Syracuse basketball fans know a little something about the heartbreak of being left behind and seeing the dream of something that could have been very special ripped away from them.
Carmelo Anthony, after leading the Orange to the 2003 national title in his freshman season, opted to take his game to the next level and was drafted No. 3 overall by the Nuggets in the NBA draft. Clearly it was the right move for him, but it’s still somewhat sad to think of what might have been if he’d stayed another season with a team that otherwise lost very little talent and ended up in the Sweet Sixteen even without him.
Then there was Donte’ Greene, who left after his freshman year to be drafted in the first round by the Sacramento Kings. There's also Jonny Flynn, who stayed only one year longer than Greene and left after a stellar sophomore campaign in which he led the Orange back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year drought and reached the Sweet Sixteen.
This time, though, things are a little different. Syracuse will once again have to cope with the loss of a talented one-and-done player—except that in this case, it’s not going to be a fab freshman, but rather a tremendous transfer: Wesley Johnson.
Even after playing two seasons at Iowa State, Wes was largely an unknown quantity in college basketball coming into this year. Now, 16 games into his first Syracuse season, he’s being mentioned as a Player of the Year and All-American candidate.
It’s not hard to see why. He fills up a stat sheet like no other, averaging 17.4 PT, 8.9 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.8 STL, and 2.0 BLK, while shooting a very solid 56.5 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from three-point range.
The one knock that some people have laid on him at times is that he doesn’t take over games. And, well…there may be some validity there. But how many opportunities has he actually had to put the team on his back and carry them through a tough situation? The Orange are winning their games by an average of 21.4 points per game and haven’t been threatened much outside of their loss to Pittsburgh.
Even so, Wes himself has suggested that in the second half of the season, he may look to take things up another notch.
“Those first 15 games, I was just getting back out there and playing,” he told the Post-Standard’s Bud Poliquin. “Just getting my feet wet again. Now, I’m back playing. I’ve made my way back. I’ll take shots off my dribble. Things will be more intense now. I’m not saying I’m going to take over the offense and go crazy. I’m just saying when I have my shot, when I think I can take somebody, I’m going to do it.”
This is a thought that should strike fear into the hearts of opposing Big East coaches and players. The 6’7" athletic freak who can dominate inside, or step out and hit nearly 50 percent of his three-point attempts, is ready to get serious.
Johnson is a matchup nightmare, and the only individual who could possibly hope to slow him down is Wes himself. He already has an ideal game and body for the NBA, which is why he’s already under consideration for college basketball’s highest accolades.
It’s also why Orange fans need to enjoy the show while they can because he likely won’t be back for his final year of eligibility next season.
That's not a sure thing, of course. Johnson himself has offered no hints about whether he’s even thinking about it beyond saying how much he loves being at Syracuse.
However, when sites like NBADraft.net have a player going second overall this early in the season, it becomes a pretty safe bet that in a few months, he’ll be making that announcement that no college hoops fan wants to hear: Their star player is putting his name into the draft and intends to hire an agent.
And while I don’t doubt that he’s enjoying his time at Syracuse, it’s the same story we were hearing in Donte’ Greene's only season, and then during Jonny Flynn's final year, just months before they announced their entry into the NBA draft.
I don’t hold it against them, though. I certainly couldn’t turn down a seven-figure salary to play basketball, and I doubt that many other people could, either. With Johnson’s size, athleticism, and skill set, NBA scouts are going to be drooling at the thought of signing this elite prospect, while some struggling team is going to happily pull out their checkbook for him.
The only thing that’s left for Syracuse fans to reasonably hope for from Wes is that he goes out like ‘Melo seven years before him: on the heels of a national championship.