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Syracuse big man Jesse Edwards excited for upcoming season with Orange

Syracuse big man Jesse Edwards excited for upcoming season with Orange

The Syracuse men’s basketball team kicks off the 2022-23 season Tuesday with an exhibition game against Indiana (PA) at the Carrier Dome. (I know it’s technically now called the JMA Wireless Dome, but I’m not ready to call it that yet, and not sure if I ever will be.)

Orange center Jesse Edwards made the tough decision against going pro and making the early jump to the NBA to return for his senior season. Before his junior year abruptly came to an end due to a wrist injury on Feb. 8 vs. Boston College, Edwards was averaging an impressive 12.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, and ranked second in the ACC in blocks with 3.07 rejections per contest. He also was 12th in the nation in field goal percentage (69.5%).

I asked an NBA scout for his thoughts on Jesse Edwards:

"He’s long, athletic, (a) shot-blocker, can run the floor, (has) great mobility for a 7-footer, (has the) ability to roll quickly out of the high pick and roll and finish or make the right play to avoid getting the charge," the scout said. "(He) has great touch around the basket and really good footwork. (He) needs to get stronger and improve (his) rebounding. His draft comparison would be a more offensively-skilled Rudy Gobert. (He) could definitely be a pro with longevity in the league."

The 6-11, 230-pounder from the Netherlands is poised for a dominant senior season for the Orange and has the potential to be one of the most offensively skilled centers in not only the ACC, but the entire NCAA. 

I caught up with Edwards to discuss his perseverance through his difficult early years under head coach Jim Boeheim, his progression, the upcoming season, the talented freshman class and much more. 

Etan Thomas: How was your experience playing for the Dutch National Team?

Jesse Edwards: "It was a great learning experience because I got the opportunity to play with and against pros. I saw how they approached the game. It’s different than teenagers in college; they approach it as their livelihood. It’s all businesses. It was really a great experience."

Etan: This season, we have some young guns, we also have returning vets. Joe Girard, Symir Torrence, yourself, of course. What can 'Cuse fans expect this season? 

Edwards: "Our practices have really been a lot of fun. We have six freshmen and a transfer. That’s seven new people. And everyone is hungry. We really go at it in practice. Not to say we didn’t do that before, but now, it’s just different. It’s a feeling that things are not as set in stone as they were last year. This season, it feels like playing time is really up for grabs, so the tenacity in practice is just really competitive. It’s great."

Etan: A lot of fans are discussing how the team is going to look very different as far as style of play compared to last year. Do you think that as well? 

Edwards: "For sure. Last year, we had fantastic scorers, top-tier three-point shooters. This season, we still have Joe, but we added a lot of athleticism to our roster. And Benny [Williams] will be playing a lot more, and he’s as athletic as they come. So yeah, it will be a much faster pace this year. (It) will be fun to watch."

Etan: Now, you’re coming into this season as one of the top big-men prospects in the country. People are really high on you now. People are complimenting your scoring ability, and Coach Boeheim even said something to that effect. How does that feel coming into the season for your confidence? It seems like people are finally recognizing what you can do on the basketball court.

Edwards: "It definitely feels good to get that recognition, for people to see what you’ve been working on for the last few years. But for myself, I try to not put too much into what people say. I know how quickly what they say can change. I’m just trying to continue working hard, getting better and doing the things that can help this team win. It’s great to hear, don’t get me wrong, but none of that is going to my head, trust me."

Etan: That’s a great mentality to have. So, I wanna go back now because it wasn’t always like this — how you’re regarded and people recognizing and acknowledging what you can do. You know, myself and Roosevelt Bouie, we’ve been the founders of the Free Jesse Fan Club and the Feed Jesse Club, lobbying for you to get the ball more.

But explain the mental toughness and perseverance that it took for you to weather the storm during those tough years where you weren’t getting to play, or you would get put in for a few minutes, then get taken right out. Or you would play really well one game, then wouldn’t play for two games after. What did it take to mentally get through those tough periods?

Edwards: "Well, first of all, I know I’ve said this to you and Rosie privately, but I want to say it publicly — I really want to say thank you for keeping my head up during those tough times you mentioned. The texts, the DM’s, coming up to me after the game; that really helped me a lot, especially coming from you. And you always used yourself as an example saying, 'Yeah it was tough for me at first too, but it got better. Just hang in there.'

"I can’t tell you how much that helped. That kept me on the right track, motivated, and you didn’t let me get down. It was like you knew the perfect time where I needed some encouragement. I remember one time in particular, you listed all of the positive things I did one game, and it was a game I felt like I did nothing right."

Etan: Well, it's because I’ve been there. And like I told you before, Roosevelt came to me while I was going through my tough times and did that same thing for me. He saw the potential in me just like I saw it in you. But I know what it feels like to not feel like you can do anything right in Coach Boeheim’s eyes.

