Will Christmas Come Early for the Cleveland Cavaliers?


The Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t draft any big names in this year’s NBA Draft, an unusual occurrence for the team who had the number one pick in 2011, 2013 and 2014. The selections of Cedi Osman and Sir’Dominic Pointer (my breakdown of Sir’Dom can be found here) definitely had fans Googling information on the newest Cavaliers. Although one player who the Cavs selected, Rakeem Christmas with the 36th pick, is a familiar name to many.

Christmas, a four-year player at Syracuse, had a breakout season with the Orange last season, as he averaged 17.5 points per game, 9.1 rebounds per game, 2.5 blocks per game and shot an impressive 55.2% field goal percentage and a solid (for a bigman) 71.2% from the free throw line. Christmas was celebrated in his senior season at Syracuse, as he was one of 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, earned Third Team All-American Honours and he was also named the ACC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year and was named to the All-ACC First team.

Syracuse will also never forget the impact that Christmas had over his four-year tenure with the Orangemen, as he ranks sixth all-time in school history in games played (142) and blocked shots (247).

Cleveland General Manager David Griffin was stroked with the selection of Christmas, as he told media members after the draft, per cavs.com:

"“We were really lucky that a kid we had considerably higher on the board than 36 was there for us in Rakeem Christmas. He’s a big that can play both the 4 and 5. He can pick-and-pop, he can finish in the paint. His growth and improvement curve were incredible. So the trajectory that his career is on right now is exciting to be a part of.”"

Derek Bodner, of USA Today Sports explained to the Indy Star how Christmas improved his stock greatly during the NBA Draft Combine:

"Christmas finished his first game in Chicago with an impressive 20 points and 6 rebounds in 29 minutes of work, making 7-of-10 field goals. He then followed that up with 19 points and six rebounds in Game 2, once again looking like the best player on the court.Christmas’ ability to score inside and block shots wasn’t exactly a revelation, as both were strengths of his during the latter part of his career at Syracuse. What was impressive was Christmas’ confidence in stepping out from 15-17 feet and hitting jump shots, something which he didn’t do much of in the Syracuse offense."

Christmas comes to a Cleveland team though who has an already stacked frontcourt. Christmas will be battling the likes of Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Timofey Mozgov next season, so the likelihood that he gets solid, rotational minutes isn’t very high. Although, for the sake of this article, lets assume that Christmas becomes a favourite in David Blatt’s rotation next season. If that’s the case, Christmas will come early for the Cavaliers, as he will be able to provide elite rim protection, won’t be a liability on the offensive end and he will give the Cavs more athleticism off the bench.

The Rim Will Be Protected

Christmas’ best ability is the same thing that was probably the Cavs worst last season and that was rim protection. Funny how things work out, huh?

While the mid-season acquisition of Mozgov definitely improved Cleveland’s rim protection, the Cavs are only one injury away from having one of the leagues softest rim protection units in the league. Before the Mozgov trade, the Cavaliers allowed teams to shoot an alarmingly high 62.2% from less than 6 feet, a number that simply isn’t telling of a championship team.

This is where Christmas can provide the most help to Cleveland.

Christmas averaged 2.5 blocks a game last season at Syracuse and across his four years playing at the Carrier Dome he averaged 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes, numbers that place him in the elite level for shot blockers. In his senior season with the Orangemen, Christmas blocked six shots on two separate occasions.

Christmas is able to use his length (7’3 wingspan) and athleticism to meet opponents at the rim and ensure the opposition will be getting no easy baskets at the ring. Christmas is able to use his athletic tools to quickly leap off his feet to meet the ball at its highest point and send it five rows back. Due to his mobility as a bigman, Christmas is also able to close out on perimeter shooters when required and he can of course still affect a shot at the rim, even if he doesn’t block it.

The rim protection expertise of Christmas is a result of his excellent defensive game. Christmas is an aggressive defender but can stay in control of his man, as he always makes sure he is between his opponent and the basket, a vital aspect of being a top shot blocker in the NBA. Christmas is able to go straight up when contesting a shot at the basket and his length allows him to extend far enough to meet the ball at its apex. The ability to go straight up also allows Christmas to be a menace in the paint, as he will be able to use the rule of vertically effectively in Cleveland and with Mozgov being one of the best at using that rule, Christmas will only improve as a rim protector.

Christmas is mostly known as an elite rim protector and bringing that skill to the Cavs will be a major help for the team come next season.

