Maturity must come fast for freshmen if Duke wants success

Duke senior Quinn Cook, right, will lead two talented freshmen this season as the Blue Devils field a young team. Tyus Jones, left, and Jahlil Okafor are predicted to make an instant impact on the court.
Duke senior Quinn Cook, right, will lead two talented freshmen this season as the Blue Devils field a young team. Tyus Jones, left, and Jahlil Okafor are predicted to make an instant impact on the court. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Entering his 35th year at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski has recruited hundreds of high schoolers to campus. The 18-year-olds who once helped him lay the foundation for his program – Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and David Henderson – are now 50.

The age of incoming freshmen has held constant over the years. And that’s pretty much all that has.

“They haven’t been held accountable, probably, as much as kids five, six years ago,” Krzyzewski told an audience at the Durham Sports Club recently. “They certainly are not as resilient as kids 15, 20 years ago. And if you would ask the military that, they would say the same thing.”

Four of Duke’s 10 scholarship players are freshmen: center Jahlil Okafor, the nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit, point guard Tyus Jones, forward Justise Winslow and guard Grayson Allen. And three (Okafor, Jones and Winslow) will start.

For this to be a successful season, Duke, which has fully embraced the one-and-done model, doesn’t have time for a lot of freshmen moments and mistakes. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, college basketball has never been more of a freshman’s game. Long gone are the days freshmen like Dawkins and Alarie were forced to cut their teeth against superstar veterans who combined talent with experience.

“They’re not playing against (Michael) Jordan and (Ralph) Sampson – those guys are already in the pros,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re young, they’re 19-year-old Jordan. That’s why freshmen can have much more impact now than ever before.”

Duke thinks its quartet has found ways to shorten the learning curve. Okafor, Jones and Winslow have played internationally with USA Basketball, going through the experience of trying out for a team and competing with similarly talented players, all in an international setting. And one of the results of the program evaluation Krzyzewski undertook last spring was a four-day orientation all of his players went through before the start of school.

Still, to transition from a high school senior getting chauffeured around by Mom and Dad to an integral piece of a national championship contender in 12 months is a tall task.

“It’s tough,” Quinn Cook, the lone scholarship senior, said. “I commend any freshman who gets it, because I know for me, personally, it was tough on me.”

Instant trust

In high school, Jones developed a reputation for his poise, especially in big moments. He has brought that mettle with him to Duke.

“A point guard has to take control out there on the court and always be under control, always be ready to run their team,” he said. “Without confidence, you can’t do anything out there on the court. You can’t make a shot, make a pass, make the right read. You’ve got to be confident in yourself at all times because, at the end of the day, confidence is what got all of us here.”

Krzyzewski recently described Jones as pass-first – it’s not that he can’t shoot, it’s just that he doesn’t have to. Jones can zip the ball down low in the post to Okafor, where the big man can use a variety of moves to shed his defender and get a high-percentage shot at the rim, or Jones can get the ball to Winslow, who can play on the perimeter or as a second big. It takes just one glance at Winslow to see his strength and imagine him driving to the basket and making constant trips to the free-throw line.

All of those finishes will have their start with Jones. And that fact became clear to the Blue Devils this summer.

“When you have a huge reputation coming into college, when you get here or wherever you go, you need to show right away that that’s warranted,” assistant coach Jeff Capel said. “If not, then guys start going, ‘He’s not as good as I thought he was,’ and things like that. That’s something that also happened. Those guys came in and they were able to show, OK, these guys are pretty good. So, immediately, they were accepted.”

So many adjustments, so soon

The on-court skills the freshmen possess are immediately recognizable. Yet, there are many unknowns, particularly when dealing the intangibles such as maturity that don’t show up in the box score.

“As much as you (learn about them through recruiting), you still don’t really know a kid until you’re with him every day,” Capel said. “It’s just like you can date someone, and then all of the sudden you start living with them, and it’s like, ‘whoa.” It’s the same thing.”

