It’s roughly t-minus six hours until Syracuse men’s basketball opens its 2021-22 season. In Year 46 under Jim Boeheim, there’s sure to be high emotions on opening night. Tonight’s Dome game is the first Syracuse basketball home game with full fan capacity since February 29th, 2020.
Hopefully, a new-look SU team will be worth the wait for one of the nation’s most ravenous fanbases. The hot exhibition play of Villanova transfer forward Cole Swider and the addition of a third Boeheim have made for intriguing storylines, but don’t forget about this year’s marquee freshman talent in Benny Williams. He’s caused some buzz so far in limited time – but let’s pump the brakes a bit. Set your expectations back for SU’s latest freshman savior just like we all begrudgingly did with our clocks two days ago.
Williams’ first year at Syracuse will be under a glaring microscope. The 6’8”, 208 pound 4-star forward out of IMG was the key piece to last year’s recruiting class. He’s set up to be an experienced player before next year’s highly-touted Class of 2022 enters the fray. Already, Williams has made a strong first impression in ‘Cuse’s preseason. He put up 11 points, five boards and five steals in 25 minutes during SU’s 90-50 win over Le Moyne on November 1st. Even Jim Boeheim was complimentary of that performance, though he added a desire to see increased aggressiveness from the freshman.
“Benny passed a couple that he should’ve shot…he’s a very good passer, he’s looking for people…we want Benny to try and finish in those situations.” (Jim Boeheim on Williams’ play vs. Le Moyne, 11/1/21)
However, Williams’ strong start doesn’t mean we should all start piling on high expectations. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to Williams to do so. A fair question to enter the season with is what Williams’ floor and ceiling are for this year. To do that, we need to take a look at what some other recent first-year players have done.
Former guard Kadary Richmond is still likely a conflicting name for Syracuse fans. Richmond began his 2020-21 season strong with lengthy performances in non-conference play, then went somewhat quiet until a strong month of February had Orange nation salivating over his ballhawking style of play. However, we now know that Richmond was in Jim Boeheim’s doghouse throughout the year, causing his usage to taper off towards tournament time. When Richmond announced his transfer to Seton Hall this April, the news came as a shock.
The year before Richmond, then-freshman Quincy Guerrier appeared in every SU game played but didn’t start any of them. He averaged 6.9 points and just over five rebounds per game. Different players, roles, and scenarios, but both he and Richmond a year later finished with similar usage (Guerrier played 651 minutes in a longer season vs. Richmond’s 589) and scoring averages. Richmond came in with more fanfare than Guerrier, but they ended up playing roughly the same amount. Neither were handed a regular starting spot.
Williams now fills the yearly vacated role of a potential freshman wunderkind, but he’s his own person and player. For example, it’s unlikely Williams racks up 46 steals in limited action like Richmond did. Instead of battling Joe Girard for a guard spot like Richmond was, Williams will be jostling with fellow forwards Cole Swider and Jimmy Boeheim for playing time. Only time will tell what Williams’ role is and how he adjusts to Syracuse’s style of play. If he performs better than Richmond did, great. It just means the team needs to do its best to try and get him to stay.
In all, Williams’ presence is exciting. He’s a well-rounded player expected to make a solid difference for the Orange. In an era of frenetic transfers and one-year freshman superstars, Williams will likely be handled with a little more nuance and patience. It’s just up to SU fans to set their expectations appropriately for an inexperienced but talented player.