2020 NBA Draft: Getting to Know Elijah Hughes
Prospect research associate for Babcock Hoops, Grant Aqui, took a deep dive into learning about prospect Elijah Hughes from the Syracuse Orange. He shares what he learned about Hughes’ story of overcoming his struggles academically, transferring from East Carolina to Syracuse, and developing himself into a potential first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
It seems there may be a common theme to some of the prospects in the 2020 NBA Draft, as there are a plethora of under-recruited late bloomers, more so than average. Last week I took a deep dive into the background of Villanova’s Saddiq Bey, more recently Babcock Hoops’ director of scouting Derek Murray broke down Malachi Flynn of San Diego State, and today I’m following suit by sharing what I’ve learned about Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes.
Born in Poughkeepsie, New York and raised in Beacon, New York, Hughes had a strong family unit in the form of his parents, Wayne and Penny Hughes. When he was young, he was the kid who always had a basketball in his hand, seemingly having a natural predisposed affinity for the orange ball. He honed his craft growing up at Loopers Park, playing day in and day out until the frigid winter snow would no longer permit games outside. As a direct result, Hughes’ life-long goal has been to erect a community center in his hometown that would allow the local youth to play basketball indoors year-round.
Hughes began his high school career at Beacon High School before transferring to Kennedy Catholic in Somers, New York. At Kennedy Catholic, Hughes starred on the court but had his fair share of struggles in the classroom. On the court as a junior, he helped lead his Kennedy squad to a 26-2 record and a runner-up finish in the prestigious New York-based Catholic High School Athletic Association (CHSAA). The CHSAA is a highly competitive league, rich in history, that produces high major talent in troves annually, and is home to powerhouses like Archbishop Molloy, Archbishop Stepinac, and Christ The King School. The CHSAA is perhaps the most historic high school basketball league in the country, a solid balance of rigorous academics and on-court competition. While at Kennedy, Hughes had his fair share of struggles in the classroom. During the summer going into his senior year, he had to attend summer school in July in order to maintain his eligibility. In the process of summer school, he was forced to miss his final grassroots circuit season. The final U-17 season can be the most pivotal for late-rising recruits, which is what he credits as being part of the reason he was so under-recruited. “If he would have played on the circuit, he would’ve been a top-50 player,” said Hughes’ former coach, Kelvin Jefferson. Elijah was also unable to attend camps run by the big shoe companies, like the Nike Skills Academy, which also provides much-needed exposure for those who may be less heralded; look at how much hype Obi Toppin and Ja Morant received at the Nike Skills Academy and Chris Paul Elite Camp, respectively. It was a tough choice to make, but ultimately I feel it speaks volumes that he opted to take the responsible route and ensure his academic eligibility. Entering his senior year, Hughes chose to transfer in search of more academic and life structure. He eventually decided to join the prestigious South Kent School in Connecticut, a school that has produced NBA level talent in the past with guys like Isaiah Thomas, Andray Blatche, Dorell Wright, and Maurice Harkless. Hughes joined a South Kent team that featured high major talent in the form of Tremont Waters (LSU), Myles Powell (Seton Hall), and Matthew Moyer (Syracuse/Vanderbilt). It’s worth noting that he was constantly cast as the team’s lead perimeter defender during his senior year of high school. By all accounts, he was a willing and accountable defender in high school. While at South Kent, Hughes wasn’t just held accountable on the court, but off the court as well. They required schooling Monday-Saturday which helped provide some structure with Hughes’ academics. They did a good job of providing him with what he needed to ensure eligibility and play the entirety of the season.
Hughes’ college recruiting process was actually a fairly direct one. Rated the 195th best player in the country by 247 Sports, he was originally offered by East Carolina (ECU) in December of 2014. It didn’t take long for Hughes to make a decision, as he committed at the end of his junior year in June of 2015. He would remain steadfast and unwavering in his commitment to the ECU Pirates, despite drawing interest from bigger programs during his senior year. “We had high major coaches come in and say, “Who is that? He’s pretty good.” I would say, “That’s Elijah Hughes; he’s committed to ECU,” said his coach, Kelvin Jefferson. Hughes closed out the outside noise and buzz of new suitors coming for his signature and again decided to take the responsible route and focus on his SAT, academics, and eligibility.
