Waiting for Christmas: Still 1 year away from SU, Rakeem Christmas is prepping for his role already
When Kevin Givens decided to adopt the 2-3 zone for his team this season, Jim Boeheim immediately came to mind. All Givens had to do was say the word, and the Syracuse head coach provided him with all the literature and game tape he could ever need on the subject. After all, Boeheim had a vested interest.
Givens’ star player, Rakeem Christmas, was being heavily recruited by Boeheim and his staff to come play for Syracuse. With the reputation as the top shot-blocker in the 2011 class, and a wingspan of ‘at least 7-foot-5,’ the 6-foot-9 big man was an ideal fit for Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. Any advantage Christmas could get learning the zone early was a benefit to the Orange.
With Givens implementing that scheme this season, it only helped the Orange’s cause of landing the recruit. Christmas officially committed to SU on Aug. 6, ultimately opting to go where there was some initial familiarity.
‘You know Syracuse — very rarely do you see them go man-to-man,’ said Givens, the head coach at the Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn, Pa. ‘They’ve had a lot of success with that 2-3 zone over the years, and they live by it. … The good thing for Rakeem is that he’ll now have some experience when he plays it the following year.’
When Christmas suits up for the Orange a year from now, he’ll be the latest in a long line of high-profile recruits Jim Boeheim has lured to Syracuse. Scout.com currently ranks Christmas as the No. 10 prospect in the country. Higher than it ranked current SU freshman Fab Melo a year ago, and higher than Jonny Flynn in 2007.
But when he does come, he’s expected to contribute immediately as a defensive stopper in that 2-3 zone. With his size, length and athleticism, Christmas has a chance to be the defensive game-changer the Orange has lacked in recent years. Getting a head start on the defensive scheme he’ll be playing in college should only help.
‘In that 2-3 zone, I’ll just stay in down low and block shots,’ Christmas said. ‘That’s really my style of play, and that’s where I’ll be happy.’
Christmas currently sits as Scout.com’s No. 1 ranked center in the Class of 2011, but he’s really the prototypical power forward in today’s game. To Evan Daniels, a recruiting analyst at Scout.com, Christmas not only has the size, but also the athleticism and constantly running motor to play either power forward or center and to do it well.
‘No question he’s a high-level athlete, and that will play into his ability to block shots,’ Daniels said. ‘You get the length, the athleticism, the timing — all that plays into the incredible shot-blocker that he is.’
During his recruitment, Christmas briefly flirted with the likes of Georgetown, Florida and Texas, among others. But in the end, there was just too much of that familiarity at SU to seriously consider going elsewhere. When weighing the pros and cons of each school, the ‘at home’ feeling he had during his official visit to Syracuse won out.
At SU, Christmas will be reunited with former AAU teammates Dion Waiters and Trevor Cooney, another 2011 Syracuse recruit. The trio tore up the Philadelphia basketball circuit as members of Team Final two years ago. Cooney and Christmas stayed on as teammates this past summer. After Cooney returned from a recruiting trip to Syracuse having already committed, he began to turn on his recruiting charm to Christmas.
‘After my trip to Syracuse, I knew we needed another big guy, and Rakeem was one of the guys they were looking at,’ Cooney said. ‘So I just kept pushing him to go up and see Syracuse and was glad that he saw everything that I saw up there.’
Unlike most big forwards, Christmas wasn’t forced into playing center during high school. With 6-foot-11 teammate Malcolm Gilbert, a 2011 Pittsburgh commit, playing alongside him this season at the Academy of the New Church, Christmas will have the chance to play the forward position he’s projected to play at Syracuse.
That should make the transition to the collegiate level easier. And it’s something Daniels sees could be a major factor for the Orange next year.
‘He’s going to fit into that defensive system well,’ Daniels said. ‘But he should also have a guy named Fab Melo, who is absolutely monstrous, right next to him. If you put Rakeem, with his wingspan and athleticism, out playing forward, that zone is going to be really tough. … That’s going to be a huge defensive front line.’
So with Christmas committing to the Orange, the possibilities are quite intriguing. Christmas believes he’s found the right place to utilize his abilities.
Cooney can’t wait. He’s already chomping at the bit to join Christmas at the Carrier Dome next year. He can’t wait to see what the Orange can be, defensively, with Christmas in that 2-3 zone.
And to Cooney, Syracuse has found its defensive game-changer.
‘He’s going to be a huge force in that zone,’ Cooney said. ‘He’s so big and he’s so long, he’s just going to clog up that middle. Just knowing that you have that kind of shot-blocker behind you defending the basket, it plays a big part in that kind of defense.’
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