Elijah Hughes is a prime example of how transferring and redshirting can lead to something great. After playing his true freshman year at East Carolina, and logging only 20 minutes a game, Hughes made the decision to transfer to a much more prestigious basketball school, Syracuse University. Yes, you read that right; he went from ECU to SU, not the other way around.
After sitting out the 2017-18 year due to NCAA transfer rules, Hughes made his inaugural season with the Orange one to remember. He averaged 14 points per game (PPG) and nailed 37 percent of his deep looks.
Hughes rounded into his full potential in his second and final year in an Orange jersey. As an All-ACC first-teamer, he averaged over 19 PPG (led the ACC), grabbed five rebounds per game and shot 81 percent from the free-throw line (fifth in the ACC), all improvements from the year prior. Hughes averaged 0.972 points per possession (PPP) for overall offense this year, ranking at the 79th percentile in Division I. His player efficiency rating (PER) of 22.7 was 10th in the ACC, and his offensive plus/minus (6.0) was fourth in the conference.
It’s worth mentioning that Hughes’ first and last season with Syracuse were very different in terms of his role. When he was a sophomore, guard Tyus Battle was the team’s featured scorer, averaging better than 17 points per game. Hughes was a supporting piece, and he played that role very well. However, when the calendar turned, Battle had packed his bags for Russia to play in the VTB United League, leaving Hughes in charge of the Orange.
Hughes took this new role in stride, despite having more responsibility, being the go-to scorer, and taking on all of the other duties that come with being a star upperclassman. He took more difficult shots as well, attempting more than double as many jump shots off the dribble (56 attempts in 2019, 120 in 2020). It’s also important to know that he sustained a number of knocks throughout the course of his junior season, including injuries to his head, groin, and hand. He played much of the season with a wrap on his shooting hand, which didn’t seem to bother him much, but it may have been a hindrance.
|Position:||Wing||Team/Class:||Syracuse, Junior (Redshirt)|
|Shot Hand:||Right||Stats:||Click here|
- Strong jump shot, with a quick release, good elevation, and deep range
- Very capable shooting off the bounce, ranking at the 72nd percentile for PPP this season
- Great spot-up shooter; averaged 1.08 PPP on spot-ups (85th percentile) this season
- Strong in transition, averaging 1.245 PPP this year (85th percentile)
- Creates offense for his teammates; averaged 3.4 assists per game this year, and had an assist/turnover ratio of 1.5
- Makes a high percentage of his free throws (81.3 percent, fifth in ACC)
- Plays smart team defense; active in the zone and willing to take a charge
- Uses his 6-6 height and length (6-9 estimated wingspan) to his advantage, and has good strength and athleticism
- Gives great effort, plays a high number of minutes, and willing to play through injuries
- Solid all-around performer; had a PER of 22.7, tenth in the ACC, and had the second-most offensive win shares (3.5) and the fifth-most win shares (4.8) in the conference
- Lacks an elite handle and can have trouble creating space in the half court, which may lead to less effective pick-and-roll and driving possessions
- Struggles to get to the rim and finish in the half-court, making only 18 of 40 (45 percent) of his shots within seven feet via drives this season
- Not an elite deep shooter, especially for a wing; had a three-point percentage of only 35.6 percent through his two seasons at Syracuse
- Doesn’t always use his dribble wisely and sometimes traps himself in the corner, which sometimes leads to turnovers — averaged 2.3 turnovers per game this year (15th most in ACC)
- Uninspiring defensive and rebounding numbers; ranked at the 58th percentile for defending jump shots and at the 41st percentile for overall PPP allowance, and averaged just 2.2 steals-plus-blocks per 40 minutes and 4.9 boards per game (NOTE: Syracuse’s zone defense makes it difficult to draw individual conclusions based on statistics, which may sometimes be misleading/unreliable)
Hughes is a great all-around performer, but he especially excels at shooting both off the catch and off the dribble, as well as scoring in transition. With solid mechanics, deep range, and the ability to knock down shots on the move, jumpers accounted for 70 percent of his half-court attempts. In the half court, he made 38 percent of his jumpers off the bounce (72nd percentile for PPP) and converted 37 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts (71st percentile for PPP). He also ranked at the 85th percentile on spot-up plays, making 39 percent of his attempts (44 of 114) and averaging 1.08 PPP.
