CENTER STAGE: Elijah Hughes has always been a dangerous contributor. Now, he’s Syracuse’s most important player.

first_imgElijah Hughes strolled into a mostly vacant Carrier Dome around 5 p.m. on Saturday, two hours before Syracuse’s Oct. 26 exhibition against Division II Daemen College. At 7 p.m. Hughes would pull off his warm up shirt, rustle his hair and SU’s star would showcase a remodeled version of himself — one with a three-level game and an unselfishness to get his teammates involved in a 24-point performance that SU head coach Jim Boeheim said “could have (been) 40.”The talk around Hughes’ expanded role picked up in the months following last season. Tyus Battle left for the NBA Draft. Oshae Brissett followed. SU coaches told Hughes he needed to “be that guy,” a leader it can rally around.“I’ve always had a knack for talking,” Hughes said, laughing.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textBut Hughes doesn’t deny his lack of experience as a primary option — he hasn’t been in this position in almost five years. Three years after the redshirt junior arrived at East Carolina labeled a “steal” in the high school recruiting cycle, Hughes assumes the role of Syracuse’s most formidable offensive threat and a leader thrust into the position.,He didn’t receive a scholarship for prep school, entered the next year as a young role player at a mid-major and two years after that served primarily as an off-ball scoring threat on a Syracuse team that relied heavily on Battle’s isolation play. The soft-spoken guard’s ability to go unnoticed was perhaps his most dangerous skill. Now he’s expected to be the loudest, the center of attention to open up the floor.“It really kind of took me off guard,” Hughes said. “A lot of young guys that come speak to me — they don’t know something in the zone or on a play — they come to me right away … This is my first time being a leader at a high level.”From a young age, Hughes’ calm nature was one of his more defining traits. He blended into the halls at school, his middle school principal Brian Archer said, but remained aware of his image. He wore pink shoes. He cycled through different hairstyles. In the seventh grade, he bragged to his eventual Beacon (New York) High School coach, Tom Powers, that he would play varsity as an eighth grader.In his final year of high school, a few of his teammates joined in on South Kent’s annual “Thriller Dance,” where volunteers don zombie makeup and dance to Michael Jackson’s famous Halloween tune. So Hughes, who South Kent prep school head coach Kelvin Jefferson said didn’t put himself above other students despite his basketball talent, joined his classmates in the dance.“Well, shoot, I haven’t seen (Hughes) shy,” his South Kent and former Syracuse teammate Matthew Moyer said.Despite his seemingly unmatched assurance, his game always exhibited a heightened maturity. He played multiple years above his grade level every season until his junior year of high school. Though his youth often led to sacrificing leading roles, Powers said, Hughes assumed a majority of the responsibility for poor team performances. In the back of his parents’ car after losses, he’d pop in his headphones and go silent.When Hughes was in 10th grade, his team lost in the semifinals of the Boo Williams AAU tournament in Newport, Virginia. Unable to control his own emotions from the loss, he noticed a kid on the bus who wasn’t crying. He seemed not to be upset at all. His father, Wayne, said Hughes didn’t always understand: He assumed everyone was always on the same page. For Hughes, leading became an effort to create a singular focus on winning — to make his teammates want what he wants.“When it comes to pressure situations, (Hughes) is not as up-and-down,” Wayne said. “He has an innate ability to stay at a certain level.”But his three Division I seasons had yet to provide him with that same starring opportunity. He struggled with injuries his freshman year at ECU and was unable to play due to NCAA transfer rules upon arriving at SU. For the Orange last season, he produced a solid 13.7 points per game. His best offered the Orange an offensive and defensive spark, but the game rarely ran through Hughes.,His progression at Syracuse was slower than Boeheim expected. He rarely made moves to take defenders to the rim off the dribble and Boeheim even said in February Hughes “wasn’t ready” to do so. His shot blocking and shooting gave momentum to the Orange at times, but inconsistency, a limited repertoire on drives and the presence of other stars made his performances less integral to each game’s outcome.Though Hughes claimed the preparation for this year’s role required “a different mold,” he crafted a training regimen that highlighted his strengths. “Mommy, I got to go get the buckets,” Hughes quipped to his mother, Penny, when he returned home this summer. Wayne and Penny joked they only saw him for dinner, and much of the time was spent updating Hughes on happenings within the family that he might’ve missed.As he worked back into a practice schedule at Syracuse, Hughes took 200 to 300 shots before and after practice. He spent a large portion of the time expanding his moves from the midrange and working to improve his handle so that he is “more aware.” On the court, where Hughes tries to echo the voice of the leaders that left the team last season, Wayne said he relies on direct, short, “two or three word conversations” with teammates. He’s not “physical” or “poetic” when he speaks on the court, so sometimes it goes unnoticed.“I try to talk to him as much as possible,” freshman Brycen Goodine said. “It’s not visible to everyone else, but he talks a lot.”,This past June, Hughes paced back-and-forth outside the gymnasium at Beacon Middle School. Once someone who needed extra attention from teachers to ensure he filled out his planner and stayed organized, Archer said, Hughes was invited to speak to around 90 students about the importance of school and not wasting opportunities.“I haven’t done this too often,” Archer remembered Hughes said to him. “I’m a little bit nervous.”“The kids just want to hear what you have to say,” Archer responded. “Do your best and it will go fine.”Hughes opened the door and a room of third, fourth and fifth graders erupted. He spoke for about 30 minutes. Sometime early in the speech, Hughes shifted his nervousness to a quiet confidence.Students wanted him there. They wanted to listen. To them, Hughes is a celebrity. As he walked out of the building, Penny noticed Hughes’ familiar strut.“I think I made all the points I wanted to make,” Penny remembered Hughes said to her.Those around Hughes express an unassuming confidence about his ability to lead Syracuse — or any team. Coaches, family and friends are seemingly insulted by the questioning of his ability. The noise, the expectations, the hope — when the ball is tipped against Daemen, it’s all there. But Hughes feels no need to tune any of it out.“Pressure?” Hughes asked when he was questioned about his expanded role. “Nah. I’m just playing basketball.”,Banner photo by Corey Henry | Photo Editor Comments Published on November 2, 2019 at 9:12 pm Contact Michael: | @MikeJMcCleary,Cancel replyYou must be logged in to post a comment.last_img read more