For an undersized freshman point guard coming off two losses last week and amid a poor shooting month, it's strange for Tyler Ennis to still be the belle of the NBA draft ball.
But that's exactly what Syracuse's catalyst it. Heading into last week, with Marcus Smart serving a suspension and Ennis still riding the wave from his stunning buzzer-beater against Pittsburgh, there was a growing swell behind Ennis that he would be the first point guard selected in June's draft, and a lock to wind up in the lottery (assuming he declares).
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, rarely one to shower acclaim on his players, much less on freshmen, has been effusive in his praise of Ennis this season.
"Tyler, for us, he's so valuable. He plays 40 minutes in the [ACC games]. We can't win a game without him. Literally," Boeheim recently told ESPN's Andy Katz.
"If you talk about the best pro prospect (in the ACC), it's Jabari Parker, but who's the most valuable to his team? We don't have a point guard, I don't know where we would be without Tyler Ennis."
With Ennis, the Orange are a legitimate title contender, thanks in no small part to his fantastic season. He's averaging 12.0 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals, while displaying the unique ability to dominate games without scoring prolifically. In the midst of a woeful shooting game on the road against Duke last week, Ennis made an unbelievable pocket pass for a dunk to keep Syracuse close. The play lead ESPN's Dick Vitale to compare Ennis to Jason Kidd as a collegian.
His leaping block in transition earlier in the game was the stuff highlights are made out of. Athleticism? Defense? You have questions; Ennis has answers. At a certain point, it's impossible to question his effect on the game.
In fact, the freshman point guard has been arguably the most clutch player in all of college basketball this season:
Those were his numbers coming into the past week, when Syracuse suffered two late defeats, and as mind-boggling as those numbers are, they were bound to regress. But he's still the player who hit this incredible game-winner against Pittsburgh to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
If anything, the criticism of Ennis lately has been that he's too unselfish. As Syracuse's offense has stagnated, asking Ennis to step to the forefront seems like the logical conclusion. After those crushing back-to-back losses, that's exactly what he did -- and exactly what you'd expect a lottery pick to do -- Monday night against Maryland. Playing all 40 minutes, something he's done seven times this season, the Orange point guard dropped in 20 points, six rebounds and three assists, plus two key steals, all while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Perhaps more telling, Ennis took a season-high 18 shots. When he wants to turn it on, he can. And he might have to more often if Syracuse wants to make a run to the Final Four.
That being said, Ennis has an innate feel for when to score and when to distribute. Earlier this year, against Villanova, he made every big bucket down the stretch for the Orange. He has over a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and seems to have the ability to get to anywhere on the court he wants.
Chris Paul was a quicker player at Wake Forest, but Ennis has a similar ability to change directions to beat defenders and similar steal numbers for players of similar height and build (Chris Paul was 6-foot, 175 pounds coming out, whereas Ennis is listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds). As a passer, Ennis actually has a higher assist percentage as a freshman than Paul in his first season. Defensively, Ennis sits just below Paul in steal percentage and steals per game (and actually has better numbers than Paul's second season at Wake).
ESPN's Chad Ford has the 19-year-old Ennis at No. 10 on his latest Big Board, but mentioned on a Grantland podcast that he has the possibility to jump Smart as the first point guard selected. NBADraft.net slots Ennis No. 13 to Orlando in its latest mock draft and 13th overall. While NBA Draft Express has Ennis sitting at 9th on its Big Board, which makes the Canadian point guard look like a consensus lottery pick.
With the ACC tournament still ahead and a contending team like Syracuse at his command, Ennis still has plenty of opportunities to improve his draft stock.
Best of the rest: Other NBA prospects to watch
Joel Embiid, C/F, Kansas -- Embiid missed his first game of the season due to injury thanks to lingering knee and back problems. This, more than his play, must be monitored as players as tall as the 7-foot Embiid tend to break down. By all accounts, Embiid's movements are fundamentally sound -- yes, this is something teams pay attention to -- but at his size, there's no telling what kind of wear and tear his body can handle.
Once Embiid got back on the court, he reminded us why he's a potential No. 1 overall pick. Whether it was an effortless 18 points and eight rebounds against Texas Tech on 6-of-7 shooting, or 13 points, seven rebounds and six blocks in just 21 minutes while drubbing No. 23 Texas, Embiid's game has been on point since the injury.
And he looks pretty healthy here:
Jabari Parker, F, Duke -- Swoon? What swoon? After taking his lumps in ACC play, Jabari Parker is back to bullying opposing defenders. He's had a double-double in four of his last five games and shot 50 percent or better in all but one game.
