DURHAM — It was mid-September, and Mike Krzyzewski was on the road recruiting in Chicago when his phone rang. The official start of practice was a month away, and Duke trainer Jose Fonseca was calling.
Krzyzewski knew it wasn’t good news.
“Whenever you look at your phone and see trainer, you know he’s not talking about the trip to Maryland or wherever, what hotel do you want to stay in,” Krzyzewski said. “Something is going to be wrong. You take a deep breath.”
Krzyzewski’s hunch was right, as Fonseca told him Seth Curry might miss the entire season with a right leg injury.
Fortunately for No. 3 Duke (26-4, 13-4 in the ACC), Curry has excelled despite rarely practicing and managing his right shin pain all year. He has only missed one game with an unrelated ankle injury, and his 17 points per game rank third in the ACC. With the return of Ryan Kelly, Curry will likely have more open looks and space for drives, a theory that will be tested against UNC (22-8, 12-5) Saturday.
When Krzyzewski got that dreaded call, Duke’s perimeter game was surrounded by questions. The 2011-12 Blue Devils’ defensive struggles were largely pinned on the guards, who were, allegedly, too small to defend effectively.
Austin Rivers and Andre Dawkins were gone. Without Curry, Duke would have to rely on a quartet of unproven players in Quinn Cook, virtually a nonfactor his freshman year, Tyler Thornton, not known for his offense, Alex Murphy, a redshirt, and incoming freshman Rasheed Sulaimon. Not a good look.
Starting Sept. 10, Curry was shut down until Duke’s second exhibition game on Nov. 1. The coaches, trainers, Curry and his parents devised a treatment plan that would give him a chance to play. In 17 minutes off the bench Nov. 1 against Winston-Salem State, Curry went 1-for-9 from the field and 0-of-4 from 3-point range.
“I didn’t have a rhythm at all,” Curry said after the game. “But I’m not worried about my jump shots.”
About two weeks-and four practices-later, Curry led all scorers with 23 points (shooting 7-of-14 from the field) in Duke’s 75-68 win over Kentucky. That was his first of 15 games with at least 20-points.
Curry’s average of 17 points per game ties him with Mason Plumlee for the team-high and ranks third in the ACC. Curry’s offensive rating of 121.14 (a measure of points produced per possessions) ranks fifth in the conference, thanks in large part to his 79 3s (second-best) and 43.9 3-point shooting percentage (third-best). And this is all happening with him just practicing once or twice a week.
"He has the luckiest job in college basketball, with his nagging injury,” former teammate Nolan Smith joked. “He doesn’t have to practice but he just gets to play games. He’s a lucky guy. Wish my senior year was that nice."
Curry actually has a greater time commitment than the average player, Mason Plumlee said. He goes to see Fonseca, the head trainer, and Nick Potter, his assistant, every day. Average pre-practice treatments last between 30 minutes and an hour. Sometimes the sessions last as long as two hours.
The senior has managed himself so well that Krzyzewski named in him a captain Jan. 1, a public acknowledgement that he not only takes care of himself, but the rest of the team, too.
“I can’t imagine going through a season like that,” Plumlee said. “He’s handled it so well.”
Curry can’t explain how or why he has performed at this level. His shin has actually gotten better, Krzyzewski said, despite constantly fighting through screens and taking an occasional knee to his injury, like he did against the Hokies.
The pain is taken care of behind the scenes. All anyone sees are the results.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley