C.J. Fair

C.J. Fair celebrates Syracuse's win over Marquette in the Elite Eight. (Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports / March 30, 2013)

C.J. Fair is all too familiar with the history of former high school players from Baltimore who left Syracuse early for the NBA.

This week, the 6-8 junior forward follows Carmelo Anthony, who as a freshman a decade ago led the Orange to its only national college basketball championship before embarking on his professional career.

But Fair, who helped Syracuse reach the Final Four for the first time since 2003 with wins over Indiana and Marquette last week at the Verizon Center in Washington, is even more familiar with another former Baltimore star who also left after being one of the top freshmen in the Big East.

Fair is still in touch with Donte Greene, now trying to resurrect his professional career in Puerto Rico. Greene was a late first-round NBA draft choice in 2008, but was not resigned by the Sacramento Kings after spending his first four years there. He signed a non-guaranteed contract and an invitation to training camp with the Brooklyn Nets last summer, but broke his ankle working out last summer.

"Going to the NBA, you got to be ready. There's no time to get ready," Fair said in Washington, where fourth-seeded Syracuse (30-9) beat the top-seeded Hoosiers in the regional semifinals, 61-50, and the third-seeded Golden Eagles, 55-39, in the final last Saturday. "It's a business as well, so teams are not going to just pick you because they like you. You've got to prove yourself."

What happened to Greene is something of a cautionary tale for Fair, who has steadily improved over his three seasons at Syracuse to become one of the team's best all-around players. Fair was named to the NCAA tournament All-East Region team after averaging 12 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2 blocks.

Though his name has yet to surface on many NBA mock draft boards, that could change if Fair plays well at the Georgia Dome. The Orange will take on fourth-seeded Michigan on Saturday at 8:49 p.m.

"Growing up, your dream is to get to the NBA. Sometimes it takes people longer than others, but I could always see myself playing in the NBA one day," Fair said. "I never looked at it whether I was going to be one or two or three years [in college]. When the time's right, I know I will get there. It's just a matter of time."

Fair, who spent his first three years of high school at City before playing his senior year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, has steadily improved at Syracuse. Fair came off the bench as a freshman and averaged 6.4 points and 3.8 rebounds, then started nine games as a sophomore averaging 8.5 points and 5.4 rebounds.

"I think I've got better each year. To be a good player, you've got to keep getting better," said Fair, who has started every game, leading the team in scoring (14.3), rebounding (6.9) and minutes played (34.8, including all but two minutes in the past two games). "Every year I've gotten more trust in the coaches in my game. That's a good feeling, for me to prove myself and be able to compete with the best.

Fair has dramatically improved his 3-point shooting, hitting 29 of 61 for the season as a junior after hitting seven of 27 his first two years.

"He came here with left-hand floaters and dunks," said junior guard Brandon Triche. "The second year he could mix it up with mid-range jump shots, dunks and had a few 3-pointers. But this year he's expanded his game offensively and defensively. He's so quick and with his size. He can do anything he wants."

Said associate head coach Mike Hopkins: "He's really elevated his mindset when it comes to his role, and when called upon he delivers. He's taken an amazing leadership role. You've seen him grow with confidence, but it's not just offensively, it's with every aspect of his game."

A year ago, Fair might not have recovered from a missed dunk early in the victory over Indiana. This year, he did and could smile about it the next day, still visualizing how after his one-handed tomahawk slam the ball richocheted into the backcourt.

"I wish I could have took that back," he said. "I don't know what happened. Maybe I tried to dunk it too hard. I never miss dunks like that. It wasn't embarrassing. Lucky it wasn't a crucial play; it was early in the game. But I kind of set the tone early by being aggressive."

A year ago, Fair struggled down the stretch, missing 23 of 38 shots and averaging a little more than five points over the team's last eight games. In his past five games, Fair has made 27 of 53 shots and averaged just over 15 points.

"That's something you've got to do to be a good player," Fair said after the regional final. "I don't try to do too much. I just try to do what the team needs me to do, and I look at it as a job. I have to produce a certain way for us to win."

Fair seems more concerned in following Anthony in helping the Orange win another NCAA championship instead of just following his fellow Baltimorean to the NBA. Whether it comes this year or next doesn't seem to matter.

"I think either way you look at it, this year or next year, being a four-year guy, there's nothing wrong with that," Fair said. "You hear a lot of NBA guys say, 'Don't rush out of college, it's the best, funnest time in your life.' A lot of guys regret [leaving early]. I'm in a position where I can get the whole college experience and hopefully take my time in the NBA."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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