As NBA draft nears, C.J. Fair knows he has much to prove
Editor's note: SI.com will follow former Syracuse forward C.J. Fair during the NBA draft process, from this week's combine in Chicago to the June 26 draft and beyond.
C.J. Fair wasn't even 6 feet as he prepared for his freshman year of high school at Baltimore City College. But that summer he began experiencing a growth spurt and shot up to 6-4 seemingly overnight. He took advantage of his physical development to blossom into an all-city player and become one of the most sought-after wing players in the country. Schools such as Kentucky, Louisville and Florida came calling, but interest in Fair cooled after he missed his junior year with a torn ACL.
"Syracuse was one of the schools who stayed with me," Fair said.
After playing his senior season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, Fair returned the favor to the Orange: He stayed with them after they stayed with him.
Fair rewarded Syracuse for its faith. He stands as one of the most productive players in school history, ranking 15th on the all-time scoring list. The 6-8 small forward helped guide the Orange to the Final Four in 2013 and was a consensus second-team All-America as a senior last season, when he finished second in the nation in minutes and averaged a team-high 16.5 points and 6.4 rebounds.
That success, however, hasn't made the 22-year-old a highly rated draft prospect. His athleticism, leaping ability and explosiveness are part of his appeal, but Fair's NBA position and ability to make perimeter shots, serve as a secondary ball handler and defend well enough against small forwards and big shooting guards remain in question. In some ways, it's a story we've heard before: the productive college player who simply doesn't have a fit in the NBA.
Draft Express ranks Fair No. 71 and ESPN puts him No. 56 in the 2014 class -- the status of a training-camp invitee or fringe second-round pick, without the guaranteed contract that Orange teammates and projected first-round picks Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant are set to receive.
This week's NBA combine in Chicago will be Fair's first chance to prove that those evaluations don't add up and that he's the rare college senior with upside.
"I was one of the best college players," Fair said. "Going into the draft, you want the best players. I should be mentioned."
That's about as boastful as the stoic, baby-faced Fair gets -- the most emotion or braggadocio he'll show is when he screams after one of his ferocious transition dunks.
"Don't confuse being quiet for lack of confidence," said Adrian Autry, Fair's position coach at Syracuse and a former Orange star himself. "He's not a self-promoter, he's not into all the antics. C.J. goes out and shows you through his game."
That approach was never more apparent than when Fair faced freshman phenom Jabari Parker and Duke before 35,000 fans at the Carrier Dome in February. Playing against Parker and another projected first-round pick in Rodney Hood, Fair embraced the opportunity to solidify his place as one of the nation's premier players.
"I've never been a part of an atmosphere like that," Fair recalled. "The energy building up to that game was out of this world."
Coach Jim Boeheim kept running plays for Fair, who responded with a career-high 28 points in the Orange's 91-89 overtime victory.
"Sometimes you can see players get out of character in big games," Autry said. "He never gets out of character."
Performances like that one make Fair believe that he's "NBA-ready" and poised to "improve my stock by going against guys [at the combine and team workouts] who are ranked above me" ahead of the June 26 draft.
"I respect each one of those players and I'm pretty sure they respect me," Fair said. "It's going to come down to teams looking at what I can bring to the table. I'm a competitor and I'm not going to let any other player get the best of me."
To make sure of that, Fair has been working on his ball-handling and defense with former NBA player John Lucas in Houston. The Orange play a 2-3 zone, and Fair wants to show NBA teams that he's capable of guarding all three perimeter positions man-to-man. Autry also acknowledged that Fair, a left-hander, has room to grow as an attacker off the dribble.
"The great thing about C.J. is that he's one of the most consistent kids I've been around from a work ethic standpoint," Autry said.
Some days Fair will work out twice before he even touches a ball, hitting the weight room to improve his strength, agility, flexibility and mobility. Fair said Lucas treats him as if he's a guard and sees potential for him to play multiple positions in the NBA.
"I'm much more valuable to a team if I can eventually be an elite defender on the perimeter," Fair said. "I think I can play the 2 or the 3."
Autry has no doubts about Fair's pro potential.
"He has a high IQ and figures things out really quickly," Autry said. "He's an NBA player -- and a very good one at that."