Facilitator First

by February 21, 2014

by Max DelSignore / @maxd83

Tyler Ennis fields the inevitable question after every game. He answers the inquiry as if he’s hearing it for the first time.

The surefire question from intrigued media always centers on his composure and poise orchestrating the Syracuse University offense as its starting freshman point guard. Ennis provides a politically correct answer every time, but really, he’s just being honest.

“Coach [Jim] Boeheim has a lot of trust in me,” says Ennis. “It’s easier when you have teammates like this, to have trust in them, knowing they are going to make plays.”

tyler_ennisRedirecting praise to his teammates is typical Ennis. But the evidence behind a 25-1 start to the season for the Orange is largely due to a perfect combination of mettle and maturity from Ennis. After close to 20 minutes of questions following a Syracuse 13-point victory over Clemson, I probe a little further.

“When was the last time you were rattled?”

Ennis unfolds his lean frame, unsure how to answer the question at the first. Starting shooting guard Trevor Cooney stops the silence with a quick response.

“What about in (NBA) 2K, when I was the Sixers and you were the Heat?” says a convinced Cooney. “You were rattled then.”

Laughter fills the locker room, as Ennis flashes an expected smile. Lest we forget that he’s only 19 years old. Other than the occasional video game though, the Brampton, Ontario native shares another genuine response.

“I never really get too emotional,” Ennis says. “It’s just the way I’ve been since I can remember.”

When Ennis was in sixth grade, his father, Tony McIntyre, wasn’t sure if his son enjoyed playing basketball. Tyler’s older brother, Dylan (now a redshirt sophomore guard at Villanova), has always been full of energy on the court. Another older brother, Brandon, is much the same. Tyler, however, conducts his hardwood business in a nonchalant manner. McIntyre, who heads the CIA Bounce AAU program in Canada, wondered at the time if his son had any desire for the game.

“It got to a point where he was too calm,” McIntyre says of Tyler. “I wasn’t sure if he liked basketball. It came easy to him.”
This was the beginning of the evolution in Tyler’s unwavering demeanor. Yes, Ennis was guilty of punting the basketball down the street after losing pickup games to his brothers when they were younger. He’s even smashed a video game controller in defeat. But as Ennis can attest, additional outbursts since grade school have been rare.

“I actually don’t get mad too much,” Ennis says. “There are things in games that get you fired up, but I don’t get upset really.”

Entering high school, Tyler wanted to attend the same institution as Dylan. Tyler briefly enrolled at Lake Forest Academy in Chicago with this brother. In order to play basketball at the school, the boys were expected to participate on the football team. McIntyre says Tyler called early in the football season believing he made a mistake. As a wide receiver, Tyler was reluctant to catch passes over the middle for fear of serious injury. McIntyre says Tyler started dropping passes, so the quarterback would consider throwing to other receivers. That is, until the weather turned colder.

According to McIntyre, as the November chill began to set in, Ennis did not want to be relegated to spot receiver duty. He was getting cold standing on the sidelines. He wanted to be on the field and run routes to stay warm. So, Ennis began racking up touchdowns and eradicating his fear, which left the coaching staff speechless.

“If I was out there, I was going to play as hard as I can,” Ennis says. “I tried to get out there and make plays.”

Ennis transfer to St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey after his sophomore season at Lake Forest. In the spring of 2011, the Gray Bees’ roster was in flux following the resignation of former coach Roshown McLeod. Once Mark Taylor was selected as the new head coach, only two players remained in the program. Ennis was one of them.

“I sat Tyler down and noticed his poise and maturity during that meeting,” Taylor says. “I was thinking that as long as he stays, we’re going to be fine. I told him that he was the only one we need. We will build this team together.”

Together, Ennis and Taylor directed St. Benedict’s to 66 wins and consecutive State Prep A championships. As a senior, Ennis and the Gray Bees advanced to the title game of the National High School Invitational, only to fall to Montverde (FL) Academy in overtime, 67-65. Persevering through a sprained right shoulder, Ennis finished with 14 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 4 steals.

“His demeanor separates him from everybody else,” Taylor says. “He’s that good. He never changes and is always able to control the tempo of the game.”

In Taylor’s eyes, the best guard in the country was headed to Syracuse. With former Orange point guard Michael Carter-Williams headed to the NBA after his sophomore season, Ennis understood the expectations in front of him.

“You knew he was going to lead the team,” McIntyre says. “The hardest part is getting there, and how you go about leading that team. There are steps to the process.”

tyler_ennis_1It didn’t take long for Ennis to insert his name into the litany of successful Syracuse point guards. He has brought an equilibrium and toughness to the Orange. His on-court intelligence is superior to his peers. Jim Boeheim has coached a number of heralded guards during his Hall-of-Fame career. Ennis’ unflappable play puts him in the conversation as one of the best.

“A point guard has to make a lot of plays down the stretch,” Boeheim says. “Tyler takes advantage down the stretch. He’s very good in those situations. He’s done that all year.”

Ennis displayed quiet confidence in totaling 39 points and 13 assists over the final two games that allowed Syracuse to clinch the Maui Invitational title in November. To combat late-game adversity, no one has been more clutch than Ennis. He sank two driving layups to drop Pittsburgh in January. Two weeks later, he was a perfect 8-8 from the line and dished 9 assists in a spectacular overtime win over Duke. Ennis leads the ACC in assists (5.6) and steals (2.0) per game and ranks fifth nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s also averaging just over 11 points per contest.

“Tyler has been a special player since day one,” says Orange assistant coach Gerry McNamara. “He has a knack for making big-time decisions in big-time moments and making crucial plays to decide a game.”

An average performance is an anomaly for Ennis. Even so, his impact in the final minutes in SU’s win over Clemson did not go unnoticed. He converted two layups, tracked down a key offensive rebound and assisted on a Cooney three-pointer to secure the victory. The stats in the box score were pedestrian (6 points on 3-11 shooting), but his execution was precise.

“It’s something that can’t be taught,” Cooney says of Ennis’ on-court demeanor. “He was just born with it. He’s a special player. It’s fun to play with a guy like that.”

Taylor believes Ennis will be an even better player in the NBA. His draft stock has risen to lottery pick status, and scouts are enamored with his penchant for creating a culture of winning. It’s hard to believe we have yet to see the complete Ennis package, which includes consistent bursts of athleticism and quickness. Right now, Taylor says Ennis is doing what’s best for Syracuse.

“The thing with Tyler is he’s never the main focus, but he’s always the main guy,” Taylor says. “He facilitates the game without dominating the game. He does it in a way that doesn’t put himself first.”

As the questions wind down after the Clemson win, Ennis is in a t-shirt and shorts, ready to slip on a pair of slightly winter-worn Jordan XIIs. His final response is simple and defines who he is.

“I want to win as many games as possible,” he says.

Three nights later, with Syracuse trailing by one and 4 seconds to go, Ennis buries a 35-foot buzzer beater to stun Pittsburgh once again. The reaction to the memorable shot was predictable. Ennis strode to the other end of the court with his hands at his sides.

No gesticulating. No smack talk. No questions necessary after that game-winner. When it comes to Ennis, we already know the answer.