Syracuse basketball fans have gone through the full range of emotions with Naheem McLeod. When the Florida State center transferred to SU last spring, there was euphoria and hope. In the early season, especially the Maui Invitational, there was disappointment. Recently it seems like there’s been anger.
Today, with still almost a full week until the Orange’s next game, there’s a chance to calm down and evaluate the start of the season objectively.
Let’s start at the time of McLeod’s transfer. Syracuse fans were ecstatic to hear the news, thinking that the ‘Cuse had already found a replacement for Jesse Edwards. Expecting McCleod’s production to match Edwards’ was too optimistic, and set SU’s new center up for failure. In his last year with the Seminoles, McLeod averaged 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds in 13 minutes per game. In his pre-Syracuse career, the junior had just six total games where he broke into double-figure points. A jump from that to Jesse Edwards’ 14.5 points and 10.3 boards per game would be a miracle. Because of the hype right after McLeod’s transfer, there was no way he could live up to the expectations.
This isn’t just a situation of wanting too much. There have been several disappointing performances from Naheem McLeod. However, he never really got a chance to mesh with the rest of the team in live game situations. In the season opener against New Hampshire, the center played just 10 minutes. McLeod looked solid when he played, but head coach Adrian Autry said it wasn’t an ideal matchup for him. That was a mistake. When you’re trying to get a player used to a much bigger role, they should be on the court as much as possible, even if the matchup isn’t perfect. That trend of a lack of chances has continued, with McLeod’s only games with at least 20 minutes of playing time coming in Hawaii.
In terms of offense, there’s not much more that McLeod can do. He’s shooting 70% from the floor, which is expected for a center, but he’s meeting the standard nonetheless. Now, that’s on limited shots, but this isn’t completely McLeod’s fault either. When he’s on the court, he needs to be fed the ball inside. It gives him a chance to score, and opens up the outside for the rest of the offense. Now, McLeod’s footwork does need to improve, and that’s on him. However, there just haven’t been a lot of chances for him to dominate a game offensively.
On defense, there have admittedly been a lot of issues. Naheem McLeod’s 7’4” frame makes him great at blocking shots, so it’s no surprise he’s tallied 20 denials already this season. But with that size comes a lack of speed. Autry was right when he said that McLeod didn’t match up well against New Hampshire, and that sentiment is correct for a lot of non-conference opponents. In man-to-man defense, McLeod just can’t keep up with the 6’10” centers of the world. While he’s been a little better in zone, his rotations still need work. Plus, SU should play a lot of man this year. When the Orange run man or a press, Maliq Brown is a better fit. However, have some patience. Against some of the biggest, best centers in the ACC, McLeod will be Syracuse’s best bet.
Another factor to consider is health. While tall athletes often have back issues, there’s a more specific concern with Naheem McLeod. Against Georgetown this weekend, the junior had some irritation in his foot, according to Autry. There’s a chance that’s impacted his play all season long. It’s not an excuse, but health is at the very least something to consider with McLeod.
At the end of the day, McLeod has been far from perfect. However, try to remember the learning curve that SU centers often go through. Edwards, Rakeem Christmas, and even Rick Jackson started their careers in Orange on the slow side. McLeod’s hopes to be a consistent presence are far from gone.