January 19, 2018

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.

The Chicago Bulls Have All The Luck

[Continued after the breakdown]

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.

Corporate Knowledge: Are the Toronto Raptors Contenders

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.


Coach Nick

Coach Nick is the founder of BballBreakdown, coached the Triangle Offense at the high school level, and counts Tex Winter and Pete Newell as mentors. For more of our conversation, follow him @BBALLBREAKDOWN.

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  • Great breakdown!

    Here in the Netherlands they play a lot of 2-1-2 zone, especially in the lower Leagues for players aged 20+. This is due to the estimation (and most of the time rightfully so) that opponents lack good shooting fundamentals and accuracy, and their own team has bad 1-on-1 defense and bad understanding of help-side and rotation.

    With my own team (almost all of them young adults) I do not rely on my shooters (although I have some pretty good ones) and play an overload with a center on the elbow and one in the short corner. They can play high low, or, when we get the ball to the short corner the high center can dive into the opposite corner. I use quick ball swings and skip passes to move the zone and the center then can move to the ball. There are some options that concern PnR’s. (I rarely play zone myself; I prefer the intensity, movement and rebound advantage of M2M)

    A general question: What are your ideas on (exclusively) using PnR against zones?


  • I like what Dallas does. I just don’t like a program that plays 2-3 zone exclusively. 

  • You need to use a variety of things, as the zone adjusts to what you’re doing. Setting ball screens on zones is something relatively new, and I think they’re effective. But you also need freeze dribbles, dribble-over-pass-back, skips, hitting the slot, driving baseline…

  • First off I
    think you can make this argument for most of the elite level schools. How can
    the coaches make their players into pros when most of the top players are only
    there for a max of two years. Also you could say that the elite players are
    already on track to be pros before they step foot on campus so it doesn’t
    matter what the college coach does with them.

    Doesn’t the
    NBA draft mostly on potential not how well the player is prepared to step in
    and play right away.

    Getting on
    Syracuse about their defense is almost comical. I just watched Kentucky play Indiana
    the other night and the score was in the 90s. There were about 6 to 7 NBA level
    players on the court at any given time. If these coaches were developing their players
    for the NBA wouldn’t the defense be a little better and the score a little
    lower. At least Boeheim teaches a defensive system and he recruits players to
    fit that system. It doesn’t make them any less ready to play defense in the NBA
    than any other college program.

    So few
    players make it to the highest levels of the NBA that I don’t find it
    surprising at all that he hasn’t produced one. Look at last years first team
    all nba if you add up their years spent in college it comes to 2. So I would
    say that elite level NBA players are not developed at the college level.

    His offense
    is very similar to NBA offense. They run a bunch of ball screens and

    He also
    recruits certain players to fit his system. Those players are usually not in
    the top ten players in their class so they are not sure fire nba guys. So the
    fact that he has produced that many nba players is rather impressive.

    If you judge
    a coach on how well he teaches the game and how well his
    players execute those
    skill then Boeheim should be one of your favorite Coaches. He has developed a
    system and has won over 800 games. So I would say that his players are
    executing those skills rather well.

  • I would like to add that “Coach K” has run next to nothing  but ball screens and spread the floor for an offense for years. I am seeing very little evidence, outside a few programs( Georgetown, Richmond, etc), that any real attention is being paid to teaching a well rounded offensive attack. In fact I find it hard to watch college now and have started to view more NBA.

  • You are a complete moron, just stop trying to discuss basketball, you are no more qualified than my dog.

  • I could have swore that Boeheim has been to three final fours, won 890 games, and has 20 plus win seasons every year. I must be thinking of a different coach names Boeheim.


  • Syracuse gets to the title game if Fab Melo isn’t suspended. And they arguably beat OSU without Fab if the refs weren’t awful. Syracuse was up there in the NCAA this year both for oppFG% and PPGallowed; better than 95% of man2man teams. Why’s that????

  • Okay, billy owens had injuries, that changed his career path.  Coleman and Melo are the only two all pro talents on this list, and the personalities of these two are/were between them and greatness.  Everyone else, maybe you can argue that they were not developed, or maybe they were just average prospects.

    coming from a Hoya fan
    Go GU!

  • No bad reffing means that Sullinger doesn’t sit half the game.  I’d still take Ohio State to win it.

  •  RTFA.  2-3 zone works well if you have superior length and talent.  And Syracuse usually does, so it’s a winning College BBall strategy.  But a disciplined and talented team will break down that zone, and in the NBA, it won’t be worth sh!t with the talent you will be up against.  So players at Cuse don’t get the development that would help them in their NBA careers.

  • What a great country we live in, only here can a coach who’s record is 13-18 blast a guy who has won a national title and is in the hof. Keep up that stellar record coach nick.

  • Thanks for the comment, Matt. We will continue to keep up the good work of creating more content for the most popular online channel of its kind anywhere. Stay tuned for lots more coming up.

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