It is somewhat worrisome that Hughes was not elite in terms of three-point shooting throughout his college career, and his overall shooting efficiency suffered when he was a go-to scorer. As a secondary option during the Battle era, Hughes shot 36.9 percent from deep, and ranked at the 80th percentile as an overall jumper shooter in the half-court. Being Battle-less forced Hughes to be less selective, often taking shots that he wouldn’t have taken with another reliable scoring option as an outlet. The results were that his three-point percentage dipped to 34.2, and his overall efficiency as a jump shooter in the half court dropped to the 49th percentile. In his defense, the junior did battle quite a few injuries, and he is unlikely to be a primary weapon at the next level. At the same time, his career three-point percentage of 34.2 is not something to brag about.
Hughes did excel as a transitional scorer this season due to his full-court speed, ability to finish with authority, and his skill as a pull-up shooter. When he found himself on the right wing in transition situations, he had 1.824 PPP, which was stunningly inside the top one percent in the country. His left-side numbers on transition were a bit more modest (1.304 PPP, 80th percentile) but still very impressive. When he was the ballhandler coming down the court in transition, he did struggle, averaging only 0.804 PPP (36th percentile). Overall, he made his possessions count, making 25-of-29 shots within seven feet on breakaways (86 percent), and sinking 21-of -51 treys in transition (41 percent).
The main concern with Hughes’ offense is his competency as a driver. His numbers driving to the left and the right are pretty much identical, as he drove to the right for 27 of 61 (44 percent), and to the left for 25 of 68 (37 percent) shooting. These numbers aren’t far removed from what they were last year, either (38 percent to the right and 48 percent to the left). That’s a grand total of 52 shots on 129 attempts, good for a modest field-goal percentage of 40 percent. His numbers inside seven feet weren’t impressive this season, as he finished just 18 of his 40 drive attempts (45 percent). He clearly tries to avoid going to the rim in the half court, preferring to pull up for jumpers. It doesn’t seem to be a problem of confidence or size; he just doesn’t have the handle and burst to be effective at attacking the basket in tight spaces. With his all-around shooting being as good as it is, it’s tempting to forgive these numbers, but adding another level of scoring would make him more valuable at the next level.
After I wrote my report on Washington’s Isaiah Stewart, I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to watch Stewart sit in a zone defense and make judgments off that. Unfortunately, the cross-country trip from Seattle to Syracuse doesn’t bring us any further away from zone systems. Syracuse’s matchup zone put Hughes on the wing, where his job ranged from taking away opposing wings’ three-point attempts, pinching in the post, and trapping in the corner. He was very active in the zone, and played with high effort. Unfortunately for Hughes, both guard spots were occupied by inexperienced freshmen, who were often late in their rotations. As a result, Hughes often had to try to cover for their mistakes, leaving him in impossible situations.
Playing in zone 98.6 percent of the time, Hughes allowed 0.879 PPP on jump shots, which was at the 58th percentile in Division I. His PPP allowance was much prettier on jump shots off the dribble, only 0.5 (90th percentile). His spot-up defense was above average, 0.82 PPP allowed (63rd percentile), but that number is mostly padded by the aforementioned bounce jumper stat. He didn’t do a great job of guarding catch-and-shoot jumpers, but, and I repeat, it’s difficult to blame him, given his teammates and defensive scheme. The biggest takeaway from watching him play defense is that he has the strength, athleticism, and length to match up with other wings his size and even a bit bigger.
Intangibles and Miscellaneous
It’s deserving of praise that Hughes pulled off the transfer from ECU to Syracuse, and even more impressive how much he improved from those two years. He shot only 27.3 percent from deep and had a meager PER of 12.8 in his freshman year. He made a massive improvement with the Orange, against significantly stiffer competition. He also played 36.7 minutes per game this season, at times with injuries to his head, groin and hand, the latter of which put him in a wrap for most of his games this season.
There are very few question marks around Hughes. He isn’t bad at anything, really — his worst attributes are mediocre while his best are very good. Since he was more efficient as a secondary option with Battle leading the way, it’s easy to foresee a similar role best fitting Hughes in the NBA. My projection for his draft potential is early to mid second round, and I suspect he will be a reliable bench scorer, perhaps more if his three-point shooting improves.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports come from Synergy Sports Technology, RealGM.com, and Sports-Reference.com. Other outside sources are noted with links to the source.