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Why John Bol Ajak Is Playing

John Bol Ajak has a fascinating story. From South Sudan to earning a basketball scholarship at Syracuse to now actually being a contributing piece, with a failed transfer mixed in as well. The forward has been an afterthought for essentially his entire SU career, but now, he is, at least at the moment, part of Jim Boeheim’s rotation.

A lot of Syracuse fans are wondering why that is. Ajak has taken the minutes that went to Maliq Brown at the beginning of the season as Benny Williams’ backup at power forward. Early on, Brown was eating into Williams’ minutes as the sophomore struggled. Now, it’s Ajak who’s challenging the former five-star.

So why is Ajak in this role? As Boeheim put it, he’s “smart.” Ajak is fantastic in the zone because he has a great understanding of it. Against Notre Dame, Syracuse brought Jesse Edwards up to take away the high post, thanks in part to ND’s lack of a presence down low.

However, that means that there is space behind the center for cutters to access and it’s up to the wings to rotate down and not allow easy layups. Williams still struggles with this, but Ajak is extremely effective in this situation. Even though he doesn’t have much game experience, only 22 games before this season, he’s been in the system for three years now, so he understands the intricacies. 

The other element of the zone that is key for forwards is finding the balance between covering the wing and the corner. Sometimes the forward gets caught too far up towards the wing, in an area where the guard can get to if need be. When that happens, the corner is open and the only hope of contesting the shot is the center getting out there in time, which is difficult. Ajak does this well, again thanks to his high basketball IQ and experience in the system.

Another element Ajak brings is his passing ability. The junior had a game high four assists against Notre Dame. He’s averaging 2.3 assists per game, the second most on the team behind only Judah Mintz. A forward with that in his arsenal makes everyone around him, especially Jesse Edwards, better.

It makes sense that Williams isn’t playing 35+ minutes per game. Except for a couple of nice performances against Colgate and St. John’s, the sophomore hasn’t done nearly anything. Watching the games, it feels like he’s just out there, he’s not making a real impact on either end of the court.

The real consequence of giving Ajak minutes is they don’t go to Brown. The freshman only has 13 total minutes in Syracuse’s last five games. Brown is a rebounding specialist. That’s what he was known as in high school, and in SU’s first three games he grabbed eight boards in 38 minutes.
As Boeheim likes to say, the Orange’s forwards have a rebounding problem. Williams, Ajak and Chris Bell combine for just 7.6 boards per game. It’s a trade off, but, right now, Boeheim is opting for experience.

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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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