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Arguably nation's most valuable freshman, Tyler Ennis leads No. 2 Syracuse

Tyler EnnisTyler Ennis has risen from the 22nd-ranked recruit to the best freshman in the country. (Rich Barnes/Getty)

The Brampton (Ontario) Blue Devils were a formidable bunch. On one particular afternoon, they were humbling another pack of 7-to-9-year-olds by about 30 points when a game official spotted what appeared to be a pile of fabric swallowing a small human being at the end of the bench. It was a 5-year-old, wearing a uniform and warmups meant for the big kids. He was considered more of a tag-along, a mascot or water boy, almost. His name wasn’t even on the score sheet.

Hey, the referee called to Tony McIntyre, the Blue Devils’ coach. Why don’t you put the little guy in?

The little guy was Tyler Ennis, Tony’s son. Tony shrugged. The game was out of hand. So he sent Tyler into the game almost as a gag, certainly as a lark for a boy who had played basketball since he was 3 but had about zero chance of getting a shot to the rim while guarded by the other kids on the floor. And then Tyler Ennis began passing the ball around. And then he looked comfortable, and then he began practicing with the Blue Devils, and then he looked really comfortable. And suddenly putting the little guy in was no question and no joke.

“My thoughts were, he could play with them and was able to contribute and not bring down the level of play,” McIntyre said. “And maybe we should keep playing him.”

The first time anyone wondered how Tyler Ennis might assimilate to a higher level was not the last, nor was it the only time an unswerving, flat-lined performance expunged that doubt more or less immediately. Syracuse is the undefeated, second-ranked team in the country in large part because a 6-foot-2 freshman isn’t acting his age, crashing the discussion about the nation’s best first-year players with exacting consistency and game-altering effort on both ends of the floor.

“He’s been as steady, probably steadier, than any point guard we’ve ever had,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “We’ve had probably a couple flashier point guards. But as far as a freshman just running the team and making plays and being solid – I can’t imagine too many freshmen point guards, and not too many upperclass point guards, have been as steady as he has been this year. He’s a smart player. He knows how to play the game, he’s got a good pace, he doesn’t get rattled. He plays at a pretty even keel.”

As the Orange prepared to face former Big East foil and fellow ACC unbeaten Pittsburgh on Saturday, these very valid appreciations of Ennis’ calm and intelligence almost obscured his outsized production. He has 96 assists against just 23 turnovers, a glistening 4.2-to-1 ratio that ranks 14th nationally. The next-best assist total for a Syracuse player is 25. His 2.8 steals per game rank seventh nationally, and 5.3 percent of opponent possessions end in an Ennis pilfer, a rate good for ninth nationally. When scoring is required, he can, with his true shooting percentage – an efficiency measure taking into account three-pointers and free throws -- at 52.6.

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According to SportsReference.com, Ennis’ Win Shares total – an estimate of how many victories are attributable to a player’s offensive and defensive performance – is 3.2. That approaches the measures for national player of the year candidates such as Doug McDermott (3.7), Nick Johnson (3.6) and Marcus Smart (3.4). And none of the nation’s other vaunted freshmen match Ennis’ value in this way.

“I try not to look at media and try not to pay attention to it as much as possible, but with the coverage and seeing those guys, it kind of lit a fire under me, that I have to go out there and prove myself,” Ennis said this week. “But I wanted to focus on getting my team the best record, because I know if we weren’t undefeated and didn’t have such a good record, I wouldn’t be getting the attention I am now. Just taking care of my role on the team I knew would pay off as far as personal accolades.”

Ennis is among a growing number of Canadian exports to have an impact on teams south of the border, a course he saw charted by players such as former Texas forward Tristan Thompson and former Marquette guard Junior Cadougan. Anthony Bennett, who became the No. 1 overall pick after one year at UNLV, and Andrew Wiggins, who may be the No. 1 overall pick after one year at Kansas, shone the light on that path. But those earlier trailblazers, of sorts, convinced Ennis and his family to season him in the United States. “We definitely have to go that route,” McIntyre remembers thinking, “because it’s working.”

He matriculated at powerhouse St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., and Roshown McLeod tipped off his good friend Adrian Autry about a 10th grader from up north who he had to see play. The former Syracuse point guard and now assistant coach witnessed Tyler Ennis thrown in immediately against St. Patrick High, then also one of the nation’s top programs. But Autry didn’t see Ennis’ facial expression change appreciably during the game. Ennis made mistakes, but just kept going.

