SYRACUSE, NY — The shot itself was great. Tyler Ennis letting go from 35 feet out with an undefeated season on the line without a hint of desperation and then cooly jogging back down the floor at Pittsburgh with his teammates giving chase.
It was, from a distance, one of those chaotic moments where the basketball gods decide to be kind. It was so significant that the next day Ennis got a phone call from vice president Joe Biden to tell the point guard his shot was the topic of the VP's morning meeting.
"It was cool," Ennis says of the phone call, talking about the vice president's call just like it was from one of his buddies back home congratulating him.
No change in inflection. His eyes don't light up.
It was cool.
When you truly start to understand Ennis, the point guard, and Ennis, the kid, it wasn't by chance that he knocked down the shot of the college basketball season.
In a season that everyone predicted would be defined by freshmen, the focus has often turned from celebrating the young guys to picking apart their games. But Ennis emerged as the one who everyone seems to appreciate because he looks nothing like a freshman.
He's done it without putting up gaudy stats. His 12.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game are nice, but he's known more for winning plays and making everyone around him better.
Neither is by accident.
The scene following preseason workouts at Syracuse was a familiar one around college basketball. Players would stay afterward to get in extra work. For most guys, this involves getting up as many shots as possible.
But off sitting to the side at Syracuse was the new starting point guard, tasked with taking over for Michael Carter-Williams, a lottery pick who led the Orange to the Final Four last year.
Ennis watched each of his teammates closely, studying their every move and taking mental notes that have helped him lead an offense that has been more efficient than the one Carter-Williams led.
"You can really tell where guys hit shots from and how they catch the ball and what hand they like going to," Ennis says of his preseason routine.
This was a habit born out of necessity and a vision he shared with his father.
Growing up in Canada where you had to search for great competition, Ennis would always play up in age group. He was always the youngest guy on his team and looking to fit in.
"It's not like they had a lot in common," says Ennis' father, Tony McIntrye, who also served as his coach. "I think he really went in to make guys better as a form of acceptance. I know I could go in here and score, but I really get enjoyment out of seeing you guys score, you guys excel and everybody putting up numbers."
Even though he was often the youngest (and smallest) guy on the court, his dad would get on him for almost every turnover.
"That was a lazy pass," McIntrye would tell his son.
"No, it wouldn't have been a 'lazy pass' if he just would have stepped toward the ball," Ennis would bark back.
Ennis figured out two things really quickly. First, if you know your teammates better than they know themselves, you can avoid a lot of turnovers.
"The guys definitely have to do their part of catching it, but you've really got to get the guys the ball at the right time," Ennis said. "And if guys aren't comfortable in their spots, the turnovers are going to come. They know where they like the ball, and I just have to get it to them there."
The other lesson was to surround yourself with talent. Talent, Ennis learned, can make a point guard look good.
Ennis wanted to play at Syracuse from the time he was 10. He played in an AAU tournament that year at the Carrier Dome and on the way home, he told his dad he wanted to play for the Orange.
"OK, let's make that happen," his dad told him.
McIntrye had already started setting his sons up for the chance to play in the States by starting an AAU program in Canada, CIA Bounce.
Ennis was surrounded with other Division I talent. The last few years he played with Kansas star Andrew Wiggins and Florida State's Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who was also a top-30 recruit.
Not only did he dream of playing for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, but he knew the coach would surround him with great players.
All those things combined—his knowledge of his teammates and trusting their abilities—has helped Ennis avoid what is typically an inevitable blemish on every point guard's stat line: turnovers.
