone, which was a little funny, since it was the same defense we learned and played in 5th grade. How was it possible that such a high profile program could succeed running something so rudimentary? If you had asked Jim Boeheim himself, his answer would’ve been simple: Athletes. Syracuse recruited the guys that were long and could jump out of the gym, and then hoped it didn’t run into another team with similar ability, for if it did, the Orangemen would be at a disadvantage that their coach couldn’t help them overcome. I’m sure most of you remember the image of him from the movie “Hoop Dreams,” sitting in the stands, drooling over the next super athlete he could get to commit to Syracuse, never intending to teach them anything beyond playground skills.
After watching our breakdown of the Syracuse Ohio State game, I want you to look at the types of shots a well coached and disciplined team gets against their 2-3 zone. But the issue I have with Syracuse doesn’t stop there – it’s their offense as well. They run something almost as basic as their defense, methodically beginning their offense in 1 of 2 ways: either a pass to the wing, the guard executes a UCLA cut, the high post screens the ball, or they skip all the formalities and simply do a high screen and roll on top. That’s about it. No weakside screens, no baseline cuts, nothing to indicate that Boeheim has the ability or patience to teach his wondrous athletes anything that might be useful if they make it to the NBA.
Considering how Boeheim and Syracuse reside in the upper pantheon of respect on the college level, it is striking how so few players have ever had a meaningful impact in the NBA. Let’s look at the notables:
Currently in the headlines for causing havoc in both Denver and New York, Melo has never shown the ability nor the desire to play man to man defense. He’s never displayed a positional understanding of weakside help, nor has he been able to blend himself into a team offense. The last time he truly fit in was with Boeheim at Syracuse, where their offense expects one on one play.
Career: 24.5ppg, 6.3rpg, 3.1apg, 1.1spg, 46% FG
He is the poster child for great athlete who never knew how to play the game. Bouncing from team to team for 15 years, he showed just enough promise to make another team want to trade for him, but weighing them down once he arrived.
Career: 16.5ppg, 9.3rpg, 2.5apg,1.3bpg 45% FG
“The General” also never fulfilled the promise of alley oop dimes he displayed so prominently while with the Orangemen. Never one to be in great shape, he was always a step slow, yet stuck around for 12 mediocre years, playing his best ball on some pretty lousy teams;
Career: 11ppg, 2.2rpg, 5.9apg, 48% FG
There is definitely a theme emerging here, as Owens also lacked defensive instincts, offensive fundamentals, and never achieved anywhere close to the promise he showed in college. His weight fluctuated and was never dedicated to maintaining his athletic physique.
Career: 11.7ppg, 6.7rpg, 2.8apg, 48% FG
The best pro of any of the Orangemen Boeheim has coached, he benefited from being from a different country, I’m sure bringing his work ethic with him from Lebanon. His post game was polished, but I’d argue he did a lot of that polishing after he got to the NBA. He starred for some pretty awful Miami Heat teams in the early 90’s, before bouncing around the league.
Career: 14.7ppg, 9.5rpg, 1.3apg, 1.3bpg, 48% FG
A journeyman who started only 74 NBA games in 9 seasons, he was woefully underskilled on the offensive end, but used hustle and desire to be a bit of a defensive presence. His main forte was grabbing rebounds, not helping on the weakside.
Career: 5.7ppg, 4.7rpg, 1bpg, 51% FG 17 mins/gm
Coming out of college as a dominant player, averaging 22.2 points per game and 8.7 rebounds, he had the body and the numbers to merit the 18th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. The Knicks liked him so much, they traded him after one year to get Chris Dudley, who was at the end of a very undistinguished career. Never able to fit in, he lasted just 7 seasons.
Career: 7.6ppg, 2.8rpg, 46% FG 16 mins/gm
This is enough to make it seem like Boeheim is just producing clones. Another promising player who had 4 years of “tutelage” from Boeheim, he had a dominant career in college only to realize he had no idea how to defend at the NBA level, not find a good fit on the offensive end with his limited skill set. His best years were on some of the worst teams of all time in Memphis, yet he’s still toiling away for a mediocre Phoenix team, getting 14 minutes/game.
Career: 9.6ppg, 4.1rpg, 50% FG
There are other names scattered about that merely had cups of coffee in the NBA, guys like Dwayne “The Pearl” Washington, and out of this world athlete Stephen Thompson who, in four years at Syracuse, never learned anything besides catching alley oops and slamming them home.
Two current youngsters in the NBA seem to be reliving this exact same nightmare: Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson. Flynn only played 2 years at Syracuse, so really got to learn nothing from Beoheim, and has already played for 3 teams in 3 years, shooting himself off the floor with a career 40 percent field goal percentage. And Wesley Johnson has already been declared a bust – a typical Boeheim elite athlete that never learned the skills necessary to compete at the NBA level.
The purpose of many college programs is not to build NBA players, but given the fact that Boeheim has been around for so long, and that the perception is that he’s a very good coach, wouldn’t you think his players would have a little bit more success in the NBA? Don’t you think at least one would rise to the level of perennial All Star? After breaking down this game, it makes me wonder what is happening at Syracuse during practices? (Insert inappropriate Bernie Fine joke HERE) His program is clearly not designed to help his players excel in the NBA, since they have no practical experience playing man to man defense, nor do they know how to exist in an offense that requires any kind of sustained movement. This is how I judge a coach – how well he teaches the game of basketball and how well his players execute those skills. In this regard, Boeheim has failed and makes me wonder just how long he’ll remain the ringmaster at Syracuse.