Don’t be fooled. While Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth NCAA championship in a 25-year span was won with three freshmen starters, that was as much by happenstance as design. Unlike Kentucky under John Calipari, Duke has not made a virtue of serving as a pipeline for precocious newcomers intent on getting a taste of college life before heading to the pros.
On the other hand, Krzyzewski, a master at adaptation, decided years ago not to shy away from taking players with immediate NBA aspirations. “If you really fall in love with a certain kid that you want,” he said at the dawn of the 2014-15 season, “whether he’s there for one year or four, you have to really go after that kid.”
Over the past four seasons, three Duke players jumped to the NBA after completing their freshman year: Kyrie Irving in 2011, Austin Rivers in 2012, and Jabari Parker in 2014. Now it appears the trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones may leave after a year, just as they came together to Duke to win a national title. Okafor already has announced his departure. Previously, among ACC programs only Georgia Tech in 2007 lost two freshmen in the same NBA draft – Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton.
For Duke, this year’s likely exodus is less a trend than a reflection of bringing in top talent and, like most premier programs, allowing freshmen an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Each of the ACC men’s programs in North Carolina started at least one freshman in 2015 – Duke’s trio, UNC’s Justin Jackson, N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu, and Wake Forest’s Mitchell Wilbekin. Overall, two-thirds of ACC squads had a freshman starter at year’s end.
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“I’ve always embraced freshmen. I embraced Tommy Amaker the most because he saved my job,” Krzyzewski says playfully of the point guard from his 1984 club, now head coach at Harvard. “We’ve always gone after…the best possible player who fits our profile. It just happens that some of those guys could be one-and-done, or two-and-done, or before-graduation-done. Before four years, because all our guys have graduated that are (here for) four years. I don’t think we’ve changed that much in that regard.”
A new world
What has changed dramatically is the basketball landscape, and Duke’s place in it.
For the first half of Krzyzewski’s tenure it appeared Duke was immune to the unrest affecting the college game. Plenty of players left other ACC schools with eligibility remaining: from 1974 through 1998 the league saw 26 players from seven schools jump early to the professional ranks. North Carolina alone lost nine, including James Worthy and Michael Jordan. The early departures reflected a national trend that added uncertainty to shaping rosters and sustaining success. Skimming off the top talent from the most dominant programs also promoted a measure of parity.
Meanwhile, until 1999 Duke lost no one with eligibility remaining.
“When Grant Hill was a senior, no one was asking him whether he would go pro,” Krzyzewski observed in 1997, three years after Hill graduated. “Now Grant Hill would be asked more whether he’s going pro than whether he’s going to school.”
Krzyzewski’s ability to retain his best players – from Johnny Dawkins and Mark Alarie to Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner and Hill – was both mystifying and stabilizing. When Duke went to seven Final Fours over a nine-year span from 1986 through 1994, the Blue Devils were invariably led by juniors and seniors inculcated in how Krzyzewski wanted the game played.
The cultural shift finally hit Duke in 1999. A trio of underclassmen from a 37-2 squad – unquestionably as good as any team that ever fell short of winning a national title, this year’s Kentucky squad included – jumped to the NBA after losing the championship game to UConn. Elton Brand was the top pick in the draft, accompanied by first-rounders William Avery and Corey Maggette, the third ACC freshman to leave for the pros. (Clemson’s Skip Wise in 1975 and Georgia Tech’s Stephon Marbury in 1996 were the others.) Krzyzewski released a statement questioning Avery’s decision, but the program otherwise took the roster upheaval in stride.
A state of flux
Since then Duke has won three more NCAA titles and continued to attract top talent – from 2000 through 2015 the program produced 24 first team All-ACC selections. The Blue Devils also saw 10 players depart early over those 16 years.
Throw in transfers and the occasional key injury, and even a consistently successful program is apt to be in a constant state of flux. “It’s tough to plan,” Krzyzewski pointed out last September about managing contemporary rosters. “It’s not predictable.”
Fostering trust with a prospective player prior to the time he enters school has become more important, according to Krzyzewski. With those who commit early, he critiques their games and tries to “coach” them not on offensive and defensive techniques, but on matters such as leadership and confidence. “It’s more intimate, it’s a deeper level of communication,” he says.
Krzyzewski already has engaged the Top-25 recruits who committed for next season, 6-10 Chase Jeter and 6-5 Luke Kennard. “I want them to be able to trust me at a higher level, earlier,” he explains. “The only way to do that is to talk about things.”
That trust is particularly necessary when trying to tell a recruit what his role will be on an upcoming team.
“The thing that I find uncomfortable is to be able to talk to a recruit now and say, ‘Well, this is how it’s going to be.’ In other words, I don’t know how it’s going to be,” Krzyzewski said. “When a recruit says, ‘Where do I fit in?’ (I say), ‘Well, you’re really good. You have to trust us because there will be a certain amount of attrition each year.’”
Unanticipated attrition can derail a program, especially one less solid than Duke. Consecutive Georgia Tech coaches were brought low in part by early departures. Bobby Cremins, who recruited a small cadre of players and used them extensively – much as his mentor, Frank McGuire, did at North Carolina and South Carolina – was thrown for a loop when Dennis Scott, the ACC’s leading scorer, went pro after the 1990 season.
Georgia Tech never fully regained its competitive equilibrium after Scott’s unexpected loss in the wake of the school’s first Final Four visit. Over the ensuing decade the Yellow Jackets reached 20 wins only twice.
Paul Hewitt, Cremins’ successor, landed more McDonald’s All-Americans than any ACC program except UNC and Duke, and also lost more freshmen early than anyone during his tenure from 2001 through 2011. Several times he says he scheduled nonconference opponents expecting to enter a season with a formidable roster, only to have a reduced contingent when the games arrived. “That was the number one thing that caught us,” Hewitt says.
Scheduling pitfalls, or the academic problems that plagued Hewitt’s clubs, have not hurt the Blue Devils. Their recent disappointments have been confined to postseason. Since the much-disdained one-and-done era dawned a decade ago, Duke has been bounced three times in its NCAA opener. Those stumbles spurred Krzyzewski to reappraise his methods and to accelerate his development of freshmen, an approach that certainly yielded rich dividends this past season.