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Benny Williams, Others Show Highly-Touted Freshmen Aren’t Instant Stars

Credit Dennis Nett/Courtesy Syracuse.com

Syracuse men’s basketball is nearing the end of its 2021-22 season, and its upcoming final four regular season games will tell us quite a bit about the team. SU just barely scraped through a four-game stretch against ACC bottom feeders with a bad loss against Virginia Tech and a needlessly close 74-73 overtime win over Georgia Tech last night. At 15-12, Syracuse’s record looks reasonably good – but losses to teams like Colgate, Pitt, and Georgetown are what may keep this year’s team out of postseason play.

Throughout the year, one of the more persistent storylines surrounding the ‘21-’22 squad is why true freshman forward Benny Williams isn’t playing more. After entering the season coming off a 4-star ranking and as the No. 32 player in the nation, Williams has been submerged on the bench. He’s said the right things, put in work after games, and hasn’t complained, but Williams still just isn’t seeing the floor. Truthfully, he may not deserve it. Last night against Georgia Tech, Williams by far wasn’t the problem among a slew of off nights from SU’s usual scorers – but in three minutes, Williams didn’t shoot, rebound, or tally any other statistic. If you’d gotten up during the game to pour a drink, you might have missed him entirely.

Games like that have become the norm for Williams in what has been a disappointing freshman season. Whether that disappointment stems from a rabid fanbase overextending its expectations is up for debate, but Williams currently has more turnovers (18) on the year than made field goals (16). Over a nine-game stretch between January 8th and February 5th, Williams played 76 minutes and went 0-11 from the field. 

Williams’ first season may have disappointed you, but he’s far from the only high-profile freshman player to have struggled in recent years. In a charged era of glitzy one-and-dones chasing quick roads to the NBA and lucrative NIL deals, it can be jarring to see highly-touted freshmen come in and struggle. On the Fizz, we detailed Memphis forward Emoni Bates’ recent slide. Over the course of the year, Bates has gradually played less, shot worse, and now hasn’t even seen the floor since January 27th. In his absence, the Tigers finally pulled out of their winter-long stall and are 4-1 without him.

Last year, former 5-star guard Khristian Lander suffered a similar skid at Indiana. In a basketball-rabid state and coming to a program used to handpicking homegrown superstars like Steve Alford, Damon Bailey, and Ted Kitchel, Lander (who hails from Evansville, Indiana) was tabbed as the heir apparent. However, in a turbulent freshman season, Lander shot 25.7% from the floor and struggled on defense. This year, he’s played far less, and new head coach Mike Woodson all but openly said Lander isn’t yet ready to contribute to an IU team trying to play its best five every night.

Elsewhere, former SU guard Kadary Richmond is playing better at Seton Hall than he did at SU, but isn’t the star Syracuse fans tried to mold him into last year. Former Fizz darling Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and UCLA freshman Peyton Watson have undergone starkly disappointing first years after high recruiting rankings. The list goes on.

Ultimately, recruiting rankings can only tell you so much about a player. There’s plenty of complexity behind fitting within a culture and system that benefits a player’s skillset. Benny Williams has had his growing pains this year, but he’s not alone among his own class. However, his play should serve as a lesson to everyone watching Syracuse’s program to pump the brakes on anointing stars. Next year’s Class of ‘22 looks awfully good, but expecting them to thrill right away may not be realistic. For plenty of 4 and 5-star players in the past two years, it has proven not to be.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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