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Surprised by Michael Gbinije's star turn at point guard? So was Jim Boeheim

CHICAGO -- Jim Boeheim wasn't convinced.

Not when he saw the kid in high school. Not when he signed with Duke. Not when assistant coach Adrian Autry came to him, talking about a possible transfer, insisting Boeheim take a longer look.

He just didn't see it. Then again? His team had suffered a couple of recruiting misses. Its next few rosters were looking weak on the wing. Autry was making a strong case. The Syracuse coach listened, relented and hoped, in a year or two, he might get a decent rotation player out of the deal.

Now?

"I'd say he's the most improved player I've ever had at Syracuse," Boeheim -- now in his 39th season at the school -- said Thursday.

The player in question is guard Michael Gbinije, a Duke transfer who arrived in Syracuse after an off-the-radar season in Durham, North Carolina, in 2013 as a mostly conventional small forward and who is now, three years later, leading the Orange into the Sweet 16 … as a point guard.

That shift is the result of tireless and often frustrating work by Gbinije, whose ballhandling -- even for a 3, let alone a shooting guard -- was in rough shape when he arrived in the summer after his freshman season. Gbinije devoted most of his year off to that aspect of his game, refining his shooting touch along the way.

As a sophomore, he remained a wing, albeit a more polished one, who came off the bench to occasionally complement freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. By then, though, Boeheim already had begun to play around with the idea of Gbinije at point guard; Gbinije remembers being told to take the ball in practice as early as 2012-13, the year 6-foot-7 point Michael Carter-Williams led the Orange to the Final Four.

"At the beginning I was shaky," Gbinije said Thursday. "I remember Coach telling me to go run the point, and I kind of got thrown in the fire a little bit."

Yet that was the start of a gradual process that has brought Gbinije, and by extension the Orange, to the precipice of an unlikely Elite Eight appearance. The early work proved useful, not only because Ennis' early departure left the Orange without a true point, but because, as it turns out, Gbinije is pretty darn good at this whole point guard thing. He leads the team in usage rate and shot percentage, makes 55 percent of his 2-pointers and 41 percent of his 3-pointers and uses his size to generate steals and deflections in Boeheim's 2-3 zone.

"It's hard when you're not playing that much your freshman year, wherever you are," Boeheim said. "There's a reason for it. You're not quite good enough.

"To go from that to being a good player, that's doable. But to go from that to being a really, really good player -- if we'd have won a little bit more, he would have been in the conversation for player of the year."

Sounds convincing, doesn't it?