When Okafor arrived in July, he weighed about the same as he does now – 270 pounds – and he was in good, but not great, shape.

“I was always working out and things like that,” Okafor said. “When I started focusing on changing my diet and watching what I was eating, I really saw a lot of changes in my body.”

Gone were fast food and fried food. And, most painfully, large helpings of sweet tea from McDonald’s. Instead, Okafor drank water and ate fruit. And then changes became visible.

“He has completely changed his body, so he is able to play faster, play longer,” Capel said. “He has done a great job of that.”

Had Okafor waited to fine-tune his body, Duke never would have seen the benefits.

“We won’t have him long,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ll have him this year and then he’ll be one of the top (NBA draft) picks.”

‘Grow up’

Now with the benefit of hindsight, Cook didn’t hesitate when asked what advice he would give his freshman self.

“Grow up,” he said. “It’s a long season. There were times where I was playing 25 minutes. There were games where I was playing eight, nine. Just grow up and be dialed in and always be ready. Sometimes when my number was called, I wasn’t ready.”

The first time the season starts to feel long, Cook said, is in December. Exams follow the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Cook said. There are other big games.

“Then you’ve got conference play; that hasn’t even come up yet,” Cook said.

Time management – an albatross for college freshmen (and many sophomores, juniors and seniors) – takes on even greater importance for athletes. Maybe the road isn’t the best time to try to get work done, in between watching film and participating in walk-throughs.

“You don’t have a teacher or a parent saying, ‘hey, you’ve got a test tomorrow, have you studied?’ ” Capel said. “It’s all those things. It’s freedom. It’s Friday night, you don’t have a curfew. It’s all these things. You talk to them, and you try and teach them. You talk to them about best practices. Hey look, if you want to be really good, this is what you have to do.

“The fact of the matter is, you’re not a normal college student,” Capel said. “As much as everyone says you are, it’s not.”

And then everything just becomes more difficult if life isn’t going well on the court.

“Immaturity wise, I would come to practice like, man, why am I here, did I make the right decision, things like that,” said sophomore Matt Jones, who described his college transition as going from “being the man to basically sitting on the end of the bench.”

Rasheed Sulaimon also had to reconcilehis high school hype with his college reality. The advice he would give to his freshman self:

“Put yourself all-in. It can be scary sometimes. Coming out of high school, you have all these accolades, all these expectations, and then coach (Krzyzewski) gives you a different role than what you might expect,” the junior guard said. “But put yourself all-in. At the end of the day, he is the best coach in the world.”

That sense of trust is what the coaches hope the players feel.

“I try to build a relationship with them where they feel very comfortable talking to me,” Capel said. “And also where they know that we – I, us, we – have their best interests. I don’t want anything from these guys except for them to be great.”

Learning their way, quickly

Toward the end of Duke’s new student orientation week in August, Krzyzewski arranged for his team’s additional orientation program.

“Because we had a lot of newness in our program, while Jeff and I were in Spain, we had a four-day orientation,” Krzyzewski said. “Even for the guys that have been here. Jay Bilas spent quite a bit of time (explaining) media relations, social media, how we dine, everything. It was such a good idea. We’ve done some of that before, but we didn’t afford a four-day period. We’re going to keep doing that.

“Part of it is that we don’t have the upperclassmen that used to teach them. Or, you don’t have them long enough. (It used to be) it’s OK for a freshman to make a mistake, he’s going to be a sophomore, junior – now it’s a condensed version.”

Once Duke takes the floor Friday night, it will be go-time until March, or, if all goes well, early April. This group gets one shot to get it right – there won’t necessarily be much carry over to next season, no chance to be like Dawkins, Alarie, Bilas and David Henderson, going from disappointment as freshmen (11-17) to the Final Four as seniors.

If these 18-year-olds that make up the nation’s top-rated recruiting class are going to translate expectations into results, it has to happen now.

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