Friday, January 09, 2015

The Most Improved Senior

Conference play has just begun for Syracuse, so there is still a long way to go in the season.  However, at this point in time, Rakeem Christmas has made an amazing jump in his performance from his junior year to his senior year.  This is causing a lot of discussion among Syracuse fans on whether this is the best increase between a junior and senior season.

In 2013-2014, Christmas  averaged  5.8 ppg, and often was pulled early in the game by a frustrated JimBoeheim. In 2014-2015, Christmas is the focal point of the offense, and is scoring 17.3 ppg.  Not only is his production up, but he seems to move with more grace and ease on the court, shows a wider variety of moves, and a more aggressive style. There are still weaknesses to his game, and the tough part of the schedule is still a month away, but Christmas has definitely made huge strides.

How does Christmas compare to other seniors who made great strides their senior year? Chronologically…

In 1919-1920, forward Nick Paul led the Orangemen in scoring with 13.5 ppg, and was the team’s designated free throw shooter. Paul was 8.5 ppg better than runner up Ken Lavin.  He led the team to a 15-3 record.  As a junior Paul played in only four games and scored 10 points.   A rather remarkable performance for a man who had played only 5 games in his career prior to his senior year.  Syracuse won its last 13 games of the season, and Paul was the leading scorer in each game.

In 1951-1952, guard Bucky Roche was second in scoring on the team with 14.0 ppg.  His junior year he had scored 4.6 ppg.  Roche’s highlight of the season was a 35 point game in a tight win over rival Cornell.

In 1968-1969, forward Bob Kouwe was second in scoring with 14.0 ppg, and had 6.5 rebounds per game.  He had only 4.0 ppg and 2.8 rpg in a junior season that was cut short by a team suspension.  Kouwe would have a career high 27 points in a one point win over rival Colgate.

In 1980-1981, center Danny Schayes led the Orangemen in scoring and rebounding with 14.6 ppg and 8.3 rpg.  He shot 82% from the free throw line and 58% from the floor.  He had only 5.9 ppg and 4.5 rpg his junior year.  Schayes had always been a fundamentally sound player, but he was stuck behind Roosevelt Bouie for three years.  Boeheim tried a twin tower approach with Schayes and Bouie both on the court, but that did not work well as neither player was suited for the forward position.

In 1986-1987, guard Greg Monroe would increase his scoring from 4.6 ppg to 12.9 ppg, along with doubling his rebounding and assist efforts.  Monroe could always play, but he lacked the playing time being stuck behind Pearl Washington and Rafael Addison.  The unknown that Monroe brought to the game was his three point shooting. This was the first season of three point shooting in the NCAA, and Monroe proved to be very good at it, hitting 43.9% of his shots. That, along with his senior leadership, was a great factor in allowing the Orangemen to make a run at the National Championship.

In 1995-1996, point guard Lazarus Sims would develop into a fantastic playmaker, averaging 7.4 assists per game, along with 3.7 rpg. He wasn’t counted on to score, averaging only 6.3 ppg, but he shot well enough (36% from three point range and 75% from the free throw line) to keep teams honest.  Sims would help guide the Orangemen to the National Championship game against Kentucky, and his playmaking was the second biggest factor behind big John Wallace.  Sims only played 441 minutes his junior year, averaging 2.6 apg, 1.4 rpg, and 3.0 ppg, as he sat behind Michael Lloyd and Lawrence Moten.

In 2000-2001 point guard Allen Griffin would dwarf his junior year statistics.  He had 10.8 ppg, 6.5 apg, and 3.3 rpg, versus 3.0 ppg, 1.7 apg, and 1.1 rpg.  However, Griffin’s career was strange, as he was a healthy but seldom used junior player who was stuck behind guards Jason Hart, Tony Bland, DeShaun Williams and swingman Preston Shumpert.  As a sophomore, Griffin had been a starter and had a decent season, so while his senior year was a huge leap from his junior, it was not a huge leap from his sophomore.  Griffin did have to huge games his senior year; he recorded a triple double in a win over Pitt, and the next game he would score 31 points in a 2 point win over St. John’s.

In 2006-2007, forward Demetris Nichols went from having a good junior year to an excellent senior year.  Nichols had 13.3 ppg as a junior, but he rose that to 18.9 ppg as a senior.   Nicholas became more efficient as he improved his shooting touch, and was more prolific. He increased his three point shooting from 36% to 42%, and his free throw shooting from 68% to 85%. Nichols would score 37 points and have 10 rebounds in a two point win over St. Johns.

In 2010-2011, forward Rick Jackson made significant strides in his play, even if the statistical numbers weren’t as strong as some other candidates.  Jackson increased his scoring from 9.7 ppg to 13.1 ppg, and his rebounds from 7.0 rpg to 10.3 ppg.  Defensively he became the Big East Defensive Player of the Year.  He was far more consistent offensively, as opposed to his junior season where he often disappeared. 

If I were to choose a player, prior to this season, I would have to go with Lazarus Sims.  I did not see the first three players I mentioned, and statistically speaking, Nick Paul had the best improvement of any Syracuse player ever, especially in the context of his era.  But I did not see him play.

Sims ran the offense spectacularly his senior year, and with his size was a strong defensive presence at the top of the key.  This from a player that almost transferred earlier in his career, and a player that Jim Boeheim was shaky enough about that he recruited a junior college player (Lloyd) to play the point instead.  The fact that Syracuse went to the national championship game speaks a lot about Sims improvement.

Many of the players listed above may not have benefited from significant improvement in their play, but rather from finally getting the opportunity to play. That is always tough to tell. Christmas is a little bit clearer because he has been given the opportunity to play, and never took hold of it.  He has been a starter his whole career, but has also been the victim of many quick hooks.

If Christmas keeps up his pace, and the Orange make some noise in the post season, I would be apt to make him the most improved senior ever.  We will have to see how it plays out.

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