Simply put, Rakeem Christmas is a different player this year than he was the last three years.
Christmas came back this year and needed to be a big time player on a team that had lost four key parts. There were questions as to whether he could make the adjustments. Tuesday night seemed like a culmination of sorts for Christmas, he scored 35 points on 21 shots. All in all, he dominated the game on the offensive end for the Orange. Just as importantly as the points, Christmas played all 45 minutes of the overtime thriller against Wake Forest.
With Chris McCullough’s season-ending ACL injury earlier in the week, Christmas becomes even more important for SU. After picking up his 4th foul late in the second half, Christmas was able to finish out the half and play all of overtime without fouling out. It may seem silly, but it was huge that he could even stay on the court. Syracuse simply cannot afford to have Christmas sit on the bench.
After the game, Trevor Cooney was asked when he realized Rak could be the player he was Sunday night. Cooney said he and his teammates saw it when Rak came back to SU over the summer. The guard says Christmas was a different player since then.
This year, we have seen Christmas display a wide array of offensive moves while remaining the same force he has always been on defense.
Following the game, Jim Boeheim was asked if Christmas should be getting more national attention than he is. Boeheim said that the reason Rak isn’t getting attention is because Syracuse isn’t good enough as a team. He added that if SU was better, Rak would be getting more attention nationally and in NBA mock drafts.
In a way, Boeheim is right. But at the same time, Chris McCullough seemed to have been getting plenty of coverage in mock drafts before getting injured playing on the same SU team.
If Rak keeps playing well, he will find his way into the NBA Draft, maybe even the first round. Christmas brings toughness and athleticism mixed together in a blend that is pretty rare at the NBA level. That combination could lead to a late first round or second round selection followed by a decent run in the NBA. Bottom line, Rak has played himself into an NBA prospect. Before the year, it was unthinkable that Christmas may go on to make an impact in the NBA. But now it is a possibility.
The Orange need this version of the senior center to show up every night from here to the end of the year to have a chance to win games. No, Christmas doesn’t need to score 35 a night. But he does need to score 18-20 every night. Pair that with some good defense and rebounding, good performances out of Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, and that is the SU formula for the rest of this season.
Posted: Seth Goldberg