Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Greatest Syracuse Freshman

Jim Boeheim does play his freshman. I hope that I dispelled the rumor that he doesn’t, back in February 07. He is a coach who likes to put the best talent on the court for 40 minutes, if at all possible. And more often than not, a 3rd year junior or 4th year senior is going to be a better basketball player than a 1st year freshman, no matter how much raw talent that freshman has. Experience does matter, and a guy who has already started two seasons obviously has some talent to start with.

Boeheim has stated more than once that he makes his evaluations on how guys perform in practice. I know when I was growing up there were always two dictums from my coaches: “Practice like you play” and “Perfect practice makes perfect”. One thing a lot of freshman have a problem with is learning how to practice. Many of them have had been more talented than their teammates that they could get by on talent alone. But at a major college program, talent alone doesn’t get you the job. You need to understand the game, understand your responsibilities, and learn to play within yourself.

Syracuse has been blessed with some of the best freshman talent over Boeheim’s tenure on the Hill. Talented freshman like Roosevelt Bouie, Carmelo Anthony, Pearl Washington and Dale Shackleford have graced the Carrier Dome and Manley Field House.

Freshman were allowed to play at Syracuse up until the mid 1920s, and then again in the 1940s (because of World War II). But freshman players, as we know them today, were not allowed to play on the varsity until the 1973-1974 season. The freshman on that team were Jimmy ‘Bug’ Williams, Larry Kelley, and Bob Parker. Coach Roy Danforth was reluctant to play freshman, and so the threesome saw little playing time, with Williams getting the most.

If we use the 1973-1974 season to mark the point we will count freshman players, who have been the best freshman for the Syracuse Orangemen?

I’ll start out by giving honorable mentions to Erich Santifer, Louis Orr, John Wallace and Jason Hart, who all had very good freshman seasons. But they do not make my top 10.

So here are my top 10. I thought this might be an easy list, but I was wrong. I found the picks 10-7 rather straight forward, and 6 and 5 kind of fell into place, but 4 through 1 was tough.

At number 10 is Adrian ‘Red’ Autry, 1990-1991. Autry was a big guard with a deliberate style, and the ability to post up smaller guards down low. He ran the offense efficiently his freshman year, guiding the team to a 26-6 record, with 5.3 assists per game. He was not a big scorer with 9.7 points per game, but he was solid with 71% from the free throw line and 32 % from three point range.

Number 9 is Eric Devendorf, 2005-2006. Devo was a slashing trashing talking shooting guard, with a great move to his left, and an awkward spinning perimeter shot. He supplied some desperately needed balance to the guard scoring by averaging 12.2 points a game, shooting nearly 38% from the three point range. He’s obviously still fresh in all our mind.

At number 8 is Roosevelt Bouie, 1976-1977. Bouie was a 6’10” raw talent his freshman year. He was highly unpolished on the offensive end of the court, yet still managed 10.1 points a game. His impact to the team was on defense with 91 blocked shots and 8.1 rebounds a game, helping to lead the Orangemen to an impressive 26-4 records (and the birth of the Bouie’n’Louie era). He even managed to shot 83.6% from the free throw line, an aberration from his career mark near 60%. He was a victim of foul trouble which kept him off the court, and kept some of his numbers low. Imagine that.

Number 7 is Dale Shackleford, 1975-1976. Shack was a 6’5” all-position player, who played power forward and center for ‘Roy’s Runts Revisited’ his freshman year. Shack was a solid ball handler and explosive leaper with impressive dunking ability. He would average 11.9 points a game his freshman year along with 8.8 rebounds as the team went 20-9.

Number 6 is Gerry McNamara, 2002-2003. GMac was a clutch shooter from the beginning, thrust into the starting point guard position the first game with the suspension of Billy Edelin, and keeping that position all season as the Orangemen went 30-5 and won the National Championship. McNamara scored 13.3 points a game with 4.4 assists, and hit a blistering 91% from the free throw line. He would hit 36% of this three point shots that season. He hit big shots all season long, including a huge basket to beat Notre Dame at the buzzer, and of course his 6 three point baskets in the National Championship game against Kansas. I would have loved to put him in the top 5, but you know what… the top 5 are pretty darn good.

