SYRACUSE – Howard Washington played with curly highlights in his hair before practice Thursday and gazed toward 30,000-plus empty seats in the Carrier Dome, pondering this question: Could he have stayed at Canisius High School and still achieved his lifelong goal of playing for Syracuse?
The short answer: Yes.
Syracuse likely would have noticed him dominating in Western New York during his junior and senior years at Canisius. Virginia Tech offered him a scholarship after he played one game as a high school freshman. He was hailed at the best player from Buffalo in years as a sophomore, a can't-miss prospect destined for greatness.
"Great kid, great work ethic," Canisius High coach Kyle Husband said the other day. "You could see the potential oozing out of him."
With so many scouts and AAU tournaments these days, common sense suggests Washington eventually would have landed on Syracuse's radar. He would have committed to the Orange in a heartbeat and followed the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Niagara Falls native and NBA lottery pick Jonny Flynn.
Indeed, it would have been easier for him to stay home and take a direct route down the Thruway to the place he practiced Thursday. But that was never the question for Washington, who left Buffalo for Florida and wound up playing for a prep school in Canada because he wanted to maximize his potential.
"I left Buffalo for competition reasons, to get good exposure and play against the best that were out there," Washington said. "I could go get the scoring record (in Buffalo) or try to do that stuff, but the end wouldn't have mattered. I don't think I would be where I am today (as a player) without making those sacrifices."
Washington was like many young talents trying to navigate the path toward the schools of their choice. Too often, they have people in their ears and giving them advice while blowing smoke about playing pro ball. In most cases, they underestimate the talent spread across Division I sports, especially in power conferences.
At 15 years old, he started a circuitous route from Shirley Avenue in the Kensington-Bailey section of Buffalo that led him from Canisius High to national prep superpower Montverde (Fla.) Academy, which led him to Athlete Institute Prep in Ontario, which led him to an extra year after high school, which led him to Syracuse.
For him, it worked.
He helped Montverde win a national championship while playing with Ben Simmons and against Markelle Fultz. Both were picked first overall by the Sixers. He also played against Lonzo Ball, who was picked third last year by the Lakers. Washington, who reneged on his commitment to Butler, left midway through his senior year and focused on beefing up his slender frame.
All along, his goal was playing for Syracuse. How he arrived didn't matter, only that he did. Heaven knows how much money his family spent and how many miles he traveled. His father, Howard, is a truck driver. His mother, Kacey, worked at Ford Stamping Plant in Woodlawn and is now a dispatcher.
No wonder why the 6-foot-3, 180-pound freshman broke down in tears and hugged his parents after signing his letter of intent with the Orange. Their work paid off.
"It's been a long journey to the same place," Washington said. "But this is where I wanted to be."
Washington's next goal is carving a bigger role with the program he coveted with the idea he'll eventually crack the starting lineup. He has been trying to gain weight and add muscle so he's more equipped to match up with the bigger, stronger guards that play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
So far, his stats reflect his playing time. He has averaged just more than five minutes per game and has scored six points, grabbed five rebounds and handed out five assists total in eight games. He stayed on the bench for three others contests for Syracuse, which is 10-1 going into Friday's game against St. Bonaventure at the Dome.
Washington's lack of minutes should not be construed as a sign Syracuse has lost faith in him. Simply, he's making the transition to big-time basketball. He played eight minutes in an 81-74 victory over the University at Buffalo on Thursday, showing flashes of brilliance that suggest much more is coming.
Coach Jim Boeheim said after the game that Washington's biggest problem is unseating their two best players, guard Tyus Battle and Frank Howard. Washington's confidence has not wavered. Too many players are rushed into games and make mistakes when they could be learning from watching.
"His mind is a step ahead," said former point guard Gerry McNamara, who quarterbacked Syracuse to a national title in 2003 with Carmelo Anthony and is now an assistant under Boeheim. "The thing I've loved about him when he hasn't been in the game is that there's a constant conversation of what he's thinking. He's always thinking the game. He has the mind of a coach."
Washington was billed as Tyler Ennis 2.0, an updated version of the Syracuse star who played one year for the Orange before jumping to the NBA, before cracking the starting lineup. Ennis was a terrific player in college but has become a cautionary tale after leaving for professional basketball before he was ready.
"I don’t go around saying that I play like Tyler Ennis, but a lot of people compare our games – passing point guards that can score, can shoot, loaded game, high IQ," Washington said. "We have similar games. I do see the comparison. I know the time it takes to get to where he is."
Ennis is getting limited minutes with the Lakers, his fourth team in four years in the NBA. He's only 23 years old and could be running out of opportunities in the NBA. Washington played for Ennis' father, Tony, in Canada. He also worked out with Tyler Ennis over the summer and knows the NBA is a major step.
Washington never had grandiose plans for a one-and-done career with Syracuse, not after making a full-time commitment getting there. But if he has learned anything over the past four years, it's accepting the idea that the road least traveled is the toughest but often the most rewarding.
If you're good enough, they'll find you.
"That's my goal," Washington said. "My first goal was to get here. My other goal is to get to the next level."