I will admit I did not understand the rejoicing.
Sure, fans are always happy when good players decide to defer the NBA and stay in school. Syracuse forward C.J. Fair is a very good player. But when Fair decided to return to the Orange for his senior season, the unbridled joy in upstate New York seemed disproportionate to the Orange's situation. Having Fair back was great, but Jim Boeheim always has plenty of talented forwards to plug into his lineup, and this roster is no different. Why were 'Cuse fans so worried he might leave? Good as he is, the Orange would have been fine without him, right? What was the big deal?
I will also admit I was wrong. In 2013-14, Fair will be the hands down most important returner on Boeheim's roster.
It is not that Fair was underestimated or overlooked. It is that the Orange desperately need him, particularly on offense, and without him there's little telling just what this team would be. There is talent, yes, and new faces in key positions, but only Fair can be counted as a reliable and efficient point producer … even without seeing Boeheim's eventual starting lineup. The question now is whether, with one year left, Fair can take another step.
He may well have to. Syracuse's backcourt turnover has essentially robbed the Orange of three of their four best, and only, scorers from last season. Michael Carter-Williams is off to the NBA draft. James Southerland and Brandon Triche are graduating. Carter-Williams notched an assist on 40.2 percent of his possessions; Triche did so on 21.8. The pair the team leaders (among regulars, anyway) in usage rate (24.6 and 24.0 percent, respectively). Southerland, meanwhile, led the team with 211 3-point attempts despite missing almost a month due to academic suspension. He shot 39.8 percent from 3.
Asking Fair to replicate all of those abilities would be, um, inequitable. He is not a point guard like Carter-Williams, or a combo guard like Triche. He is not a 3-point specialist like Southerland. Fair reliably hits mid-range jumpers and happily leaps into contact. He is more forward than guard.
But there is nothing to say he cannot expand his game and that he cannot become an all-court scorer who does not necessarily need a nice setup on the baseline to be effective. After all, Fair shot 47 percent from 3 last season (he went 30-of-64), which was the exact percentage he shot on his 398 2-point attempts. He also takes care of the ball. His 13.5 percent turnover rate was lower than all of his teammates' rate save Southerland. While that has a lot to do with a high rate of catch-and-shoots, it also suggests Fair might be able to expand his ballhandling role without giving Boeheim too much heartburn. And if 64 shots becomes 164, can Fair shoot 40 percent?
Which is not to say Fair is going to suddenly morph into Trey Burke. He is not a point guard, he is not going to be a point guard and, most importantly, he should not need to be a point guard. Syracuse has five-star point Tyler Ennis reporting for duty this summer, and by all accounts he'll be ready to go. Ennis is a smart, rim-attacking penetrator and passer with a 3-point shot that keeps defenses honest. Sophomore shooting guard Trevor Cooney should absorb plenty of minutes, and probably even receive a starting nod, at the two.
Even so, that makes Fair a small forward -- and that is probably the best thing for Syracuse, anyway. The strength of the Orange lies in its frontcourt, where Rakeem Christmas remains a strong player, Baye Keita is underrated and arguably underutilized. Jerami Grant stepped up when he got his chance during Southerland's absence and highly touted 2012 recruit DaJuan Coleman is totally ready for his close-up. How will Boeheim balance those minutes? For all of the talk about the 2-3 zone -- and Fair and the rest of these forwards will be important there, too - Boeheim isn't a coach with a die-hard offensive system that must be adhered to at all times. He isn't a positional dogmatist. He plays to his players' strengths, and he finds ways to get guys in his lineup that might not make sense in any traditional 1-through-5 breakdown of the game.
What if he decides to put Fair at "shooting guard?" What if he plays four forwards?
I realize this may be a terrible idea, but that is not really the point. The point is that it's at least conceivable, and the reason it is conceivable is Fair could very well have that kind of talent in him. He may have the ability to take his already-efficient perimeter shooting and turn it into an all-around offensive attack. At the very least, he is the closest thing to a rock in what will be a brand new backcourt this season, whoever ends up getting the minutes.
So, yeah, the euphoric Syracuse fans were right. Fair is not just another forward to plug in with the rest. He is something different -- and that difference could be the key to the 2013-14 Orange season.