At number 5 is Derrick Coleman, 1986-1987. DC was a rebounding machine from his first day at Syracuse with 8.8 rebounds a game. He was a lean player that season (he would bulk up over four seasons), and was all over the court defensively and for rebounds. While he was not a polished offensive player, he did have some nice low post moves and he averaged 11.9 points a game. He also contributed an impressive 68 block shots. But what he really did was get the big rebounds all season long. In the National Championship loss to Indiana he pulled down 19 rebounds.

Number 4 through 1 are very tough, and I struggled with this. I could have argued for any one of these four to be the best freshman in Syracuse history, but I had to make a choice.

So at Number 4 is Dwayne ‘The Pearl’ Washington, 1983-1984. The Pearl was electric from his first day at the dome; he was one of the highest profile players Syracuse had ever recruited, and he came as good as advertised. His playground moves, the shake and bake, his drives to the hoop, all were crowd pleasing. The Pearl would occasionally play out of control, getting more offensive fouls than he should have. But he could also single handedly break down an opposing defense. His performance in the Big East tournament that year was legendary, especially against Georgetown. And of course, the highlight of the Pearl’s freshman season was his half court shot against Boston College to win the game at the buzzer. With the confidence the Pearl had, he headed straight to the locker room after he released the shot… and the crowd went wild. And the legend was confirmed. The Pearl would finish that season with 14.4 points a game and 6.2 assists. He would shoot 54% from the floor and guide the Orangemen to a 23-9 record. More importantly, the Pearl gave the Orangemen marketability in the Big East, and built the platform for the future success.

At number three is Lawrence Moten, 1991-1992. Moten is perhaps the most underrated player in Syracuse history. He was a quiet man on the court, who played within the flow of the game, was always in the right position, and had a high basketball IQ. And he possessed all those characteristics his freshman year. I don’t know how many fans really appreciate how much Moten meant to the Syracuse program. His freshman year the team was under investigation from the NCAA (and would get probation the following season). All Moten did was average 18.2 points a game and 6.9 rebounds, helping the Orangemen to a 22-10 season.

So now we’re down to the top two. Alphabetically (last name) they are Carmelo Anthony and Billy Owens. I know a lot of you younger fans are going to scream it is no contest, that Anthony was the best Syracuse freshman ever. But I submit it is not that clear.

Both Owens and Anthony came to Syracuse as one of the top two high school recruits in the nation, after outstanding high school careers. Both would end up playing small forward their freshman season, though Owens was probably better suited to play power forward. Both were great all around players, capable of rebounding, shooting from the perimeter and shooting from the free throw line. Owens was a bit more muscular, Anthony a little more athletic… but neither had a significant edge over the other. Both were somewhat quiet personalities.

The primary difference in their statistics, I propose, is the opportunities given to them. Billy Owens came to a Syracuse team with NBA caliber juniors and seniors entrenched in the lineup. Sherman Douglas would average 18.2 points that season, Derrick Coleman 16.9, and Stephen Thompson 18.0. Junior Matt Roe, the deep threat, would get 11 points a game. Owens came onto that team, and fit right in, doing his part. He would get ‘only’ 13.0 points a game, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists (as if those were paltry numbers by themselfs). In the context of who else was scoring around him, that is pretty amazing. Against Georgetown that season, he hit two free throws with time expired to send the game into overtime, in front of what was the largest NCAA crowd in history at that time. The Orangemen would have a disappointing loss in the Elite Eight that season; the 1988-1989 squad was probably the best Syracuse team I ever saw. They did not just beat their opponents all season on the way to a 30-8 record; they crushed them.