Offensively Capably

While the Cavaliers don’t need any more help on the offense end, as they possessed one of the best offense units in the league last season, Christmas definitely won’t be an offensive liability when he is one the floor.

Thompson improved his offensive game last season but still wasn’t able to create for himself when the ball was in his hands. Majority of Thompson’s points came off finishing around the basket but when he had the ball in the post, he was short on moves and despite changing shooting hands a couple of years ago, he still has no jumpshot. Obviously Thompson is one of the leagues best offensive rebounders, making him invaluable to the Cavaliers but Christmas will be able to provide Cleveland with some more offensive versatility that Thompson cannot.

Christmas improved his offense each season at Syracuse, as his point per game average went from 2.8 to 5.1 to 5.8 to 17.5 last season, a monster jump in his final season in college. Cuse teammate Trevor Cooney touched on Christmas’ ability to “dominant the game” on the offensive end, something he wouldn’t have been capably of during his first three seasons. The improvement year-by-year shows that Christmas is committed to improving on the offensive end and there is no reason to think that will change with the Cavs.

The main area where Christmas will be able to help the Cavs is when he gets the ball in the post. Last season at Syracuse, 51.5% of his offense was on the block, as Christmas scored 0.95 PPP at that area. His improved post game has allowed him to add first moves and counter moves to his post-up game, crucial components at the NBA level. Christmas has the ability to make a jump hook when posting up and uses his up and under move to get free of post defenders. Christmas is also very patient in the post and doesn’t panic. He gets the ball, feels the defense and then makes his move. By not rushing, Christmas is able to slow himself down and make the right decision, even if that is finding an open shooter on the perimeter. Christmas also does a lot of his work in the post before he gets the ball, establishing post position and then receiving the ball, allowing him to go to work.

Another area on the offensive end of the floor where Christmas can be a positive for the Cavs is in the face-up game. Now Christmas has a poor jumper, so he won’t be stretching the floor or getting any defenders off their feet with pump fakes. What Christmas can do in the face-up game though is use his quick step to drive past defenders and finish strong at the rim. The quick step combined with his explosiveness allows Christmas to be a strong finisher at the basket. Christmas is also a strong finisher in traffic and with his improved free throw shooting, isn’t afraid to go to the foul line when driving to the rim. Christmas’ explosiveness when driving to the basket and ability to drive past defenders when facing up will give Cleveland yet another offensive tool in an already overflowing toolbox.

Christmas won’t be asked to put up 15 points a game in Cleveland and nor should anyone expect him to. Although, Christmas definitely won’t be a liability on the offensive end for the Cavs next season.

Athletic Ability

Athleticism is a key aspect in today’s NBA game and with Christmas’ physical tools and athletic ability; he should fit right into the athletic NBA game.

Christmas stands at 6’9 and 240 pounds but with his 7’3 wingspan and his mobility, running capacity and athleticism, he is able to get up and down the floor effectively. In transition, Christmas uses his athletic tools to score 1.67 PPP although transition offense only contributed to 5.9% of his total offense, a number that needs to improve with his physical build.

At 6’9, Christmas will be undersized at NBA level but his big frame, which will only get bigger as he gets stronger in the pros and his athletic proficiency will be able to make up for it. Plus, the NBA is only getting smaller and smaller, as the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title with a small-ball line-up. As the league gets smaller and more athletic, Christmas will only become a more effective player in the league.

Obviously, Christmas’ athleticism helps him greatly on the offensive and defensive end. On offense, Christmas is able to leap quickly to the rim, finish through contract, is a bouncy athlete around the rim, has strong hands and can play above the rim. His finishing ability is evidence of how he uses his athleticism on offense, as he scored 1.5 PPP at the rim in his senior season, which ranked 4th in the NCAA among players with over 100 possession.

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We have already documented how good of a rim protector and shot blocker Christmas is and that is a result of his athleticism. With the ability to leap off the ground quickly and with his innate length, Christmas was one of the NCAA’s best shot blockers during his time at Syracuse. Christmas has all the athletic tools and he was able to put them to work on the defensive end of the floor at Syracuse and that should translate nicely to the NBA.

You can never have enough athleticism in today’s NBA world and Christmas will provide the Cavaliers with more athleticism off the bench, a need for a team who doesn’t possess much young, athletic talent.

How do you think Rakeem will help the Cavs next season? Let us know in the comments section below or hit me up on twitter @lukesicari with your thoughts!

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