Story by Daniel Manga :: Illustration by JiaYu Chen
It was a little over a year ago that Jonny Flynn officially announced his decision to forgo his college basketball career and hired an agent for the NBA draft. Losing its best playmaker with the big smile seemed insurmountable for the Orange. Fans had proudly displayed signs warning opposing teams to “fear the grin.” But without Flynn, who was there to fear?
In stepped Wesley Johnson, a highly-touted but largely unknown transfer from Iowa State. He quickly became the talk of the town, with a grin so big he might have stolen it from Flynn. Johnson ended the ’09-’10 season as a First Team All-American and the Big East Player of the Year, while leading the Orange in points (16.5) and rebounds (8.5).
Now, almost a month after the Orange’s season ended, the team finds itself in the same situation as a year ago. On April 12, Johnson announced he will leave Syracuse early for the NBA draft. The Orange will enter the ’10-’11 season without a big-time NBA prospect.
Syracuse will be bring in a four-man class for the ’10-’11 season, consisting of three ESPNU top 100 recruits, including Fabricio de Melo, Dion Waiters, and C.J. Fair.
Melo, the No. 14 overall prospect, is considered to be the best center in this year’s class. He has been highly sought after since he arrived in the United States from Brazil. Despite sitting out the ’08-’09 season due to Florida’s state transfer regulations, Melo managed to make a big impression on scouts. In his lone season at Sagemont High School, Melo averaged 15 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks, while leading his team to the state semi-finals.
In the past season, Melo has improved leaps and bounds. A big point of emphasis has been his conditioning.
“Last year at this time, if he didn’t get the board in his first jump, his second jump wasn’t high or explosive,” John Stoval of ESPN said. “Now he’s blocking shots and running the floor to finish fastbreaks. He looks great.”
With his impressive height and 267-pound frame, Melo promises to be an instant contributor on the defensive end, while he works on his raw offensive game. With the departure of Arinze Onuaku, Melo can step in as the prototypical center for coach Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone.
But the biggest contributor to next year’s Orange might well be Dion Waiters, the No. 2 shooting guard and No. 15 overall prospect.
Fair, who measures 6-foot-4, will serve as the logical successor to Andy Rautins. Waiters is more of an athletic shooting guard, averaging only 21 percent from the three-point line, while thrilling fans with high-flying dunks. He averaged 21.3 points and 3.7 assists this season for the Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. Waiters will most likely find significant playing time beside the point guard duo of Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche.
The remaining two prospects, C.J. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita, will most likely struggle to find playing time in the Orange’s deep front court.
Fair is the No. 63 overall prospect, but is blocked by Kris Joseph as well as returning sophomores James Southerland and Mookie Jones.
Keita is considered to be more of a work in progress, destined to ride the bench while he develops his overall game.
While the Orange has lost its best player, next year’s team will still be loaded with talent. Four of Boehiem’s “seven starters” will be returning and the Orange will bring in ESPN’s No. 4 recruiting class. Yes, the loss of Johnson hurts Syracuse’s prospects in ’10-’11. Then again, we also thought the loss of Flynn would hurt our prospects in ’09-’10, and look at how that turned out. Orange fans need to wait and see who will rise to the occasion.
You never know how freshmen will respond to the challenges they will face on the collegiate level, but Melo and Waiters have unquestioned talent. Although there are no guarantees, the Orange will compete next season; like this year, they will not be “rebuilding.”