After waiting a year, Duke’s Rodney Hood is ready to lead

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2013 

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The drive Rodney Hood brought to practice every day last season, with no hope of playing in games, earned him a captain’s position this year. Duke has high hopes that Hood will develop into a star player.

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— On Jan. 23, 2013, it looked pretty bleak for Duke. Down in Coral Gables, Miami was embarrassing the Blue Devils in a way that’s only happened a few times since 1983, slapping the floor, throwing down dunks and leading by at least 22 points for the entire second half of the 90-63 blowout.

Back in Durham, Rodney Hood decided in the second half that he had seen enough. Unable to travel with the team because of NCAA transfer rules – he left Mississippi State after his freshman year – Hood abandoned the TV and went to the court. He went to work. He started putting up shots.

Now, 10 months later, Hood is done watching on TV and sitting on the sidelines at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The drive he brought to practice every day last season, with no hope of playing in games, earned him a captain’s position this year, along with seniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston. Hood is just the third sophomore to have the honor. And he’s the first to do so without having played a minute for Duke.

In coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 34-year career leading the Blue Devils, Duke has taken just four transfers: Roshown McLeod, Dahntay Jones, Seth Curry and now Hood.

“We don’t just go out and search for a bunch of transfers,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a great kid. Rodney is a special kid, man. He’s as good as they get.”

When it came time to recruit Hood after he announced he was leaving Starkville, it didn’t hurt that he had grown up a Duke fan. His favorites were Shane Battier and Jay Williams, who led the 2001 Duke national title team, the group many have used as a comparison for this year’s squad, at least in terms of athleticism.

But Hood, who is 6-foot-8, 215 pounds and hails from Meridian, Miss., had been recruited by then-Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury since he was in middle school. Both his parents, Ricky and Vicky, played basketball at Mississippi State. So it was almost a foregone conclusion that the 4-star recruit would wind up there, and the Blue Devils’ staff didn’t spend much time recruiting him.

On paper, the Bulldogs had the talent to make an impact on the national scene.

“We had Arnett Moultrie, who plays for the Sixers now, Renardo (Sidney), who coming out of high school was one of the best high school players anywhere,” Hood said. “And we had Dee Bost, who was an all-SEC point guard. And it was just disappointing that we didn’t perform how we should have.”

The Bulldogs battled chemistry, character and effort issues and collapsed down the stretch, falling from their midseason No. 15 ranking and losing seven of their last nine games to finish 8-8 in the SEC and end their season with a first-round loss in the NIT to Massachusetts. Stansbury retired shortly after the season, and Moultrie, Sidney and Bost left, too.

“I just felt like, if I had to start over, I wanted to start over somewhere else,” said Hood, who played 32 minutes a game and averaged 10.3 points. “It wasn’t anything against Mississippi State, I loved it there, I loved my time there, but I just wanted to move on.”

Duke lands a leader

This time, the Blue Devils were aggressive in Hood’s recruitment, with Krzyzewski and assistant coaches Jeff Capel and Steve Wojciechowski all working in tandem to land him. Ultimately, Hood chose Duke over Ohio State.

It was a landing spot that would have excited the younger version of Hood who grew up watching Battier and Williams, even if that wasn’t the most popular team in football-centric Mississippi.

“Especially the black community, they feel like Duke is a privileged school and things like that,” Hood said. “Being on campus, I know it’s not like that. The guys on the team are regular guys. The coaching staff are regular people. It’s just a school where they demand excellence, which you don’t find everywhere else.”

From the time Hood stepped on campus, Krzyzewski began to work on developing his leadership skills, something he had let fade away during his difficult freshman year at Mississippi State.

“He sees great leadership qualities in me that I didn’t see in myself,” Hood said. “He’s continuously trying to pull that out of me. He thinks if that comes along, I’ll be a great player here.”

Duke will need Hood to be the on-court leader this season. Fellow co-captain Thornton won’t start, so the coaching staff is counting on Hood to be fill that void left by Mason Plumlee.

“You need somebody leading at the point that it needs to be led, not like after a game when we discuss it or at a timeout,” Krzyzewski said. “At the point of action leadership — if you have that on your team, man, everything you do is better. Hardly any teams have that.

“Rodney’s thing is just to learn to say what he feels instantly, instead of holding and letting things develop,” Krzyzewski continued. “The life of our group is short. You don’t have time to wait. He feels what we feel as a staff, really, unbelievably well. I’d like to see him do even more of that, so we’re working with him on that.”

Coaches push Hood, and he loves it

It’s not easy to learn to say what’s always on your mind, regardless of the ramifications, but in Krzyzewski’s opinion, it’s necessary in the arena of sport. Hood has taken the development of his leadership role seriously. When the team went to New York for fall break, he talked to Kyle Singler about the 2010 national championship team. He took note at West Point for any indicators of why Krzyzewski acts the way he does. (Hood said before he arrived at Duke, he assumed Krzyzewski was a military, no-nonsense type of guy. “He’s still like that,” Hood said. “But people don’t know that he has a great sense of humor.”)

Back in Durham, Hood has used special assistant Jon Scheyer as another source to learn about leadership, especially how to react to challenges laid down by Krzyzewski.

“Coach K, especially the last couple of weeks, has been on me hard,” Hood said. “There were a couple of days where, I didn’t play bad, but I didn’t play up to my level, and we watched tape, and he just grilled me. I needed that to become a better player.

“I enjoyed it because I like being pushed. Wojo is always on me. Capel is always on me. If they’re not on me, (assistant coach) Nate (James) is on me. Scheyer is on me, (trainer) Jose (Fonseca), everybody is always riding me, but I love it.”

As for the actual playing of basketball, noboby is concerned Hood will struggle with that. They all saw his skills first-hand, when he went against them on the scout team last year. Often, Hood would attempt to mimic the opponent’s best player.

“I got to play C.J. Leslie, Doug McDermott, which was very fun,” Hood said. “I played Reggie Bullock for North Carolina. And (Virginia’s) Joe Harris.”

Perhaps his most enjoyable assignment was volume shooter Erick Green from Virginia Tech, who led the nation in scoring last year (”he shot it almost every time,” Hood said with a smile). There was one key difference between Green and Hood, though.

“Rodney is left-handed,” Thorton said. “Some of the things that he would do, we’re trying to scout for Erick Green, and Rodney is just killing, and the coaches would be like, ‘Well, Erick isn’t really going to do that.’ It was funny.”

It will be even funnier for the Blue Devils if Hood does that against the opposition. He’s had to wait long enough.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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