MBB : Freshmen Jones, Joseph infuse Syracuse with versatility
Mookie Jones knows these were only pickup games. No fans were inside the Carrier Dome, only the faint echo of the bouncing basketball.
But Jones was on a mission to earn respect from his Syracuse teammates this summer. So in the win-by-two format – amidst the Orange veterans – Jones demanded the ball and nailed game-clinching shots in the pickup games, one after another.
That cold-blooded, Peekskill High School forward who hit a game-winning dagger in the 2007 Federation Championship still is undaunted by the big shot.
‘I started hitting big, big shots (in the pickup games) and got more comfortable,’ Jones said.
So far, Jones and SU’s other headliner freshman, Kris Joseph, have gotten comfortable quick. Orange head coach Jim Boeheim vows to boast a ‘minimum’ nine-man rotation, which likely will include the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Jones and 6-foot-7, 220-pound Joseph.
The similar-built newcomers possess cloned games. Both prefer to loiter behind the arc, where it’s difficult for smaller guards to block their shots. Both can flash to the foul-line for short jumpers. Both have the long arms Boeheim covets for his 2-3 zone. Both infuse Syracuse with a jack-of-all-trades quality that was in short supply last season.
‘They’re going to play, they’re going to be a part of it,’ Boeheim said. ‘How much? You never know until you get into the season. There have been years where I thought a freshman might not contribute that much and they end up being one of the best players. You never know until you get into practice and into the first few games.’
Three practices in, Jones and Joseph have given Boeheim plenty to chew on. The duo is linked together throughout practice – guarding each other in a drill or chatting on the sideline about a previous play.
The freshmen have their moments. During a 2-on-2 segment, Jones and Joseph teamed up against juniors Andy Rautins and Eric Devendorf. On one play, Jones took the bait on a Rautins pump fake, heaving himself out of the play, but Joseph quickly slid over to help. In the sudden 2-on-1 situation, Joseph cut the cord between Rautins and Devendorf, and forced a turnover out of bounds.
Junior forward Paul Harris raced onto the court, roared ‘Good help Kris! Good help!’ and gave the freshman a slap on the back. For two ‘tweeners expected to be a melting pot of basketball skills, improving doesn’t necessarily mean scoring.
‘I think the coaches and some of the players are really impressed with my play so far,’ Joseph said at Thursday’s media day.
Jones and Joseph have had a central source for bucking the freshman learning curve: Harris. The junior has challenged the freshmen since day one.
‘It was a big help playing against Paul all summer,’ said Jones, who won three state titles at Peekskill. ‘I’d always ask, ‘What did I do wrong? What should I be working on?’ There was a lot of helping.’
Joseph stripped the ball cleanly from Harris Tuesday in a full-court, 4-on-4 drill. Harris raced back, caught Joseph and forced him to miss. But the freshman wrestled the rebound away and converted the putback. It was the type of grinding play Harris prepared Joseph for months in advance.
‘Right now, I really try to take advantage of guarding Paul Harris in practice, so I can better prepare myself for the season,’ said Joseph, who averaged 18.8 points per game and five assists per game as a senior.
The roles of Jones and Joseph aren’t defined yet. Unlike Kristof Ongenaet, who Boeheim said he simply needed to rebound last year, Boeheim knows he has inherited two versatile players. At practice, Joseph splits time between the bigs and guards.
‘This year we expect to be able to play nine guys minimum,’ Boeheim said. ‘You know, get Jonny (Flynn) out and get him some rest. Eric can play point, Andy can play the two or three, Mookie Jones can play the two or the three, and Kris Joseph can play the three or four.’
Barring another onslaught of injuries, Syracuse will not need to rely heavily on its freshmen. Still, Jones and Joseph will be regulars, a challenge in itself. Thursday, Jones said he had never experienced anything like the media swarm around him.
But as two more reporters converged on him, Jones promised he’s not overwhelmed. Just like pulling the trigger on those summer clinchers.
‘No, no,’ Jones said, shaking his head. ‘Just glad to be here.’
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