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When Jimmy Boeheim knocked down his first collegiate basket directly in front of his father and the Syracuse bench, the Carrier Dome crowd cheered in response. The points, which marked the first of the game and of Cornell’s 2017-18 season, came from a player that was virtually unrecruited out of high school. They came from a player who was one of the last commits to the Big Red’s recruiting class, a player that head coach Brian Earl said Cornell wasn’t “exactly counting on.”
They came from a player who exceeded many expectations — except his own — and developed into Cornell’s top scorer before transferring to the ACC.
“Wherever I’ve been, I think I’ve been counted out, more or less,” Jimmy said. “I don’t think too many people probably thought I was a Division I player in high school. And look at where I am now.”
Four years later, Jimmy is playing what’ll likely be his last collegiate basketball season on the team he first scored against. Most, including his dad and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, didn’t anticipate Jimmy would play as well as he has for SU.
Jimmy wasn’t expected to average the third-most points on the Orange (13.3). He wasn’t expected to make a seamless transition from the Ivy League to the ACC, especially considering he had a canceled season between those two.
Playing DI basketball at Syracuse wasn’t attainable when Jimmy graduated from high school, he said. He was always an “at-level” player compared to those his age, Jamesville-Dewitt coach Bob McKenney said in October. But through continual improvement, Jimmy has completed the journey from a prep school player with only one collegiate offer to a consistent ACC scorer.
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“It means a lot to him just to show people that ‘I’m not here just because of my last name, or just because of my brother, my dad,’” former Cornell teammate Terrance McBride said. “He earned his spot there at Syracuse.”
Jimmy was a starter for that first game against SU, but he was a role player for the bulk of his freshman year with the Big Red. He was still adjusting to college basketball and didn’t want to try anything too far outside his skillset, former Cornell teammate Bryan Knapp said.
He did have a knack for being in the right spots and made his limited minutes productive, Earl said. But the team had Matt Morgan, who had the second-most career points in Ivy League history, so Cornell didn’t really need to get Jimmy the ball, Earl added.
By his junior year, though, that’s exactly what the Big Red were doing. Jimmy learned to utilize his 6-foot-8 frame to his full advantage, Knapp said, and he got stronger and more aggressive.
In Jimmy’s last game at Cornell, Princeton stormed back from a 14-point deficit to take a one-point lead with a minute left. Jimmy took the ball straight to the post, got the jumper to fall and hit the ensuing free throw, sealing a win. “That wouldn’t have happened as a freshman,” Earl said.
“It was a pleasant surprise, he was sort of a skinny shooter to start, and he became a somewhat physical, Ivy League jack of all trades by his (last) year,” Earl said.
Jimmy said he made his biggest jumps during summers. Between his freshman and sophomore year, McBride said Jimmy spent most of his time in the gym. He improved his finishing touch around the rim, which Knapp called the best of anyone he’s played with.
Getting stronger was probably one of the biggest areas of emphasis, Jimmy said. Teammates used to call him skinny, but that stopped by his sophomore year. Jimmy estimated he weighed about 200 pounds when he started at Cornell, and he grew to 215 pounds by his last year. He could barely do one rep of the NBA Draft Combine’s 185-pound bench test during his freshman year, said McBride, his lifting partner. But by the 2020-21 season, he hit nine or 10 reps.
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During the canceled 2020-21 season, he worked even more. Knapp recalled running hill sprints near J-D in the heat of a summer afternoon with Jimmy. They trained with Eric Devendorf at the Boeheim family’s basement court. Now, Jimmy’s listed at 225 pounds on SU’s roster.
“Jimmy got better every year at Cornell, his last year he was really good, and he’s probably 75% better this year than he was then, (be)cause he’s gotten stronger, bigger and he’s worked really hard on his shooting,” Boeheim said before the season.
Along with his increased strength, Jimmy is ambidextrous — in a way. Growing up, he’d shoot left-handed. His dad tried to get him to shoot right-handed when he was little, but Jimmy couldn’t do it, Boeheim said in November. “He doesn’t listen to me,” Boeheim joked.
Like everyone else in the Boeheim family, Jimmy is right-handed when it comes to “anything you can name in life,” he said. He bats right-handed, writes right-handed and throws right-handed — everything except shooting a basketball.
Jimmy doesn’t remember how the habit developed. He used to shoot a little bit two-handed until high school, using his right hand to help get the ball to the hoop since his left hand was weaker. But eventually, a bad shooting night in high school prompted Boeheim to tell Jimmy that he should only keep one hand on the ball during his stroke. He stuck with his left.
What Jimmy calls an “enigma” has proved beneficial over the years, Boeheim said. Everyone who knows him or has watched him knows he prefers to drive right. But since most players are rightys, Earl said there was always a split-second of confusion for opponents to watch Jimmy shoot left-handed.
“It’s probably just enough of a jarring thing that it gives him a pretty good advantage,” Earl said.
Buddy Boeheim said he always had trouble forcing Jimmy to go one way when they’d play one-on-one as kids. Even then, the elder Boeheim was good at going right, but he could also spin back and shoot a left-handed floater, Buddy said. It’s uncommon to see someone of Jimmy’s size who’s able to use both hands and finish near the rim so well, Buddy added.
“It’s why he’s so crafty. He’s so tough to guard, you don’t know which way he’s going to go and he’s really used it to his advantage,” Buddy said.
Jimmy’s two-handedness also helps him execute his signature move, the hook shot, which he’s been working on for years. Since he’s usually guarded by a defender comparable in size, Jimmy’s quick enough to get by the opponent, Knapp explained. If the defender wants to cut him off, then Jimmy can convert a hook shot with either his right or left hand.
He didn’t have as much confidence in the shot during his freshman year at Cornell, McBride said, but as the seasons progressed, he started going to it three or four times a game. It really developed at Cornell when matchups with smaller post players helped build his confidence, Jimmy said. Now, it’s something that’s become his shot that he can score with “no matter who’s guarding him,” McBride added.
“He’s scoring in the same ways he’s scored throughout his entire career,” Knapp said. “The only thing that’s changed is the competition. And I think he can score that way against anyone, at any level.”
Jimmy scored SU’s first basket in 10 of the first 12 games this season. He’s scored double-digit points in 23 of 30 games, and he started all of them. He said the biggest adjustment at Syracuse has been the higher level of athleticism. Some close to Jimmy are surprised that he’s translated his game so fluidly to the next level. But Jimmy isn’t.
“To look at where I am now, once in a while, it does hit me,” Jimmy said. “I’m just kind of thankful that I’ve made it this far.”
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