SYRACUSE — Tyler Ennis is speaking of the duties of a point guard, calmly reciting each task as if it were long committed to memory. Running a team is at once Ennis’ discipline and his virtuosity, his vocation and his first love. The languid Syracuse freshman rattles off the time-honored obligations as eloquently as a player twice his age.
“First you have to get everyone in control, not dominate the ball but get things running in the right way, the way the coach wants,” he said. “You have to get the right players the ball, the best players the ball and getting them in the right spots as well. You have to be able to control the tempo, when you want to slow it down, when you want to speed it up.”
Pure point guards are born, not crafted and while some find the undertaking of recruiting one an ordeal, Jim Boeheim seems to find great ones more often than not. The line stretches from Pearl Washington to Sherman Douglas to Adrian Autry to Jason Hart to Gerry McNamara to Jonny Flynn to Michael Carter-Williams.
But for all the grand point guards who have paraded through Central New York, none have been quite like Ennis.
“There is nobody better, I think, in the end game situation, making plays, making the right decisions,” Boeheim said.
Blazing an early trail
The native of Brampton, Ont., has played the game most of his life, first picking up a ball and learning the game’s rudiments from his father, Tony McIntyre, who eventually doubled as his AAU coach at CIA Bounce. When he was 5, Ennis pleaded with his older brother Dylan — now at Villanova, which is also in Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament — to let him play on his team. It only took a few trips down the floor for Ennis to prove he could play with the 8-year-olds who buzzed about how adroitly he dribbled.
He was tested in AAU tournaments throughout Canada and the U.S., played zillions of pickup games, and was ultimately bred for success at St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. But others have played as much ball as Ennis, to much less effect. There’s such a thing as propensity.
He finds teammates at distinct positions. He tosses accurate passes from 25 feet that a merely able point guard can’t make from 10.
“My dad is a coach and I have two older brothers who play so I was always in the gym,” Ennis said. “I think a lot of my game comes from naturally being around basketball.”
The effect has been magnificent for Syracuse, which won its first 25 games with Ennis running the team. Expected to fall into the background, Ennis has instead taken control of the Orange offense with a demeanor rarely seen from a freshman. Knowledgeable testimony follows:
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski: “Tyler has had a sensational season. He’s shown a maturity that goes beyond his years and he’s playing for a great coach who has given him guidance and put him in a position where he can show his strengths and maybe minimize whatever weaknesses that he has.”
North Carolina’s Roy Williams: “I think Tyler has had a phenomenal year. To come in as a freshman and lead that team with some veteran players, he’s assumed that role and they gave it to him because they trust him and I think that’s huge. His play on the court, not just his leadership qualities, has been off the charts. He’s one of the premier freshmen, well, one of the premier point guards regardless of class in the country.”
Virginia coach and former NBA guard Tony Bennett: Even as a player I remember going against Rod Strickland and some of these great players that I got to go against – even Kenny Anderson – they are so good with the ball. But the ones that can really change pace – you think you got them and the next thing you know they’re so shifty. That’s what Tyler does.”
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton: “It’s very seldom that a freshman point guard would come in with the composure and the confidence that he has. It’s interesting that he’s walking into that team like he’s a savvy veteran and doesn’t ever seem to be rattled. He makes great decisions. The team seems to cater to him and that’s unusual for a freshman to come in and be that savvy and make such an impact on that program at such an early stage of his career.”
Miami coach Jim Larrañaga: “Tyler Ennis is about as cool a customer as I’ve seen as a freshman. He ran the No. 1 team in the country for many, many weeks and to play in all those close games, one-possession games, one-point games and make all the right decisions whether to score or pass or make a free throw, get the ball inside or to a perimeter shooter.”
Ennis scored 28 points by his sixth game as a collegian, 20 or more four times. He had 11 points, nine assists and four rebounds against Baylor and at Pittsburgh, took the inbounds pass with 4.4 seconds remaining, dribbled up court and tossed in a 35-footer at the buzzer to beat the Panthers. Coming into Thursday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Western Michigan, he averages 12.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds.
