I know what you're probably thinking. "A Syracuse Basketball story about the most impactful returning player? It's obviously C.J. Fair. Let's move on." After we went with the obvious choice for which freshman would be the most significant addition, it would seem reasonable that we'd go with Fair here.
But Fair is not the player who will affect the team's fortunes most this season.
That distinction is saved for Rakeem Christmas, the 6'9" junior forward out of Philadelphia. Fair is unquestionably the team's leader and best player, but we know what we're going to get from him. Christmas is an enigma; you never know from one game to the next whether he is going to bring it. If he puts it together and plays consistently this year, the sky is the limit for the Orange.
The main thing 'Cuse fans knock Christmas for is his seeming lack of aggression. In his first two seasons on campus, he seemed to disappear from games and sometimes appeared disinterested in playing. Despite starting every game last season, Christmas averaged only about 20 minutes per game. In most instances, Christmas would start the game, play two or three minutes then be invited to have a seat next to Jim Boeheim, sometimes for the rest of the half.
Despite his athletic gifts, Christmas managed only 5.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest in his sophomore campaign. That's not bad for only 20 minutes of work, but Christmas couldn't make a consistent contribution because he always found himself on the bench for not putting his athletic ability to use.
Maybe he's just not wired to be aggressive. In an excellent feature on Christmas for Syracuse.com, Donna Ditota details how Christmas lived with his grandmother in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands until he was 13. It's probably hard to develop an aggressive personality when you grow up on a beach. Rob Brown, Christmas' AAU coach, had this to say to Ditota about Christmas:
The perception of the islands is very laid back and very different from the Northeast, where it’s go, go go. In the islands, it’s ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ He’s got so much athletic ability and he’s such a nice kid. You gotta get Rakeem to sharpen his claws and growl a little bit. That’s been the biggest adjustment for him. Because physically, there are very few people walking this earth who have his athleticism.
If Christmas can indeed "sharpen his claws," he will make the Syracuse frontcourt a nightmare to match up with. DaJuan Coleman will likely start at center, and at 6'9" and 280 pounds, he will be a load underneath that sometimes commands a double-team. We already know what Fair can do, so defenses will at least have extra eyes fixated on him. That will often leave Christmas to be checked by someone that can't handle him physically, and if he dominates his matchup, things will open up for everyone else.
That isn't to say that Christmas will be relied upon to carry the offense. Fair and Jerami Grant will probably handle the bulk of the scoring with some Trevor Cooney treys and Tyler Ennis drives sprinkled in. But if Christmas can throw down a few lobs, back down smaller defenders and make his free throws, his impact on the offense will be noticeable.
And just imagine what a motivated and aggressive Christmas will do for the defense.
With Coleman or Baye Keita anchoring the 2-3 zone in the middle, Christmas will find himself out on the wings more often. The forwards in Boeheim's signature system are responsible for, among other things, running three-point shooters off the line, sometimes all the way up to the elbows. At 6'9" and with a 7'3" wingspan, Christmas is built to shut teams down on the perimeter. If he is going hard, expect to see a few three-point attempts end up in the fifth row.
Christmas can also be an asset against teams that like to work inside instead of hoisting it from deep. He has shown his prowess as a shot-blocker, and with Coleman clogging the paint, Christmas will be free to roam around and swat shots away from behind. Syracuse thrives on creating turnovers to turn defense into offense, and if Christmas is playing with energy, there will be plenty of opportunities for fast-break points.
There are lofty expectations this year for the Orange. Rakeem Christmas holds the key to meeting those expectations. If he turns flashes of brilliance into consistent performance, the path to the ACC title may lead up I-81 instead of Tobacco Road.