Men's Basketball

Bailey: Ennis’ playful, goofy nature hidden behind cold-blooded on-court persona

Sam Maller | Photo Editor

Tyler Ennis is impressing a national audience with his great play. But his teammates are starting to notice his emotional development off the court.

The unflinching expression on Tyler Ennis’ face broke for maybe the first time in a game this season.

After 17 seconds of pure dominance from the Syracuse backcourt — ending in a Trevor Cooney 3-pointer from the right wing — the cold-blooded freshman point guard couldn’t help but smile as he turned his hips slightly and answered Cooney’s call for a chest bump.

It was a sign of comfort from the rising superstar viewed by many as emotionless.

In truth, those who know him best describe Ennis as goofy and playful; the kind of guy who’ll rag on his teammates in practice and swap celebrity imitations with his brothers.

But also the kind of guy who won’t be like that right away. It takes time.

“He has to open up to you,” SU junior center Rakeem Christmas said. “When he just got here, he wasn’t talking as much or laughing around a lot. Now that he knows us, he’s opened up a lot. Tyler’s a goofy kid.”

The apparent comfort has become very real during Ennis’ ascent from talented rookie to the nation’s most valuable freshman. His tangible rise peaked on Saturday when he scored six points in the final 1:48 to almost singlehandedly deny then-No. 22 Pittsburgh its upset. His emotional growth has been apparent in the way he interacts with teammates and the subtle jokes he makes with the media after games.

Ennis is fully comfortable as a leader of the undefeated Orange, and more than just the cool, calm and collected rookie he appears to be on the surface.

“He’s fun to be around,” Syracuse assistant coach Gerry McNamara said. “People don’t realize he’s more outgoing than he appears to be and these guys love him. It’d be really difficult not to love him as a teammate.”

During the team’s practice Friday, Ennis and Jerami Grant paired up in competitive shooting drills. Twice, Ron Patterson had a chance to knock down a drill-winning shot, and twice, Ennis tried to spook his fellow freshman by yelling.

After practice ended, Ennis jogged over to the sideline to wrestle with assistant coach Mike Hopkins’ 12-year-old son Griff.

“Where have you been?” Ennis yelled as he wrapped his arms around Griff and they scrambled laughing onto the court.

Ennis hoisted up a shot with Griff draped over his back. Wide right.

“No easy buckets,” Griff joked.

It may seem like a trivial moment, but it’s one players said didn’t happen at the start of the year.

“He’s grown on us,” Grant said. “He’s grown to play around a little bit more and have fun. Not just be serious and all that.”

Family members and coaches agree it’s the same way he was at St. Benedict’s (Newark, N.J.) Prep School and the same way he is around new friends.

It just takes time to see “the real Tyler.”

“He gets to know a person first,” his mother, Suzette Ennis, said. “He’s really a joker.”

During his last two years at St. Benedict’s, Ennis grew close with assistant coach Bob Farrell. So much so that Ennis would stay with the Farrells at their Point Pleasant Beach house off the New Jersey Shore during weekends without games.

Bob’s wife, Michelle, remembers the reserved Ennis she met. The one afraid to open the refrigerator for study breaks and ask about laundry.

Most specifically, she remembers the first time Ennis sat down with the extended family for Sunday dinner.

Surrounded by 20 boisterous Italians, she asked him a question, but couldn’t hear his response.

“He had to repeat himself,” Michelle said, “and I finally just said, ‘If you want to stay here, you’re definitely going to have to speak up because nobody can hear you.’”

It didn’t take too long for Ennis to grow comfortable with the Farrells. As a senior, he turned the Gray Bees from a mediocre program to the No. 2 prep school in the state with a school-record 35 wins.

“He analyzes everything,” St. Benedict’s head coach Mark Taylor said. “If you ever watch Tyler from a distance, he’s not the guy that’s the loud one, but he sees everything that goes on.”

And now that Ennis has seen enough of the Syracuse program, he is truly comfortable. He’s ready to take the reins of the Syracuse offense at the end of games and carry the team into its first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

Maybe the Pitt game wasn’t the end of Ennis’ growth. Maybe it’s only the beginning.

Stephen Bailey is the sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at sebail01@syr.edu or on Twitter at @Stephen_Bailey1.

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