As head coach of Canada's junior men's national team, Roy Rana has worked with the country's brightest talent, and having coached the likes of Tristan Thompson and Andrew Wiggins among others, knows what separates the good from the elite.
Coincidentally, it only took two summers for Tyler Ennis to prove he could make the jump, during which, Rana witnessed a maturation in the Brampton, Ont. native, that makes his standout play leading the undefeated Syracuse Orange (18-0) a logical progression rather than a surprise.
During the 2012 FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship, the 6-foot-2 point guard endured an arduous tournament, struggling in pressure situations. Matchups and defensive schemes posed challenges for Ennis as the Canadian squad had a strong showing, but lost to the host Brazilians 66-62 in the semifinal round. As a result, Rana and his staff talked with Ennis extensively regarding his leadership and need to carry the team. Ennis took the direction and loss to heart and came back a reinvented player the following summer at the FIBA Under-19 World Championship.
“It was amazing to see his transformation within that year,” Rana said. “Just how much more confident he was in himself, how much more assertive, how much more of a leader he was. He really started to understand the subtleties of how to impact his teammates.”
This time around Ennis was also asked to shoulder Canada's scoring load, something he did effortlessly. Ennis averaged a tournament leading 20.9 points, outscoring projected 2014 NBA lottery picks Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Dario Saric and Aaron Gordon.
By riding that performance into his freshman season at Syracuse he has been a steadying force, toning down his scoring to facilitate the team offence, but also making key baskets when needed. Ennis averages 11.9 points per game and shoots 40 percent from the three-point line and leads the Orange with 5.5 assists and 2.7 steals per (the latter, good for ninth in the nation). His numbers and Syracuse's record make a very strong case that Ennis is the best point guard in college basketball right now - regardless of class.
Despite his solid stats he maintains the individual numbers and accolades aren't his ambition.
“I don't really have any personal goals,” Ennis said. “I just want us to win the ACC and I know it's close to impossible to go undefeated in a college season, but to just get better as a team and lose the least amount of games.”
Syracuse has yet to lose and Ennis won't concede a loss to anyone, not even his own family. His older brother Dylan, a sophomore guard for the number four ranked Villanova Wildcats squared off against his younger sibling when both teams met in late December.
Tyler was all business in that game scoring 20 points in a 78-62 Syracuse win, but still values the advice his brother gave him on preparing for his first year at the collegiate level.
“He always told me to get in the gym by myself and work on my own stuff,” Ennis said. “Just get in the gym as much as possible, while taking care of your body.”
Ennis wasn't overlooked coming into the season, but not even the most optimistic experts pegged him as a one-and-done NBA prospect. Ennis had other plans however.
“That's pretty much what I worked for,” he confidently said. “Not to be one, but to just have the opportunity to get to the professional level. Not to leave, but just to have the opportunity.”
Still, he hasn't given leaving after his first year any consideration and is only focused on winning games for Syracuse.
But talent evaluators are starting to take notice that his play to date says first round pick far more than it says first-year student-athlete.
“Absolutely, I think he's a one-and-done guy,” Rana said. “It's his choice, does he want to come back for a second year of college, or does he want to go to the NBA? If I'm a GM and I'm drafting, he's certainly a guy I would be going after pretty hard. He's going to be a fantastic pro, a great NBA player and whatever organization he goes to, they're going to be a better organization because of it.”
Regardless of his future, Ennis is focused on the madness of March. His maturity, ability to score, pass and affect the game in a myriad of ways is no longer a surprise to anyone.
The summer ahead could prove to be even more promising than the last, particularly if he chooses to forego his college eligibility for the NBA Draft, making another jump, this time to the highest level.