Every Syracuse fan probably had the same reaction when they heard the news that John Bol Ajak withdrew his name from the transfer portal. Something along the lines of, “Oh, um… ok.”
The truth is Ajak hasn’t done anything in his two years (one redshirt season) on the Hill to evoke a real response from the fanbase. Last season he scored just two points in a third-string center role which gave him just 51 minutes in 10 contests. Jesse Edwards and Bourama Sidibe, his primary competition for impact time, are returning. Frank Anselem isn’t going anywhere. Odds are, Ajak coming back does nothing for the basketball team.
But that doesn’t mean Ajak’s return isn’t good news for the program. He was one of five players who entered the portal. Robert Braswell (Charlotte), Quincy Guerrier (Oregon), Woody Newton (Oklahoma State), and Kadary Richmond (Seton Hall) are the other four. A team who just went to the Sweet 16 and has ESPN’s 30th rated recruit coming in doesn’t typically see a mass exodus like this one. Of course, the immediately eligibility is enticing for any anxious player nowadays, but the consensus is that there was something else going on within the program behind the scenes, an extra incentive for half the team to pick up and leave. Newton claimed to have lost trust in the coaching staff. Ajak can’t completely silence the critics on that front, but he might temper the murmurs.
There is still a lot of work to do for Ajak. Even after sitting out his first year to get his 6-foot-10, 205 pound body right, the former three-star could not break through the rotation. It’s not like there were stalwarts ahead of him. Jim Boeheim was nearly as skeptical of Edwards and Sidibe was out the entire season. But Boeheim claimed that Ajak still was not physically ready to contribute after gaining 10 pounds of muscle.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that Ajak will never be a bruiser down low. That might keep him off the floor because Edwards and Sidibe are better Zone anchors. On the other hand, if you want to be fair about the center evaluations and comparisons, Ajak should get credit where credit is due.
Ajak’s stroke is still there. One of the reasons SU took a chance on another undersized center is because he had a respectable midrange jumper. Again, that’s not enough to get him on the floor, but if he works his way into the rotation, teams won’t be able to play him to the restricted area like Edwards and Sidibe. Not that this should necessarily be an asset, but Ajak also hasn’t had any reported injury problems, something that has haunted Sidibe’s bumpy career.
It’s important not to lose sight of reality though. Ajak is likely back because he didn’t have many other options that caught his interest, if any. But treat Ajak’s seat on the bench as a win for the program, proof that Syracuse basketball isn’t completely broken.