For senior Quinn Cook, there was no escaping the talk of his replacement.
“When he first committed, we were winning, so everything was good,” Cook said of Tyus Jones, the consensus top point guard recruit and Duke freshman. “But then when we started losing, it was, ‘Oh, Jones is coming next year, don’t worry, Cook is to the bench.’ ”
The talk worked both ways. Jones’ family asked Duke coaches how the dynamic would potentially work with their son coming into a program that had a veteran point guard.
The relationship the staff established with the Jones family – the Blue Devils didn’t recruit another point guard once they focused on Jones after his sophomore year in high school – allowed them to feel comfortable. But to avoid a potentially toxic chemistry mix, Cook needed to be on board.
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“We told him to trust us,” assistant coach Jeff Capel said. “Look, man, everyone has people. You’ve got your boys back home, you’ve got family, you have all these things, so one of the things we told Quinn was just listen to us. Just listen to us. Leave the outside voices outside. Listen to us, and you worry about you.”
Do that, Capel said, and whatever Cook earned is what he would get.
Cook took those words to heart. He curtained off the outside distractions, staying in Durham all summer with teammate Semi Ojeleye. Earlier this week and before practice officially starts Friday, Cook saw his first reward for that work: the title of captain this season.
“You always wonder, is it going to happen the way we think it’s going to happen? Because human nature, man,” Capel said of the Cook-Jones dynamic with a laugh. “But it’s been great. And hopefully it continues to be great.”
The reporters and analysts were right to pencil Jones into the starting lineup right away—as Capel said Wednesday, Jones has the opportunity to have the ball immediately, to play quarterback, in a sense, for the team. But Cook could be one of Duke’s best shooters, Capel said, and, with the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, Jahlil Okafor, anchoring the defense to the paint, there will be open shots on the perimeter.
As a sophomore, Cook was named third-team All-ACC, and Duke advanced to the Elite Eight. Last season, his points and assists dropped, and he went through an extended shooting slump in ACC play, hitting just 33.3 percent from 3-point range.
“The biggest thing for him was to try and become consistently good,” Capel said. “And, at times last year, he was good, but down the stretch, he wasn’t as good as he should be. He got knocked back a little bit. He lost a little bit of confidence. But he has embraced everything we talked to him about in the spring at our end-of-the-year meeting.”
For Cook to have a chance at being comfortable with Jones, he had to first be comfortable with himself. Thanks to the time he put into conditioning and working on his game, he has found that inner peace.
“I worked all summer. I didn’t take a day off,” Cook said. “Me and Semi stayed here all summer. We did not leave Durham, North Carolina, the whole summer. That working out every day, you become more confident and secure in your abilities.”
One year ago, the disappointment in not being named a captain was visible on Cook’s face at media day. Wednesday, he was much more relaxed, thankful for the opportunity he has been given and for the lessons learned over the past three years.
Cook talked about being more even-keeled on the court, keeping his emotions better under control. And he talked about embracing Jones, believing that both can contribute in a season that they hope ends with a fifth national championship.
“He has allowed me to come in here and play my game and be myself,” Jones said of Cook. “There is small stuff you have to learn. Having him here and playing with me, he is helping me learn at a much quicker pace than some freshmen would.”
No coach could ask for more from his senior captain, one who has had to listen to the talk of his demise for the better part of a year.