“We started off with one of the best records in school history, and I played a big role on the team,” Ennis said. “I’ve been pretty much welcomed since I got here and pretty much knew I was going to come here to run the point. I was able to adjust on the fly, and people were able to take to me and we’ve been pretty comfortable with each other.”
Asked if Ennis gets overlooked among the nation’s top freshmen, a list that includes Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Boeheim replied, “I think it’s pretty obvious. I don’t know what people are looking at, but they’re not watching performance, obviously.”
A chip on his shoulder
Ennis never felt like a hoops prodigy, always believing he was underrated despite being a five-star prospect.
“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and being Canadian doesn’t help getting recognition, either,” Ennis said.
Ennis is a player who improves the more you watch him. Autry, now a Syracuse assistant, first watched Ennis as a sophomore when he was an assistant coach at Virginia Tech and made a note to evaluate him further.
“I liked him,” Autry said, “but I didn’t love him.”
Autry saw him again the following summer.
“I liked him a lot,” he said.
The third time was a charm.
“I loved him,” Autry said. “I loved what he was about. I loved the fact that every time I evaluated him, every time I saw him, his team was always playing for the championship if not winning it. For me as a former point guard, all point guards are judged by wins.”
Ennis had a lone offer from Akron as a sophomore when he transferred to St. Benedict’s. He figured the only reason Akron made the offer is because Dylan was verbally committed to the school at the time. Yet after his first game at St. Benedict’s — he played against future pro Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – four more offers awaited. By midseason the paced picked up as Rutgers, West Virginia and Seton Hall wanted Ennis, then UCLA, Louisville, Illinois and Cincinnati.
“From that moment, I knew I could play at the high school level but also that I was going to play at the college level,” Ennis said.
In Ennis’ senior year, Rivals.com rated four point guards ahead of him – Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison, Florida’s Kasey Hill and St. John’s Rysheed Jordan with North Carolina State’s Anthony Barber just behind. When it came time to select last year’s McDonald’s All-America Team, the committee selected Harrison, Hill, Barber, Washington’s Nigel Williams-Goss and Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson. Ennis was livid over the snub.
“I thought I proved myself the summer before,” he said.
The McDonald’s team was announced while Ennis and his teammates were watching a tournament game in the Scholastic Play by Play Classic in Burlington, N.J. While everyone was stunned that Ennis was omitted, teammate Isaiah Briscoe hatched a plan.
“We have to go out and send a message,” Briscoe said.
Ennis took out his frustration on poor Eastern High School and detonated for a school-record 53 points in a 116-65 rout.
“I was really upset when my coach took me out with four minutes, but I didn’t know how much I had until after the game,” Ennis said. “It was one of those games that pretty much set a statement.”
The need for more speed
In hindsight, Ennis is glad he wasn’t named to the McDonald’s team. It made him work.
“I think it probably helped me more than playing in the game,” Ennis said. “It got me back in the gym, kept me motivated throughout the whole summer. I had a chip on my shoulder, even coming into this year, and you see all the McDonald’s guys getting recognition. It kind of motivates you through the summer and that’s what I was working towards to get better.”
But how long will Ennis remain at Syracuse? Anthony Bennett, his CIA Bounce teammate, was the top pick in last June’s NBA draft and Wiggins, another Bounce alum, could be next. Ennis is a likely lottery pick whenever he decides to leave, but he’s far from a finished product.
At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Ennis is a decent athlete but not overly explosive and lacks elite-level speed. He knows he has to get bigger and stronger.
“At the next level, everyone is so much more athletic,” Ennis said. “To be able to compete at that level is going to be an adjustment for anybody.”
Still, Ennis knows how to play, and part of that is knowing what not to do. Perhaps his greatest strength, after all, is his decision making. He knows he has done so much so soon in college basketball and yet it’s not nearly enough to satisfy him. Besides, why consider the future when the present holds so much promise?
“I’m just really focused on the season,” Ennis said. “I’ll tuck all that away until it’s time.”