It’s easy to pick out Marek Dolezaj from a crowd. Syracuse basketball’s 2017 media day was no different of an occasion for the freshman. Standing at 6-foot-9, the lanky Slovak stayed tucked near the back of the Melo Center while the rest of his teammates were mobbed for interviews.
He is still adjusting to life in the United States. Head coach Jim Boeheim admits there’s a bit of a disconnect between the two of them, to no fault of Dolezaj. He is still learning English and watches “Two and a Half Men” to pick up on the language.
“Everybody eats junk food and everybody’s going somewhere,” Dolezaj said. “It’s so fast for me and it’s so different.”
Dolezaj is Syracuse basketball’s biggest unknown for the 2017-18 season. His online recruiting profiles only provide bare-bone information. A YouTube search for his name yields 18 results. Even Dolezaj’s name pronunciation is different than what you would expect, (it’s Dole-a-jai in case you were wondering) and some of his Orange teammates still don’t even know how to say it.
Last season, Slovaks appeared on just one percent of Division I basketball rosters. Only two were on Power Five teams. One of which was Maryland senior center Michal Cekovsky, who Dolezaj will face in this year’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge in late November. He says his parents will be in attendance for that game.
Dolezaj says he had no exposure to NCAA basketball prior to his recruitment. He did some research on American schools and loved what he found in SU.
“I searched about some schools and I knew Syracuse was one of the best schools in the USA,” Dolezaj said. “When Coach [Adrian] Autry wrote to me, I was very excited. When I came here for an official visit, I loved it.”
However, Dolezaj isn’t the only newcomer with foreign ties. In fact, every single player in SU’s class of 2017 has one. Both Oshae Brissett and Howard Washington spent last year playing in Canada and Bourama Sidibe is a native of Mali in Africa.
But just because Dolezaj is a foreign player doesn’t necessarily mean he brings a different brand of basketball.
“He’s an American kind of player, as he doesn’t play as much like those European big guys do,” Boeheim said. “He can put the ball on the floor and drive. He’s a very active player as he rebounds and jumps well. He’s also a pretty good shooter, but not as good as most European big men. However, he works hard at the game and understands the game. He doesn’t understand me much, but he understands the game.”
But Dolezaj already sees contrasts in the American game, despite never logging an official minute.
“There’s a lot of running [in practice] and it’s more physical than in Europe,” Dolezaj said. “Europe is more about your brain.”
Dolezaj’s teammates admit he has a ways to go culturally, but that won’t be a factor once they step onto the court together.
“His accent’s a little funny. We joke around with him,” redshirt freshman Matthew Moyer said. “Obviously it’s probably uncomfortable. We welcomed him with open arms. He’s a really good player out of Slovakia. He’s meshing great with us.”
Dolezaj joins a youthful frontcourt. He figures to fit in as a four in Boeheim’s lineup where he joins fellow freshman Oshae Brissett as well as Moyer. His skillset is exactly what the modern basketball brand asks for: a blend of height, length and shooting.
In Slovakia, Dolezaj played professionally, which he likens to the NCAA because it isn’t necessarily the highest level of basketball, but it’s close. He thrived this past summer in international competition. Dolezaj was fourth in scoring at the FIBA Under-20 Championship with 16.9 points per game.
The intrigue surrounding Dolezaj is high for Orange fans. No one knew exactly what he was coming in, and those mysteries are not necessarily going to be answered right away with a cluttered frontcourt. But Syracuse hopes that the punctuation of Marek Dolezaj’s career shifts from a question mark to an exclamation point.