A creature, and a rather large one at that, was stirring Wednesday night in the Carrier Dome. That creature was Syracuse Orange center Rakeem Christmas, who awoke from a slumber that he’s been in for much of the season and played one of the best games of his career, an important development as the Orange start to set their sights on a deep run in March.
The numbers aren’t exactly eye-catching, but the performance was. Wednesday night Christmas gave the Orange the energy and presence at the defensive end of the floor that they’ve been missing from him all season. He enthusiastically went after rebounds and corralled the ball with authority. He aggressively blocked shots and defended the basket with conviction. His usual nonchalance on the floor was replaced with at least a tinge of emotion. Even though he ultimately fouled out of the game, the fouls he committed were a result of being too aggressive, a welcome change from fouls committed by being out of position or being physically pushed around. In the end, Christmas finished with six points, six rebounds, and five blocked shots; those numbers may not stand out compared to the rest of the Syracuse starters, but he impacted the game just as much.
If Christmas is able to continue his awakening, he could make a big impact for Syracuse down the stretch. Although Syracuse gets great energy and quality minutes from backup center Baye Moussa Keita, Christmas is their most talented center and the center most capable of making a big impact at both ends of the floor. A center that can be a strong defensive rebound is something Syracuse has been missing for much of the year, and Christmas showed flashes of doing that Wednesday night, and continuing to do so would give the Orange a big boost. Moreover, if Christmas can continue to be active with his hands on defense, it will lead to more blocked shots, steals, and deflections, all of which can turn into live ball turnovers that will help the Orange get out in transition, something Syracuse hasn’t been able to do as much this year as in year’s past. But if Christmas’ defense can help the Orange get more points in transition, it will take some pressure off their half-court offense and their profound struggles shooting from the perimeter.
It was just one game, albeit against a bad team, but if Christmas can build off of his performance Wednesday night, it would be a major development for the Orange heading into the postseason. He is so far from reaching his potential, but Wednesday he showed signs of waking up and moving closer to that potential. If that’s the case, Christmas could be a difference maker for the Syracuse down the stretch.