Jesse Edwards is OK with being called a nice guy but is unmistakably focused on becoming the brute in the middle of the Syracuse University men’s basketball team’s 2-3 zone defense.
Edwards — the 6-foot-11, 215-pound soft-spoken center from Amsterdam, Netherlands — met the media via Zoom on Thursday for the first time since his career breakout performance in Tuesday’s 83-57 victory over Miami (Fla.).
The sophomore flashed his familiar smile wide enough to match his wingspan throughout the call and eventually spoke of his ability to channel the ferocity needed to man the middle for the Orange, one of the many key areas of development on display Tuesday from the emerging young center.
“I think most players would tell you there’s a difference between you on the court and off the court,” Edwards said. “It’s something I had to learn but I feel like I’m getting the hang of it because the moment you step on the court, you just have to flip a switch, put on a different personality, and play your game.”
Edwards will aim for a strong follow-up when Syracuse (8-4 overall, 2-3 ACC) hosts No. 14/16 Virginia Tech at noon Saturday in the Carrier Dome.
He played a career-best 23 minutes in Tuesday’s victory — more than his combined 20 minutes in six previous appearances this year — finishing with a season-high seven points and career-high six rebounds.
Edwards took advantage of his first opportunity to play extended minutes with starting center Marek Dolezaj battling foul trouble and incumbent starter, Bourama Sidibe, still sidelined indefinitely due to soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
“It really felt good, I’m not going to lie,” Edwards said. “It was a really great feeling when we started to get a big lead, to be able to maybe prove myself, but more to see how we can all help the team together. I’m going to try to build on this.”
Edwards has long been considered a developmental project oozing with potential for the Orange.
He didn’t start seriously training for a future in the game until around age 16 and was mostly unfamiliar with the American college basketball scene growing up overseas.
Edwards said that his first exposure to Syracuse came while playing a video game as a teenager. He played a half-year at IMG Academy in Florida before joining the Orange as a freshman last season.
Following Tuesday’s performance, SU coach Jim Boeheim complimented Edwards’ lower-body strength and natural feel for the game while pointing to a need to improve his defensive positioning.
“Jesse was monstrous for us, he did a great job in the middle, he’s still got a long way to go, but he rebounded it and was a presence out there,” Boeheim said afterward.
“I thought he had a chance to block a few more shots but that will come,” he later added. “He showed a lot of promise tonight, this is by far the best he has played here. He’s a young player and he’s just got to grow into everything he’s doing, but he’s a presence.”
Edwards finally reaped the rewards of his extra efforts this season. He has been noted as an early arrival and one of the last players to leave the court at SU practices, often seeking additional time to work with assistant coach Allen Griffin, who focuses on the post players.
Boeheim said the two have worked diligently on Edwards’ conditioning and that was on display in his longest outing of the year earlier this week.
“We do a bunch of drills but everything we do is a quick pace, so anything we do, whether it’s 30 or 40 minutes, it’s all out,” Edwards said. “So, I don’t really get a rest or get a breather, it’s more game-like and I feel that’s really helped getting me ready for the games. You just feel more ready when you get into the game.”
Boeheim expressed the need for better production at the center spot multiple times since Sidibe suffered his knee injury in the season opener before Edwards finally answered the call last game.
Sidibe still had yet to practice with the team since being shut down from a brief return to practice earlier this month, according to Boeheim on Tuesday, placing a greater emphasis on the sudden emergence of Edwards.
“We all came together as a team and played a great game (Tuesday), and I’m really happy to be a part of it, of course,” Edwards said. “It’s just been working behind the scenes, working all year, and any chance I get I know I have to take the opportunity.”
TOUGH STRETCH AHEAD
After vanquishing a three-game ACC losing streak this week, Syracuse now enters its most difficult stretch of the regular season.
Beginning Saturday with a matchup against the No. 14/16 Hokies (11-2, 5-1), four of SU’s next five scheduled games are against top-five ACC teams in the NCAA Net Rankings. SU will next play Monday at No. 12/13 Virginia (9-2, 5-0), marking consecutive games against the top two teams in the conference standings.
Syracuse also has upcoming matchups against Louisville (Feb. 3) and at Clemson (Feb. 6) to complete the gauntlet. A potential makeup game against Florida State, which is also among the top five ACC teams in the NET rankings, could be looming.
ORANGE IN ACC LEADERS
Syracuse sophomore Quincy Guerrier entered Thursday as the only player among the top 10 ACC leaders in scoring average (16.7), rebounds per game (9.7), blocks per game (1.25) and field goal percentage (57.8). He leads the conference with six double-doubles and 116 total rebounds, highlighting SU players on the league leaderboard.
Freshman backup guard Kadary Richmond has tallied the most total steals (26) in 21.8 minutes per game, which is the lowest average amount of playing time among all players in the top 10. Richmond also ranked 10th nationally for steal percentage by Kenpom.
Joe Girard III and Alan Griffin are tied for second in the ACC for most total 3-pointers (29), while the Orange leads all ACC teams in assists per game (17.7) to spark the second-highest scoring offense (79.5 points per game) in the league.