Carmelo Anthony came to Syracuse on a team that was lacking upper classmen, on a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament the season before. There was an opportunity for a talented young player to come in and take center stage, and Anthony took that role and thrived in it, something that your everyday player could not do. He would average 22.2 points a game, 10.0 rebounds a game, shoot 34% from the three point range, and of course, lead the Orangemen to a National Championship. Outstanding numbers, outstanding final results. The Orangemen that season had tremendous poise, winning 15 games that they trailed at some point in the second half, on their way to a final record of 30-5.

I would propose that if Owens had been in Anthony’s position, he would have put up similar numbers, with a similar results (obviously, he could not have bettered the championship). And if Anthony had been on the 1988-1989 squad, I am sure he would have deferred to the more talented upper classmen.

As great as Anthony was in 2002-2003, he needed help from his teammates to win it all. If Josh Pace and Billy Edelin don’t have heroic efforts earlier in the NCAA tournament, the Orangemen never make it to the championship. If Gerry McNamara doesn’t score 18 points from the perimeter in the first half, the game would have been much tighter going to the second. Anthony (similar to Derrick Coleman in 1987) missed a crucial free throw in the last minute of the game, allowing Kansas the opportunity to win it all. Fortunately Hakim Warrick was there instead of Howard Triche, and ‘the block’ sealed the win. The point I’m making is that Carmelo Anthony was the reason Syracuse won it all in 2002-2003, but so was Gerry McNamara, Hakim Warrick, Josh Pace, Kueth Duany, Billy Edelin, and yes, Craig Forth.

Owens would injure his knee is junior season, and then more severely in the NBA, reducing his overall effectiveness and shortening his career. Anthony is rocketing through the NBA right now. Neither of these points is relevant to how good they were as a freshman, but it does impact our hindsight of the players.

I watched them both play. I saw every home game Owens played in person, and I saw most of Anthony’s games on television. Both were great freshman players. I could choose either one of them as the best Syracuse freshman ever, and feel happy with it.

Ultimately, I’m going to take the young man who won it all and brought the trophy back to Syracuse, New York. Carmelo Anthony at #1 and Billy Owens at #2.

But if the quarter had fallen the other way…


CK Dexter Haven said...

Although i don't disagree with your conclusion, i do find issue with your 'swap' theory. Owens was not nearly the confident player Anthony was. I, personally, never felt 'secure' with Owens' perimeter game. I always felt it was a psychological issue — Owens knew he was supremely talented, but his quiet demeanor didn't allow him to 'apply himself fully.'

Possibly, yes, Owens could have put up the same kind of numbers if put in Anthony's situation. But, i doubt it. I don't think he was 'selfish' enough. My real issue, though, is with the thought that Carmello "would have deferred to the more talented upper classmen." I don't think Carmello ever saw a player he thought was "more talented" than he. I don't see Carmello EVER deferring to ANYone. If Carmello were on the Original Dream Team, he'd still lead the team in shot attempts, given the minutes.

moqui said...

I'd put Moten at #2 ahead of Billy Owens. His freshman season was simply amazing.

I'd also slip Wallace into my Top 10, probably replacing Shack. His averages of 11.3 and 7.6 are stellar. I'd be ecstatic if Donte Green reached those heights, but I think the rebounding number, especially, is beyond him.

Finally, I would slip Paul Harris into my honorable mention list. His freshman year numbers of 8.6 points, 7.1 boards, and 1.6 assists per game compare favorably with Louis Orr's averages of 9.4, 6.5, and 1.7. Harris' 248 rebounds is the 5th highest total all time for a Syracuse frosh, pushing Rosie Bouie out of the top 5.

OrangeRay said...

Thanks for both the posts; both are very thought provoking. CK Dexter Haven, I'll actually have a follow up story inspired by your comments.

Moqui, I had seriously considered putting Wallace in the list, around #10 instead of Shack. Tough to compare the two... different eras, and Wallace had tougher competition. Both were excellent freshman players.

I kept Harris off my honorable mention list if only because he could never nail down a starting position and Syracuse didn't improve as a team from the year before. He was definitely a solid defender and incredible rebounder, while being mostly a liability on offense (hey, most freshman aren't rounded players...).

Guys like Bouie took the team to another level as a freshman... there's something to be said about that.