In past years, this question would not be as fun to answer because of the size of Syracuse’s recruiting classes. Last season, Benny Williams was the answer to every superlative about the freshman class in 2021 because he was the only freshman. But, now with six guys in the fold competing for playing time, there is plenty of love to go around.
We’ve spent a lot of time at The Fizz breaking down what each player’s role will be this season. Which of them are going to start, are any going to redshirt, who fits in the most with the current roster and the upperclassman, etc. Judah Mintz, Chris Bunch, and Justin Taylor have been the primary factors of these discussions, simply because of where they’re rated, and the positions they play.
The Orange have a clear need for scoring on the wing after the departures of Buddy Boeheim, Cole Swider, and Jimmy Boeheim. That’s nearly 47 points per game that SU is losing from their perimeter players. Jim Boeheim returns Joe Girard III, who averaged almost 14 points per game, but the need for scoring and offensive production is clear. That’s why those three are getting the most hullabaloo about potential playing time and maybe being in the starting lineup.
But, offense is not everything. Syracuse’s offense was elite last season. The reason the Orange were able to finish 69th in kenpom.com’s rankings at the end of the season is that they finished 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency. That is terrific, and a testament to the three departures, Girard, and Jesse Edwards who also average double-figures before he went down with a season-ending wrist injury in February.
Edwards was good defensively, averaging almost three blocks per game in 24 contests as a junior. But, he was about all that was good on the defensive end of the court for the Orange, as SU finished 207th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. It’s not just Pomeroy who rated the Orange poorly, Bart Torvik’s T-Rank had the Orange 153rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, still not good.
This brings us to the answer of who will be a surprise for Boeheim’s squad on the court this season, and potentially have a major impact, specifically on the defensive end of the floor. That is Maliq Brown. Listed at 6’8, 213 pounds, Brown has the build to be a lanky, athletic forward on the wing of the zone, a place where an upgrade in athleticism is desperately needed after the troubles of Swider and Boeheim last season.
Brown is a tenacious rebounder and is not afraid to get in the paint to fight for loose balls. With guys like Mintz, Taylor, and Bunch hanging out on the perimeter, the Orange need Brown to make an impact by doing the little things, and that is what he is built for. If Syracuse’s defense is even marginally better than last season, it can make a huge overall difference.
First, that takes the pressure off the offense when they feel they have to score on every possession because of the struggles on defense. Also, defense creates offense. If the zone forces more turnovers and gathers more rebounds, the Orange can use their youth and energy to their advantage by running more in transition, something that has not been done in recent years.
Brown can make a major impact defensively as a freshman, and that might be the most important impact of any contributor, because of how much defense plays into Syracuse’s success year in and year out. Look out for the Virginia native to play a role early and often for Boeheim this season.