Despite his early struggles, Hughes would succeed in his eligibility endeavors and avoided being a prop 48 non-qualifier entering his freshman season for the Pirates. Hughes’ time at ECU in Greenville was a fairly tepid one during his lone season. On the surface, he seemed to do well, and many around the ECU program lauded him as one of the most popular people on all of campus. His quiet yet still outgoing social demeanor made him “The Mayor of East Carolina,” according to those on the staff. However, he struggled internally off the court, as he failed to adjust to being far from home for the first time in his life. His living situation made it tough for him to settle into the team. “At ECU my freshman year, I was calling my mom probably three or four times per day. It can be difficult away from home at college. She guided me,” Hughes told The Athletic. To compound his issues, he struggled out of the gate with health, as he endured a stress reaction in his foot that caused him to miss key practice time leading into this freshman campaign. As a result, his numbers were pedestrian to the tune of around 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist per game. Still, he was able to flip the switch in the conference tournament, flashing averages of 16 points per game and shooting 66% from three-point range. Ultimately, Hughes opted to transfer from ECU and out of the American Athletic Conference after his freshman year. A natural fit would emerge quickly in the Tri-State area, and it wasn’t the Orange of Syracuse right off of the bat; instead, it was the Pirates of a different variety in Seton Hall. A competitive program in the Big East, a geographic location close to home in South Orange, New Jersey, and perhaps most importantly a good friend and high school teammate in Myles Powell on the team, Seton Hall seemed to be a natural fit for Hughes. On paper, the cards seemed to align perfectly for Hughes to wind up in the Big East. The only program that could possibly supplant everything that Seton Hall would have to offer would be Syracuse. They too were close to home, played in possibly the best conference in the country in the ACC, and also featured a former high school teammate in Matthew Moyer (who since has left for Vanderbilt). When Syracuse associate head coach Adrian Autry came calling on behalf of head coach Jim Boeheim, Hughes was shocked. And when he was actually put on the phone with Boeheim he couldn’t believe it. He immediately called his father afterward to relay the news. Hughes subsequently scheduled visits to Seton Hall, Syracuse, and Iona. He took his first visit to Seton Hall and visited Syracuse in the same week. He never made it to visit Iona, as he committed to Syracuse on the spot in May of 2017.
Upon returning home to New York, Hughes was forced to sit out due to NCAA rules. In his redshirt year, he was able to watch All-ACC quality players in Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett. Hughes earned rave reviews across the board for dominating while on the scout team, oftentimes outclassing the starters. However, it was difficult for him not to be able to compete at the highest level and has been quoted multiple times saying “I didn’t realize how much I loved basketball until it was taken away from me.” That fire would remain ignited in the 2018-2019 season, as he was able to take the court with many of the same guys he competed against in solace during the prior season. Hughes flourished as a redshirt sophomore, although often being cast as the third option behind Battle and Brissett. Hughes registered around 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game for the season while cashing in 37% of his three-point attempts, all of which marked improvements from his time in Greenville. Coming into the 2019-2020 season, it was clear that Hughes would be asked to deliver on another level with the departures to the professional ranks and a remaining young, unproven cast of guys around him. Hughes delivered night in and night out for what would be a very middling Syracuse team that finished 4 games over .500. He capped off his college career for the Orange with a 27 point, 7 rebound, and 2 steal performance in a conference tournament victory against North Carolina.
Hughes’ intangibles are what sell his ability to succeed long term. His career thus far is one marked by overcoming adversity and is a tale that shows how conducive fit and situation is to growth and development. Perhaps the most notable accomplishment of Hughes’ career came off the court, as the kid who had previously logged countless hours in summer school and studying for the SAT just to ensure his eligibility earned his degree in Human Development and Family Sciences this year. He showed the capacity to operate in whatever usage role was asked of him in college. Realistically, his role in the NBA will be much closer to the tertiary one we saw in his first season for Syracuse. In recent years, we have seen players like Pascal Siakam (New Mexico State), Brandon Clarke (San Jose State/Gonzaga), and Derrick White (UC-Colorado Springs/Colorado) take unorthodox paths to be first-round draft picks and ultimately finding NBA success. When all is said and done, do not be surprised if Elijah Hughes’ story has a similar ending.