To have the entire halftime speech or postgame speech be focused on what you did wrong, and you’re looking around like, "I only played 5 minutes, I couldn’t have done all that in 5 minutes." I remember all that, and I know what it can do to a player’s confidence, and I didn’t want that to happen to you. So how was you able to weather that storm? Because it’s not easy.

Edwards: "No, it’s definitely not easy. I don’t know. I just tried to occupy my mind by working hard. Going to the gym by myself or just getting someone to rebound for me and just workout and take my frustrations to the court. When you’re in that situation, it’s hard not to start doubting if it will ever change. But I didn’t want to give up, or have my love for the game to be taken away, and that’s one of the things you kept saying: 'Don’t give him a reason to point to because if you start sulking, or not cheering on the bench, or not working hard in practice, or not coming in early and staying late, or not interacting with your teammates, they are going to use that as reasons to justify not playing you.' So I made sure I didn’t do any of that. But to be honest, there were times I thought, 'Did I make the right decision coming here?'"

Etan: I’m sure there were. I remember after my freshman year, I was this close to transferring. I doubled back to some of the colleges that recruited me.

Edwards: "Yeah, and that was back when it wasn’t easy to transfer. Y'all had to sit out right?"

Etan: Yeah, you had to sit out a year. Let me tell you how frustrated I was, though. The rules were if you transferred in conference, you had to sit out two years. And I was still considering it! (Laughing) 

Edwards: (Laughing) "Dang! That’s crazy."

Etan: Man, listen, so when I would tell you I feel you, I meant it. But you battled through it, and every year, you added something to your game and it was great to see the development. And to hear the announcers start speaking highly of you and giving you the praise you deserved, it was great to see that. Specifically, your sophomore year, because there was a stretch where the media kept asking Coach Boeheim why you weren’t playing more. Do you remember that? 

Edwards: "Well, I remember you writing about it and tweeting it and then, more of the Syracuse media almost quoting you to Coach."

Etan: Okay, semantics (laughing), but Coach Boeheim would keep telling them, "He’s not strong enough. He’s too thin. He doesn’t rebound well enough. I play the guys who play the best at practice," and his most consistent response: “He’s not ready.” And yes, I wrote about when you was put in a few crucial games — after not playing for a few games and really getting inconsistent minutes even before that — and you shined against Georgia Tech. Then, you came back the next game against North Carolina and shined again. And I wrote about it.

But people don’t understand how difficult it is to just “stay ready." People use that phrase as a cliche, but they don’t really understand how it feels if you haven’t played in a few games, then you’re thrown into an important game. Then, you know that if you don’t play well, Coach Boeheim is going to say, “See, that’s why I can’t play him because he’s not ready.” So all that is in the back of your mind, but you came in both times and played great. How were you able to do that?

Edwards: "Yes, exactly the way you described. It’s so crazy. You check in, you’re thinking, 'Okay, don’t mess up, don’t mess up' because you know (you make) one mistake and you are going to get snatched out the game. And people don’t understand that feeling unless they have experienced it. There’s no way they could understand.

"But I always come back to what you and Rosie kept telling me. Whether it’s three minutes or 23 minutes, when you go out there, make something happen and get yourself going. Don’t have the deer-in-headlights look. Understand what coach wants. Don’t freeze up at any yelling from the bench. Like, shake it off immediately and keep playing. All that stuff helped. I don’t want to keep thanking you throughout this entire interview, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that advice. I was prepared, mentally prepared, which is really a large percentage of what you need."

Etan: Definitely, and you really did a great job with that. So let’s talk about last season. You’re playing great. Everything was going well. Things were really turning the corner for you and the entire team. And then, you hurt your wrist and was out for the season. Talk about how devastating it was for that to happen right at that time when you were rolling.

Edwards: "Aw man, it was so devastating. The team was rolling like you said. We were all finally clicking. So to have it happen then, it really sucked. That’s all I could say. But to watch the team almost pull off a crazy upset against Duke and how Buddy [Boeheim] was playing, I was really happy for him. But yeah, it was tough. I can’t lie. But like you told me, injuries are part of the game. You get knocked down, you pick yourself back up and you work harder, and that’s what I did this summer."

Etan: So coming into this season, all that’s behind you. You’ve weathered all the Syracuse storms, and now you’re a senior, you’re established. People recognize what you mean to this team. Your inside presence, scoring ability. You can even step out and hit the jumper. You can really score in a variety of ways. I love the drag screen in transition and how you attack the rim; you gotta stay outta foul trouble though because we need you on the floor, so don’t go over any one’s back fighting for rebounds and getting cheap fouls — but also, keep fighting for rebounds (laughing). I ain’t telling you not to rebound now

Edwards: (Laughing) "Yeah, I hear you."

Etan: But you’re one of the leaders on the team, and really, the sky’s the limit for yourself and this super talented team.

Edwards: "I can’t wait. This is really going to be an exciting team to watch. We have high-flyers, scorers. The defense is going to be better, we still have three-point specialists; (we have) young players who are all hungry and excited to play. We’re really going to be fun to watch. I can’t wait."

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