National Title Contender Syracuse Once Again Led By A Freshman: Tyler Ennis

AAU culture is supposed to be contaminated. Too much individual. Too much flash. The top high schoolers are supposed to lack the necessary intangibles when talent is no longer enough. Playing within the team can be difficult for young players, especially those infected by the me-first, superstar culture permeating through amateur basketball. This is not the case for Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis.

The 2012 Gatorade New Jersey Basketball Player of the Year with St. Benedict’s Prep, Ennis made a verbal commitment to Syracuse last summer, and now the Orange and coach Jim Boeheim have begun the season with one of the most sought-after freshman in the country. Ennis was just named the ACC Player of the Week, and through ‘Cuse’s first 13 games, Ennis is averaging 11.8 points, 5.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 40 percent from deep. But with so many other exciting first-year college players, and this is the best freshman class in a long time, there’s something that sets Ennis apart: he’s a true point guard, in the vein of Stockton, Kidd and Paul.

Ennis, the son of a coach, understands what it takes to lead a team from the point guard position, and it’s his intelligence within that role that ingratiated him to the Syracuse staff during the recruitment process.

“He’s one of the most intelligent — if not, the most intelligent — players I’ve ever worked with,” Gerry McNamara, Syracuse assistant coach and former starting point guard, told us earlier this season. “He’s a step ahead of the curve in his intelligence level. The biggest adjustment when you get to the college level is the speed of the game. And Tyler plays with such a great pace. I anticipate him being able to pick it up a lot quicker than the average player.”

That’s proved prophetic. Ennis came on strong during wins over St. John’s (21 points and six assists) and last Saturday’s big victory over No. 8-ranked Villanova, a 78-62 drubbing spearheaded by Ennis’ 20 points, where he got to the line for 11 foul shots in taking what the defense gave him.

It’s the little in-game adjustments that Ennis thrives at identifying, poking and prodding a team’s defense to figure out what is going to work on any particular night. He doesn’t need to score to be effective, and when we spoke with him before the season started, when he’d only had a few practices with the team and a brief sojourn to Canada for some exhibition games, he spoke about identifying what he could do to make his teammates stronger.

“Nobody likes a point guard that takes too many shots and doesn’t set guys up,” Ennis says. “The successful teams that win championships and win games have point guards who lead and control the game, but also get guys involved. They’re able to score when the team needs it, but the primary job is to get the ball to the scorers and that’s what I focus on. I love setting guys up.”

His preternatural court awareness was evident almost from the moment he came to Syracuse. McNamara marveled at his unique understanding of the game within the game, where Tyler had already shown an ability to open things up for this teammates, even if it didn’t translate to the stat sheet.

“[Ennis] is a guy that can have the ability to create — not only his own assist — but to make the play to help someone else make a play,” McNamara says. “That’s the stuff we really value and from the point guard position, that’s the stuff that sets your team apart and separates good teams from great teams. Tyler’s the guy that makes an offense run, and [the casual fan] doesn’t even recognize it. And that’s something that is extremely special.”

Before the regular season even started this year, the 6-2 Brampton, Ontario native was already thinking ahead.

“We had a couple practices before we went to Canada,” he says. “I think that period… taught me a lot about the guys and where they like the ball. I watched some of them last year, but even in open gyms, I learned a lot in terms of where guys like the ball or where they can be successful. As a point guard, that’s my job. I’m learning things every day and hopefully by the time the season starts, I know everything about a guy’s scoring options and things like that.”

Ennis’ basketball talent is without question, but it’s his intelligence and personality that will allow him to augment that talent at the college level and possibly beyond.

“Certain kids that you come across are special people,” McNamara says. “I’ve been fortunate enough in this business to come across special people. Tyler Ennis is a special kid. Regardless of his basketball ability, he’s a special person; he’s an infectious personality. His teammates love him. In my opinion, only special people have that ability and he’s as nice a kid as he’s as good a basketball player. Any time you can coach those kids, we’re happy.”

The Orange are 13-0 this season and ranked No. 2 nationally, and the point guard’s team-first mentality and understanding of complexities and personalities will only help Syracuse moving forward as the pressure mounts. There’s a certain All-Star in the NBA right now who led Syracuse to their only NCAA title during his freshman year. Maybe Ennis can join Carmelo Anthony in that exclusive club? Gerry McNamara was a starting point guard on that 2003 title-winning team, and he certainly thinks Ennis possesses enough talent and innate basketball intelligence to carry his game to the next level.

“From a skill standpoint, it’s all there,” he says. “From an intelligence standpoint, I think [Ennis is] well ahead of many players at our level. From a work ethic standpoint he’s well ahead of players at our level. He’s got all the tools… to become a great college player, and certainly an elite point guard at this level. And if you’re an elite point guard at this level, you’re going to move on.”

What do you think?

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