“I remember after the game saying to myself, I gotta watch this kid,” Autry said in a phone interview. “He made an impression on everybody.”

Syracuse evolved into the ideal match for Ennis, both due to Boeheim’s honest sales pitch – if Michael Carter-Williams left for the NBA, Ennis would play a lot, and if Carter-Williams didn’t leave, Ennis would play a lot one year later – and because Ennis’ camp calculated the program’s approach matched that of the player. Lots of screen-and-rolls. Lots of high ball-screens. Freedom to create at the end of the clock. Ennis found that at St. Benedict’s, he found that with the powerhouse CIA Bounce AAU program, and he’d find it at the college level.

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At root, this explains much of Ennis’ effectiveness in transition, an alternative version of court vision. “He’s been allowed to be Tyler Ennis his whole life,” McIntyre said.

If this profound impact on a veteran team was not anticipated, it was planned as much as plausible. Ennis and his father voraciously watched Syracuse games during his final high school season. They assessed where he might get shots in the offense, where the returning players might be on a given set and how the rotations in the indefatigable matchup zone worked.

When Ennis arrived on campus, he would call his father to say he watched the Syracuse “bigs” work out and deduced where forward C.J. Fair liked the ball. When teammates hit the gym to shoot, Ennis sometimes rebounded for them, kicking the ball back out to get a feel for how they preferred it to be delivered.

Another fast start, finely calculated before the actual start. “I was comfortable from Day 1,” Ennis said. “It was kind of an easy transition. It was obvious coming in that I was going to be the point guard, so they kind of took to me. Along with showing me the ropes, they kind of took to the way I play and figured out my game. They just got comfortable playing with me early, and it translated going into the games.”

Boeheim planned an August tour of Canada specifically to break in a freshman point guard. This period, too, passed swiftly. In what became an overtime game with Carleton University, with Fair sidelined due to injury, the Orange turned to Ennis to take over. So he did. A drive and a finish, a transition play in which he braked, pulled it out and found forward Jerami Grant, who had been heating up, Ennis welded the team together before it played a single game on U.S. soil. “We were just like, wow, he did it,” Autry said. “He was making plays that most freshmen wouldn’t be thinking about.”

Tyler Ennis 2 It's rare, but Ennis does draw the ire of Jim Boeheim from time to time. (Kevin Rivoli/AP)

So he’s treated like most freshmen aren’t, already. Ennis has at least a measurable degree of freedom to call sets. Collaborations with Boeheim, apparently, are to the point.

“I don’t talk to him a lot, probably less than any point guard I’ve ever had,” Boeheim said. “He understands what he’s doing out there.”

Which not to say the Orange’s point guard receives a pass for occasional errors, such as a Euro-step into a turnover that drew Boeheim’s ire.

“He was saying, ‘Never do that again,’” Ennis said with a laugh. “But he has a lot of trust in me.”

Boeheim, Autry and the rest of the Syracuse staff learned what Ennis’ father understood years ago, after screaming at his son for in-game mistakes only to receive a focused-but-unswayed stare in return. It ticked off McIntyre even more when it happened, but he came to believe that look was Ennis’ way of saying, without a word, Just tell me what it is you want. Tell me, and I’ll go do it.

Currently, the Syracuse staff tells Ennis to do more. “It’s almost like a mindset – don’t forget about yourself,” Autry said. “Sometimes he can go a couple stretches without looking to make something happen. That’s the big thing.”

The on-court stuff is otherwise expressly attuned. Everything else is the adventure in the snow-globe life of a basketball player in Syracuse. A fan first recognized Ennis as the next Orange point guard at a roadside stop outside of Buffalo, N.Y.; Ennis hadn’t even stepped on campus yet as a student. He wonders why fans wait outside the Carrier Dome, in the cold, for autographs. He poses for pictures when making a Chipotle run. Meanwhile, fellow students surreptitiously snap smart phone shots of him in class and Ennis shakes his head. I know you’re taking a picture, he thinks. Just ask.

He had a quiet life in Canada and a boxed existence at an all-boys high school. This is unpredictability Ennis can relish. “You have a lot of freedom,” he said. “You have to decide to go to class. In high school, you’re going to class, you don’t really have a choice. You have the freedom (in college) to go to the gym at any time you want. You just pretty much grow up.”

Ennis long ago pointed himself here. All along, the trick was being ready before anyone knew it. It’s the rare surprise maybe the most important freshman in America can abide.
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