The last time Jim Boeheim handed the keys to a freshman point guard—as he will do this year with Tyler Ennis—Syracuse ended up in the NIT.
That point guard, Johnny Flynn, was no slouch. He would end up as a lottery pick. The problem may have been with the talent that surrounded him, rather than with his personal performance.
The early returns on Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis are glowing, and he should have the talent surrounding him to give Syracuse a legit shot at competing with Duke for the ACC title in its inaugural season in the league.
Everyone knows about C.J. Fair, especially after he dropped 22 points in the Final Four against Michigan, and the swingman is an All-American candidate.
Jerami Grant could be the Michael Carter-Williams breakout candidate as a sophomore. He led Syracuse in scoring in a recent four-game tour of Canada, and he has NBA buzz surrounding him. Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com has Grant in the first round of his new 2014 mock draft based off what he saw in the tryouts this summer for the United States' U-19 team.
But even with two dynamic scorers like Fair and Grant, it's a good bet that the Orange are only going to go as far as Ennis takes them.
We have a decent idea what Ennis will be after 13 games this season against a mix of solid and weak competition.
He played in that U-19 tournament for Canada and was the leading scorer for the entire tournament, averaging 20.7 points per game. When you combine his nine games in the U-19s with the four in Canada, what you get is a point guard in a similar mold as Michael Carter-Williams.
Both players struggle from deep—although Ennis has a nice looking stroke—and both excel at getting into the paint and the free throw line.
Ennis is not lightning quick, but he has a really nice handle of and pace to his game. He's clever with his dribble, which was on display in the overtime win against Carleton, Canada's best college program.
Ennis' performance against Carleton, a team that knocked off Wisconsin two days earlier, was a lot of good mixed with one possibly troubling number. In 44 minutes, he put up 15 points, had four assists, one turnover and five steals.
He combined with Grant to carry the Orange to the win.
What could be worrisome for Boeheim is that Ennis went 4-for-17 against Carleton and that was in line with his tendencies at the U-19 World Championship. In that tourney, Ennis put up 17.6 shots per game.
It was necessary for Ennis to shoot as much as he did with the Canadians, especially when their best post player, Trey Lyles, was lost to ankle injury midway through the tourney. And against Carleton, Syracuse was playing without Fair for much of the game.
Boeheim also sees Ennis as a capable setup man.
"Tyler is very steady. He knows how to play the game. He was very well coached," Boeheim told Syracuse.com after the first game in Canada."He's a really good point guard in terms of getting people involved, getting people shots. I think that's something that he really does a very good job of."
That's what made Carter-Williams so valuable last season for a team that, other than Fair, lacked guys who could create for themselves.
Boeheim's teams, in recent years, have not have great post scorers, so it's on the perimeter players to create offense.
There has been a direct correlation the last four years in how quickly Syracuse plays and how efficiently the team scores. Check out Ken Pomeroy's numbers (subscription required) for the Orange's adjusted offensive efficiency and their average length of possession.
Syracuse is at its best when playing fast.
Boeheim has asked a lot of his point guards and that will be unlikely to change just because Ennis is a point guard. Syracuse is limited beyond Ennis, as Duke transfer Michael Gbinije will be the backup, and Gbinije is a more natural shooting guard.
Ennis will have a lot on his plate. Not only will he play a lot of minutes, he needs to balance distributing with his own offense while also trying to push the tempo. It's a lot for any point guard to handle, let alone a freshman, but Carter-Williams was relatively unproven a year ago after a modest freshman season, and his rapid development took Syracuse to a Final Four.
Syracuse will begin this season with two near certainties: 1) The zone will be a weapon, as always (Good luck ACC!); and, 2) Fair will produce. With the emergence of Grant, Ennis might have a better supporting cast than Carter-Williams, and based off 13 promising games this summer, he might be more seasoned than Carter-Williams was this time last year.
That is enough to believe an ACC title and a return to the Final Four are within reach.