The freshman's assist-to-turnover ratio (3.58) ranks ninth in the country. Over 28 games this season, Ennis has had more than two turnovers only three times. To understand the significance of such a feat, check out how that compares with some of the elite point guards in college basketball.
|Number of three-plus turnover games for elite point guards|
|3-plus TO Games|
|Shabazz Napier, UConn||16|
|Marcus Smart, OK State||14|
|Keith Appling, Michigan State||6|
|Xavier Thames, SDSU||6|
|Aaron Craft, Ohio State||13|
|Marcus Paige, UNC||9|
|Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State||4|
|Scottie Wilbekin, Florida||7|
|T.J. McConnell, Arizona||5|
|Tyler Ennis, Syracuse||3|
"He's a very smart point guard," Boeheim says. "He's always been a point guard, and I think that's helped him. He sees the game and makes good decisions."
And he plays at his speed.
Ennis has always been so calm and close to emotionless that his dad wondered if he even liked basketball when he was a kid.
Ennis says that not once this season has he ever felt nervous.
Undefeated season on the line and you have the ball against Pitt on the road, your heart had to be racing, right?
"Nah," he says.
Instead of concentrating on the enormity of the moment, Ennis was calculating his options.
As he got the ball in the backcourt with 4.4 seconds left and started dribbling up the court, he said his first look was to C.J. Fair, but the senior was closely guarded. Straight ahead he had Trevor Cooney, but Pitt's Cameron Wright was in the way.
"He has an innate ability to play the game at a speed that is unusual for such a young kid," says Roy Rana, who coached Ennis on the Canadian junior teams the last two summers. "He plays the game like a 27-year-old veteran. Guys have a tendency when they get older for the game to slow down and for them to be able to see things they wouldn't have seen when they were younger because of the pace they played at.
"Maybe they weren't able to have that vision. He has that now. He just sees things develop, and he makes great choices. You can't speed him up. You can't slow him down. He's going to play at his pace for 40 minutes. I think that's an incredible and special gift he has."
It has been incredibly valuable to Syracuse. In the biggest moments of the season, Ennis has cooly quarterbacked his team to victory.
When the game is chaotic for others, it slows down for Ennis.
In overtime in the first meeting against Duke, Ennis noticed a major mismatch for Jerami Grant. Grant, 6'8", had three inches on his defender Andre Dawkins, who is used to playing on the perimeter, and Ennis fed Grant for three straight buckets in the paint.
On Saturday at Duke in a game in which he struggled, Ennis had the confidence to throw a left-handed, wrap-around bounce pass to Rakeem Christmas for a dunk that pulled Syracuse within one point. He also delivered the pass to Fair that in an alternate universe—one where Tony Greene calls a block and Boeheim reacts gleefully on the sideline—could have been the game-winning play.
The Orange offense is built around Ennis' ability to decide what is the best shot on every possession, and he's always unpredictable.
In ball-screen situations, for instance, it's almost impossible for the defense to predict what he's going to do. Sometimes he attacks. Sometimes he lets the defense rotate and picks it apart with his passing.
In the win over Pitt, Christmas set a screen out high for Ennis, and Grant's defender switched on to the forward. When Christmas wisely sealed that defender on his back, Ennis looked to his right at Grant on the wing, which froze the defense, and he threw a no-look pass 25 feet to Christmas. The pass was on the money and led the big man right into a dunk.
Watch Ennis and Fair operate together, and it's like watching Peyton Manning and Wes Welker making reads from the slot based on the defense.
Fair likes the ball in the mid-range, and many of his shots are determined by where and how Ennis passes him the ball.
"It's tough for them to read the defense when they've got their back to it, so I've got to show them where the defense is at," Ennis says. "And (Fair) reads as well. If he curls, I've got to see that, and if he fades, I've got to see that."
Much like a quarterback in the pocket, Ennis also has to feel out where he needs to have the ball when it's time to deliver or time for him to attack.
As he moves around, ball security is important, and his ability to protect the rock is a coach's dream.
Only twice all season has Ennis lost the ball off the dribble.
"Which games?" Ennis asks immediately when he's told this stat.
In the first meeting with Duke, Jabari Parker snuck up from behind and knocked the ball away.
"Yeah, I remember that one," he says.
