Quinn Cook is Duke basketball’s indispensable man

Senior Duke guard Quinn Cook (2) smiles at the crowd from the bench as he plays his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke beat Wake Forest University 94-51 Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC.
Senior Duke guard Quinn Cook (2) smiles at the crowd from the bench as he plays his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke beat Wake Forest University 94-51 Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. cliddy@newsobserver.com

After completing a regular-season sweep of their biggest rivals, Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones finished their postgame television interview and walked off the court at North Carolina. They walked back to the locker room with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders, and their teammates cheered in approval when they entered.

It doesn’t seem strange now, Cook and Jones anchoring one of the best backcourts in the country and pacing Duke to big-time wins. But five months ago, that was far from a given.

Any of the preseason talk that didn’t involve Jahlil Okafor shifted over to Cook and Jones – mainly how Cook would react to Jones’ arrival, Jones’ taking of the point guard spot and just generally accepting a reduced role on a freshmen-laden team. But the coaches told Cook not to listen to all that, to block out outside voices and trust them.

Do that, the coaches said, and whatever Cook earned was what he would get.

Cook put in the work, beginning in the offseason, and, as a result, he has become an indispensable member of Duke’s team. Only three players in the ACC log more minutes per game than Cook’s average of 35.9, and the senior ranks second on Duke’s team with an average of 16 points per game. He is the Blue Devils’ best 3-point shooter, too, making 40 percent of his attempts, and his on-court leadership has filled a void that was missing last season. As a result, Duke heads into postseason play ranked No. 2 nationally, with a 28-3 record.

“I think he has been our most valuable guy,” Mike Krzyzewski said last month after a close win at Florida State. “He has not only been a good player, a really good player, but he’s been a great leader. And our guys follow him. He has been one of my better leaders that I have had at Duke. I didn’t know that that would happen this year.

“Of all the guys, I’m most proud of him. I’m most proud of Quinn Cook.”

The sub-5-minute mile

The real work for Cook began last summer.

Cook opted to stay in Durham instead of returning home, and he set his sights on tackling a long-standing personal goal: the sub-five minute mile.

The mile is a staple of Duke’s preseason conditioning testing, and, heading into this season, just three of Krzyzewski’s players had broken that barrier: Johnny Dawkins, who holds the record at 4:38, DeMarcus Nelson and Kyle Singler.

“Our strength and conditioning coach, coach Will (Stephens), he is always bragging about the guys under five,” Cook said. “I always told myself I wanted to be one of those guys he was bragging about in the future.”

Cook started out his freshman season at 5 minutes, 16 seconds, and his best time was 5:07. This preseason, after working all summer, he hit his goal, finishing in 4:59.

Cook’s conditioning also made a strong first impression with his new teammates.

“Running the mile, and then we had a 12-minute run – just from day one, he always was way ahead of everybody else,” Tyus Jones said. “From stuff like that, you knew he was in tremendous shape. He pushed everybody. When you see him in such good shape and going so hard during conditioning, it makes you want to work harder, it makes you want to run extra and get faster, get in better shape.”

For Cook, running was just one aspect of improving his conditioning. There was – and still are – daily sessions in the cold tub, sometimes twice daily now. He stretches more than he used to, and sleeps more, too, aiming for eight-nine hours a night.

And then there was his diet. No more fast food.

“I had to learn to cook,” Cook said, adding that – like many men his age – pasta is his go-to dish.

That work prepared Cook to average 37.9 minutes per game in ACC play. During a five-game stretch that began at Florida State and ran through the overtime win at Virginia Tech, Cook only left once, for a minute, late in the blowout win against Clemson. It was 40 minutes against the Seminoles, 40 at Syracuse, 45 to beat the Tar Heels at Cameron in overtime, 39 against Clemson and 45 more against the Hokies.

Cook averaged 23.6 points during that span.

“Quinn doesn’t get tired,” Krzyzewski said after the Clemson win. “I’m not saying he is Bobby Hurley as far as the type of player, but Hurley never got tired.

“The guys that I’ve had – Johnny (Dawkins) never got tired. Bobby, never. (Chris) Duhon never got tired. And Quinn doesn’t get tired. I don’t know, it’s something. Again, he works at it, but there is something in it.”

Rock of the team

Beyond just improving his play, Cook improved his maturity.

“It’s like night and day,” Matt Jones said of Cook. “Last year, Quinn could have his little immaturity moments. But this year, Quinn has been magnificent. Obviously we didn’t play well at Virginia Tech, and he goes off for (26) points.

“That just shows you the growth he has had over the past two years. We look at Quinn for everything. He is the rock of the team. And obviously wherever Quinn goes, we go.”

Hurley said this season that part of what inspired him to work so hard, to push through being tired, was seeing Krzyzewski do that, too, spending long hours preparing the team for games.

“I saw his work ethic, and then that inspired me to want to work harder,” Hurley said.

More than 20 years later, Cook feeds off of his coach, just like Hurley did.

Take one moment, with about seven minutes left against Clemson. Cook hit a 3 from the left corner to extend the Blue Devils’ lead to 71-45. Then he went to work immediately on Duke’s press, pressuring Gabe DeVoe toward the Duke bench, and he lost the ball out of bounds. Turnover forced, Cook gave Krzyzewski a high-five – and Krzyzewski pulled him in for a bear hug.

“I got excited seeing Coach jumping and hugging Nolan (Smith), hugging Kyle Singler, that’s stuff that I dreamed about,” Cook said after the game. “While we’re here in the moment, we want to take full advantage of it.”

That’s what Cook has done all season.