SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas backs slowly toward the basket in the second half of a tight game against Wake Forest, four defenders blocking his path as he searches for an opening. The Orange's agile center then quickly spins left, scores softly off the glass and high-steps away, raking his right arm across his body as he shouts after being fouled on the play.
He converts the three-point play and later in overtime applies the finishing touches to another victory, making six consecutive free throws in the final minute to boost his game total to a career-high 35 points, the highest total for a Syracuse center since Jim Boeheim became head coach in 1976.
No longer just another guy on the floor, Christmas is the go-to guy for the Orange and has embraced his new role.
''I think I'm handling it well,'' said Christmas, who has started all but two games in his Syracuse career but had never been the focus of the offense. ''I don't look at it as a bigger role. I just go out there and play my game.''
Halfway through his final season, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Christmas has become a dominant post presence and is playing at an awfully high level. From his deft touch around the basket to his defensive prowess in the lane to his steely demeanor at the free throw line, he has evolved like few before him at Syracuse. He's averaging 12.2 more points per game than he did last season, the best improvement by any player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
''He's worked hard. He's gotten better every year,'' Boeheim said. ''Big guys generally take two or three years to get ready. I thought last year at the end of the year he started to do some things offensively. This year he's really refined his game. He's a much more complete player at both ends of the court.''
Christmas was a project for a long time, mostly because he was a late comer to the game. He spent most of his childhood in the Virgin Islands, suffered through the death of his mother from renal failure, and was an aspiring pitcher before moving to Philadelphia at age 13 to live with an aunt.
Still, Christmas proved to be a fast learner, earning McDonald's All-American accolades at Academy of the New Church in suburban Philadelphia.
As a freshman at Syracuse, he averaged 2.8 points and 2.9 rebounds, boosted the totals to 5.1 points and 4.6 rebounds as a sophomore, and last season averaged 5.8 points and 5.1 rebounds.
This season, he's shooting 60 percent from the floor and averaging 18 points - second in the ACC to standout Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor - and 8.9 rebounds, has 40 blocks to raise his career total to 203, and is making 72.9 percent (78 of 107) from the line while playing over 32 minutes a game.
Last week, Christmas averaged 28 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games to earn ACC player of the week honors for the second time this season.
''Offensively, he's got a good flow going,'' said assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who works with Syracuse's big men. ''He gets deep post position, and a lot of times when you get deep post position there's not too many moves you have to make.''
Outwardly, the transformation of the big guy has been remarkable. When he arrived at Syracuse, the soft-spoken Christmas was a gentle giant at best.
''Basically, he's too nice,'' Boeheim remarked during Christmas's freshman year. ''He needs to get more physical on the basketball court. You can be as nice as you want off the court.''
Christmas's high school coach can't believe the change.
''What happened since last year is beyond me - to go out there and play with so much aggression,'' said Kevin Givens, coach at Academy of the New Church. ''I'm just like - wow! He's putting the team on his back.''
Christmas has six double-doubles this season and has scored the decisive points in three of Syracuse's wins as he has evolved into the most important player on the Orange (14-5, 5-1 ACC) as well as an NBA prospect.
But Syracuse is a young team that has struggled to maintain consistency, and despite his stellar performance game after game, Christmas somehow failed to attract enough votes to make the list of the 25 players still in the running for the Wooden Award.
Sort of a shame for a player who exemplifies the true meaning of student-athlete. Christmas already has completed his undergraduate degree and is taking graduate courses.
Boeheim can only shake his head at the slight.
''Probably the best center in the country, that's all I can say,'' Boeheim said. ''Based on his numbers and what's he's been doing, he's tremendous. They double him every time, they're fouling him every play, and he just keeps playing great. He's playing unbelievable.''
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina contributed.
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