Against Wake Forest, a behind-the-back dribble caught his back heel.
"Yep. I remember," he says, as the play replays in his head. "Yeah. Yeah."
After his first game with more than two turnovers—he had four against North Carolina on Jan. 11—McIntrye called to give his son a hard time.
"Yo Tyler, what's up with the four turnovers?”
"You expect me to go my whole life without one turnover?" Ennis responded. "I know. I'm not happy about it. I'm going to fix it."
"And that was the end of that conversation," McIntrye says.
When McIntrye called his son after the Pitt game, they talked about the shot, and then Ennis told his dad: "I'm glad we won. I couldn't stand losing."
A loss in the ACC is almost as inevitable as a point guard at some point turning the ball over, so Ennis should take great satisfaction in the fact that he had already made history before the BC and Duke losses. Syracuse, led by a freshman point guard, was 25-0.
Yes, the Orange have been in a funk since, but let's put the 25-0 start in perspective.
How many times has a team in a major conference won that many games to start a season when led by a freshman starting at point guard?
Not once. Ever.
Derrick Rose is the only other starting freshman point guard to go 25-0—Memphis won its first 26 games in 2007-08—but he did it in Conference USA.
No one deserves more credit for Syracuse dodging a loss in those first 25 games than Ennis.
In the final five minutes of regulation and overtime in one-possession games (before the BC loss), Ennis made eight of his 10 field goals, 14 of 14 free throws and had seven assists and one turnover, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
That made his performance in the final five minutes and in OT against BC—1-of-5, two turnovers and 1-of-2 at the line—an anomaly.
"Within a game, when you struggle to score, he finds ways to score," Rana says. "He can be a facilitator when he needs to. He can make his teammates feel good about their involvement in the game, and when the time comes for him to take it up another level from a scoring perspective, he seems to be able to do that."
Rowan Barrett, who is the assistant general manager with the Canadian National team, says Ennis reminds him of a young Tim Duncan.
"He's unassuming and not very demonstrative, but when the game was on the line, that's when we saw who he was," Barrett says of Duncan. "You saw the character of the guy come to the forefront. That's what we see with Tyler."
Ennis' chances at someday becoming the starting point guard for the national team improved this summer when he led the Canadians to a sixth-place finish in the Under-19 World Championships, which was the best finish ever for the country in that age group.
This was without Wiggins, who would have been the go-to scorer on that team. Rana told Ennis he needed him to be that guy, and Ennis was the tournament's leading scorer at 20.9 points per game.
"If you're constantly doing historic things, if your team is constantly in the hunt to win the championship and you're the one usually stirring the drink, that's not going to happen without a high level of competitiveness," Barrett says.
Two weeks ago against NC State (win No. 25), Ennis was somewhat shaky down the stretch for the first time. He fouled Ralston Turner on a three with 1:02 left that gave the Wolfpack the lead, missed a layup 17 seconds later and was called for a charge with his team trailing by one on the second-to-last possession of the game.
The day before that game, Ennis said this season had been easier than he had anticipated it would be because his teammates trusted him so much.
After the Orange escaped on Fair's last-second layup on a pass delivered by Ennis, the freshman walked off the floor with assistant coach Gerry McNamara's arm around him. Ennis was shaking his head.
He couldn't believe he had messed up. He couldn't believe he had four turnovers.
"Tyler's made nothing but good plays, and he made a couple bad ones tonight," Boeheim said afterward, "which is really what you expect a freshman to do."
That's the brilliance of Tyler Ennis. It took 25 games for him to play like a freshman.
And this past week as the Orange dealt with a losing streak for the first time, as Ennis and his teammates struggled to score, he only knew one way to respond.
I know. I'm not happy about it. I'm going to fix it.
In Monday night's win at Maryland with his teammates still in a scoring funk, Ennis had his most points (20) since the new year began.
True to his word, he saw the problem and fixed it.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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