After struggling against the length of Syracuse in Duke's first meeting with the Orange, Parker made all three of his shots from deep, scored 19 total points and grabbed 10 boards, including one of the plays of the ACC season:
Parker still plays almost no defense, but as a rebounder/scorer combo, he has no peer in this class.
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- Wiggins' play of late is a good reminder that when it comes to 18- and 19-year-olds, sometimes we all just need to take a deep breath. The consternation over his slow start has melted into an all-out fawn-fest and rightfully so.
Wiggins asserted himself offensively for the Jayhawks and decided to start doing the things we knew he could -- namely making every big play when his team needs it, whether it's a shot and rebound to tie a game and force OT, or slipping to the hoop to make the game-winning layup.
Julius Randle, F, Kentucky -- After going MIA -- at least for his standards -- on the glass, Randle has returned to his early-season form, grabbing 12 or more boards his last four games in a row. As part of the offense, Randle doesn't get touches as often as he once did, part and parcel of players like James Young coming to the fore.
As an offensive player, Randle hasn't had the chance to fully explore his game, relegating solely to the block where his lack of size and length can sometimes be a problem. Even so, he's been a monster on the boards all season and remains a potentially dominant offensive player and a top-5 pick.
Gary Harris, G, Michigan State -- For a player who is supposed to be a 'shooter,' the ball doesn't go in nearly as often as it should for Harris. He's shooting just 34.1 percent from deep and 41.6 percent overall for the Spartans.
Harris has been unable to string together a slew of solid shooting games this season, and has shot over 50 percent in just two games in the last month -- including a 3-of-20 brickfest against Wisconsin.
Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona -- Sometimes, the game comes easy to Aaron Gordon. When he's in the open court, gliding in for ridiculous dunks or finishing one-handed alley-oops, you marvel at his athletic prowess. Other times? It's a struggle.
A team drafting Aaron Gordon will be banking on his perimeter game evolving in year three or four, a la Blake Griffin. Lot of talent there.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) February 15, 2014
Aside from his atrocious free throw shooting -- if you can even call it 'shooting' when a guy makes 41.1 percent -- Gordon struggles to create his own offense. He's built a reputation as an energy player who defends like crazy, rebounds, and can finish plays. Gordon even flashes the ability to knock down open threes. Luckily for him, he has a great point guard who can get him in position, but as an NBA player, he's essentially all upside.
Adreian Payne, F/C Michigan State -- Payne represents an interesting contrast to Gordon. At 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, Payne is a load inside and overpowers opposing big men, but also has a solid shooting stroke that extends out to the three-point line.
Payne has the kind of game that makes him the perfect NBA big man, a versatile inside-out game with shooting range, rebounding skills and defensive toughness. The other enormous factor for Payne is while he's a 44.1 percent three-point shooter, he's also a 78.8 percent foul shooter. Similarities to Detroit's Greg Monroe are hard to ignore.
Games to watch
Saturday, March 8 -- No. 17 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Florida
This rematch pits a loaded Kentucky squad against arguably the best team in the country and there are crucial matchups for NBA teams to watch at seemingly every position. The Harrison twins will have to handle Scott Wilbekin and Michael Frazier in the backcourt, while lottery-bound James Young faces players like Will Yeguete and Casey Prather.
Kentucky bigs Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle do battle with Dorian Finney-Smith, Patrick Young and the athletic Florida wings who attack the rim and crash the boards. This will be one of the juiciest matchups of the college basketball season for NBA scouts.
Saturday, March 8 -- Oklahoma State vs. No. 15 Iowa State
Marcus Smart returned from his suspension with an excellent game against Texas Tech and now faces the second-best team in the Big 12. Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane have been lights out lately, and with Oklahoma State in need of a big win, it will be up to Smart to deliver. If he can, it would represent a monumental step forward, away from the ugliness of his suspension. Getting his woeful shooting back on track certainly wouldn't hurt either.
Saturday, March 8 -- North Carolina vs. No. 6 Duke
Jabari Parker played well offensively against the Tar Heels the first time around, but his defense has sometimes been a liability and James Michael McAdoo punished him inside at times. Rodney Hood has been an underrated assassin all season as a shooter, and continues to be a key cog for the Blue Devils when Parker is struggling. But in a game where Duke was outrebounded 43-30, a 6-foot-8 player has to come up with more than a donut on the glass. Teams want to see lottery talents like Parker and Hood develop over the course of the season, which means fixing these types of problems in big games.