As Elijah Hughes turns pro and leaves Central New York for the next chapter of his basketball career, fans might stir over the ACC’s leading scorer forgoing his senior year. The reasonable instinct would be to wonder who will replace Hughes when the lights are the brightest and the stakes are the highest. But sometimes it takes losing something to realize what you had. Hughes will prove to have been more valuable than ever before when the Orange need him most next season.
When Hughes transferred from East Carolina, the only school that offered him out of high school, he was a mystery, a wild card. Fans only knew what the blurry ECU highlights and Jim Boeheim told them. When talking about Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle leaving Syracuse and declaring for the NBA, Boeheim insisted, “Elijah’s better than those guys.’’
It was clear Boeheim’s prophecy was correct in 2018 when he debuted as a redshirt sophomore. He averaged nearly 14 points per game despite Battle dribbling down the shot clock on every other possession. But fans will always smile when they rewatch his full court heave against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium at the first half buzzer. That propelled Syracuse to its biggest win of the year, and eventually the NCAA Tournament. No matter how strong a shooter Hughes is, nobody will argue that the shot was anything but a gift from a higher power. But then again, maybe that’s what Hughes himself was to the program.
Hughes is a soft spoken all-around scorer who leads by example. The Beacon, NY native seamlessly grabbed the torch from Battle. He was born with a back brace molded to fit the rest of the team, immediately ready to strum his air guitar.
He exemplified leadership off the court as well. Hughes and the Boeheims supported the #NotAgainSU protesters. That night against Cornell, the entire team wore #NotAgainSU warmup uniforms. Hughes’ impact transcends basketball.
If nothing else, Hughes will be remembered as one of the greatest transfers in Syracuse basketball history. Only Leo Rautins and Wes Johnson rival Hughes for the Syracuse transfer crown. Debating the best transfer would make for its own article on the Fizz. But Hughes sets himself apart from those two in the way he rocketed up the record books.
Hughes needed just 63 games to reach 1,000 points on the Hill. That’s the ninth-quickest mark in program history, tied with Mike Lee. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when he was selected to the All-ACC First Team this season.
Unfortunately, Hughes will also be remembered as one of the best Syracuse players to never win an NCAA Tournament game. He scored 25 points in SU’s first round loss to Baylor last year. Nobody believed he would get a second crack at the Big Dance more than Hughes himself. He put up 27 points in Syracuse’s beat down of North Carolina in the first round of the ACC Tournament. After the rest of the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hughes told The Athletic’s Matthew Gutierrez that he would have scored 40 against Louisville in the second round.
That speaks to the competitiveness nobody heard from the quiet, hooded Hughes. It also shows the incompletion of Hughes’ storybook Syracuse career.
But it’s best not to remember Hughes for his postseason shortcomings. Don’t blame him for “leaving early” either. He already graduated. Instead, look back on Hughes as the most improbable success story in SU history, the wildcard from Eastern Carolina that made everyone forget about Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett. The highlights and records only begin to symbolize the impact he had on Syracuse basketball.