Rakeem Christmas can't help but laugh when he hears himself described as a garbage man.
A former McDonald's all-American from the Academy of the New Church, the 6-foot-9 Philadelphia native has spent most of his career at Syracuse around the basket making athletic putbacks and blocking shots. His lagging offensive game - coupled with the fact that Syracuse (6-3) is usually loaded with talent - has never caught up with the once-lofty expectations.
But this season, his final with the Orange, things seem to be coming together.
Syracuse visits No. 7 Villanova (10-0) Saturday at Wells Fargo Center, and the 250-pound senior has been a different player. Never averaging more than the 5.8 points he registered last season, Christmas, who scored a career-high 25 against Holy Cross this season, is Syracuse's leading scorer (16.4).
"I knew it was my time. We lost a lot of players last year, and coach needed me to step up," said Christmas, who also leads the Orange in rebounding (8.9) and blocked shots (2.44). "I figured this would be a big year for me, so I put in the work this summer to become a better all-around player."
Christmas, shooting 60.4 percent from the field, has always shot the ball well. Last season, he shot 61.3 percent from the field. But the Orange, ranked No. 1 in the nation for a good stretch of last season, were loaded with players like C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Jerami Grant, who was drafted by the 76ers in the second round of the 2014 NBA draft.
Christmas was an offensive afterthought.
Even still, it was clear that his offensive skills were lacking. He frequently spoke with coach Jim Boeheim about what he needed to improve on and the conversation usually came back to Boeheim wanting to see Christmas become more aggressive offensively.
"I put in a lot of hours working on improving my jump shot, adding to my arsenal," Christmas said. "I've developed a jump hook that I didn't have."
These days he's not just catching lobs and putting back errant shots.
Following practice Friday at the Pavilion, Villanova coach Jay Wright talked about Christmas' evolving offense.
"You've got to be able to contain Christmas around the basket," Wright said. "That's not as easy to do because he's gotten really got at putting it on the floor and facing up and going by you. If you push him off the block, he's gotten really good at facing up. He's dramatically improved."