When walking around the McCann Center, one might notice a basketball player with NBA experience practicing on the court: Elijah Hughes.
Hughes, who averaged over 14 minutes a game with the Portland Trailblazers in 2022, is a native of Beacon, New York. As a local, he often makes the 30-minute drive to practice at Marist during the offseason.
For Hughes, the 2020 NBA Draft was a unique experience. Being selected 39th overall and then getting traded on draft night was probably the most normal occurrence that evening.
The 2020 NBA Draft was like no other. The draft taking place in mid-November due to the pandemic was just the start of it; there was no shaking hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, or going on-stage to receive a team hat. Instead, all 30 NBA teams sent hats to prospects’ homes.
“That was a special day. I went into the draft during the COVID year so we didn’t get the whole array of being at the Barclays Center and doing all that hand-shaking,” said Hughes. “It was long, our [college] season ended in March 2020 because of COVID, and we didn’t end up having the draft until November.”
Prior to his college career at Syracuse, Hughes attended John F. Kennedy Catholic Preparatory School in Somers, New York. Hughes spent two seasons at Kennedy Catholic before leaving to seek more exposure to the college level. He transferred to South Kent, a boarding school in Kent, Connecticut, where he shared the court with Seton Hall standout and former 76er Myles Powell.
At the end of his high school career, Hughes was a three-star recruit and ranked as the fifth player in his state, according to 247 Sports. The inconvenience of waking up early every morning and making an hour-long drive to school proved to be worth it.
“I’d say the hardest part would be like that every day. I am a people person, so it’s easy for me to meet people and talk,” said Hughes. “I was getting home later at night. So the hardest part was waking up early, but I had a special opportunity, so I was taking it day by day.”
Hughes missed seven games in his freshman season at East Carolina University due to injury; he had received notable playing time before the injury as a freshman, averaging 20.5 minutes per game. He decided to move on after that season, transferring to Syracuse, bypassing an offer from Seton Hall in the process. Hughes decided to redshirt after needing more time to recover from the foot injury he received at East Carolina, and the decision wasn’t easy.
“That was hard. I don’t want to be that guy, but when we lose by six or seven points, I would think to myself that I could have been the difference maker,” said Hughes. “It was difficult because I’m a competitor. That’s my first time ever really being away from basketball. I never really got hurt by high school. I never really had to miss time.”
During his collegiate career, Hughes was known for big shots and for being a bucket-getter at Syracuse. He was the second-leading scorer on a prominent team that made the NCAA Tournament in 2019.
The Orange lost to Baylor in the first round of March Madness, but Hughes had 25 points in the game. Hughes had multiple favorite memories at Syracuse, but one came when he was not playing during his redshirt season when Syracuse made a run to the Sweet 16 round.
“We went to the tournament, and that was the one time I was able to travel with the team all season,” said Hughes. “I couldn’t sit on the bench. I was in the stands where the parents and fans sat, so that was really interesting. Although we ended up losing to Duke in the Sweet 16, we had an amazing run. That was a really good group and I miss it a lot.”
During his time at Syracuse, Hughes solidified himself as the number one or two option on an NCAA Tournament team. Hughes’ most famous shot of his career so far was a three-quarter court heave against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the home of the Duke Blue Devils in Durham, North Carolina.
“Just the energy of that game was through the roof. At one point we were down 12 to two. It was getting ugly really really fast. It was one of the coolest shots I have ever hit,” said Hughes.
Hughes had his best season in 2020, averaging 19 points and almost 37 minutes a game for the Orange. Syracuse had won the first game of the ACC Tournament against North Carolina on the same night COVID-19 hit and the NCAA decided to cancel the rest of the games.
Hughes decided it was best for him to declare for the NBA Draft. After the New Orleans Pelicans drafted him 39th overall on draft night, his draft rights were traded to the Utah Jazz. Despite limited playing time on the Jazz, Hughes used the opportunity to become an all-around basketball player and not just a pure scorer.
“It was a great opportunity for me to play, I was happy as well. I got a chance to play for [former Jazz Head Coach] Quinn Snyder on the best team in the West. I was forced to learn how to play basketball.” said Hughes. “As cliche as that sounds, because at Syracuse it was score, score, score. If I was going to find time on the floor it was going to have to be that way, where I learned how to play basketball and that’s when I learned. it was a good spot for me.”
Hughes ended up getting traded again on February 9th, 2022, to the Portland Trail Blazers in a deal that sent Joe Ingles to Portland along with Hughes. The 3 team trade breakdown included Portland receiving Joe Ingles, Hughes and a 2022 second round pick (Jazz via Memphis), the San Antonio Spurs receiving Tomas Satoransky and a 2027 second round pick via the Blazers, while the Jazz received Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Juancho Hernangomez.
A deal with so many moving parts ended up giving Hughes his first real shot in the NBA. Hughes played in a career-high 22 games with the Trailblazers, averaging 3.8 points per game. Hughes struggled from the field, only shooting 30% from the field and 23% from three-point territory.
“I had a really good time,” said Hughes. “Obviously, I wish I would have played better and I was able to stay there.”
In the offseason, Hughes found a new team in the Turkish Basketbol Süper Ligi, where he signed with Manisi BB. Two months later, he departed from the team for personal reasons. Hughes’ comments were limited on the matter, but he mentioned that it was not a good situation for him.
Hughes’ main goal is to make it back to the NBA and that goal is trending upwards, as he recently announced that he will be back on the Milwaukee Bucks’ G-League affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd, for his second stint with the team.
Edited by Ben Leeds and Luke Sassa
Graphic by Gavin Hard; Photo via Wikimedia Commons