Let’s go back in time for just a moment. It’s just about three weeks ago. Syracuse is coming off its third ACC home loss of the season against Virginia Tech and nothing seems to be going right for the Orange. To be honest, if you had asked SU fans if they thought the Orange had a chance to make a run in the ACC, a lot of them probably would have laughed at the idea. Oh, how times have changed.
With a win over Pitt on Saturday afternoon, Syracuse has now won five consecutive games and is undefeated on the road in ACC play. You can probably point to a few factors that have put the Orange’s season back on track. The combination of Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim both look like legitimate all-conference players. Jim Boeheim is getting major contributions out of his true freshman point guard. It even seems like the team has found its long-lost identity. But, perhaps above all else, an unsung hero has keyed the run for SU.
Before the season, we knew that Marek Doelzaj had the opportunity to be a big part of any kind of success that SU would have and it turns out he might be the most important of them all.
One of the most skilled big man passers we’ve seen at Syracuse in quite some time, Dolezaj gets an offensive touch nearly every time the Orange have the ball in the halfcourt.
An SU offensive possession typically starts with a screen and handoff and/or lob from Joe Girard to Dolezaj who makes the catch just a hair higher than the free-throw line extended. He then turns to face the bucket and that’s where his skillset really comes into play. Because of his elite vision, Dolezaj sees things on a different level than most other players.
He can quickly diagnose a play and figure out what the best next move is for the offense, whether it be a back-door feed to Elijah Hughes (my personal favorite play to watch), a pass off an off-ball screen for Buddy Boeheim or simply recognizing there’s nothing there and making a pass to put the Orange in a better position.
The most impressive adjustment he’s made during this five-game winning streak, though, is his aggressiveness with the ball in his hands. In the early part of the season, the guy that teammates jokingly call Magic Johnson seemed a bit passive and perhaps a bit too unselfish. He so desperately wanted to make the right pass and get his teammates involved that he’d forego opportunities to score for himself. That’s become the case far less frequently during the winning streak.
Although still a bit hesitant to pull the trigger on any sort of perimeter jumper, Dolezaj has added a really nice off-the-dribble floater/pull-up to his arsenal as well as relying more heavily on his excellent footwork and agility with a blow-by spin move that’s got him some more chances and looks over the last five games.
Defensively he’s still giving up a lot of size to many of the other centers in the ACC, but he often makes up for it with his instincts and athleticism. The same can be said for his rebounding which has also seen an increase during the stretch (9.4 rpg vs 6.6 rpg) and with the kind of foul trouble that Bourama Sidibe often finds himself in, those extra boards that Dolezaj is pulling in are absolutely monumental for a team that has also seen its rebounding average increase during the win streak (39.8 rpg vs 35.8 rpg).
The numbers are fantastic. Marek is one of only two Power 5 players in the country averaging at least 10 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per game (along with Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman) and is one of just 12 total players in the country with that versatile a line. In fact, in the last ten years, only 15 different Power 5 players have held that stat line.
For a little context, the list includes names like Ben Simmons, R.J. Barrett, Chandler Parsons, Grant Williams and Draymond Green. All five of those guys are in the midst of or have had very productive NBA careers. I’m not saying that Dolezaj will be on that level, but the season he’s putting together is extremely impressive and if he keeps it up, SU may just continue to roll.