Luke DeCock

Trevon Duval's time has arrived for Duke, better late than never

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski gives instructions to Trevon Duval (1) in the first half. UNC defeated Duke 74-69 in the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Friday March 9, 2018.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski gives instructions to Trevon Duval (1) in the first half. UNC defeated Duke 74-69 in the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Friday March 9, 2018. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Over the course of the season, Trevon Duval watched more film than a football coach. Sometimes with assistant coach Jeff Capel, sometimes with Jon Scheyer, sometimes with Nolan Smith, the Duke point guard was planted in front of a video screen for hour after hour, each clip with the same goal in mind.

There was never any doubt about Duval's athleticism, or his ball-handling, or his shooting, or even his defense once Duke switched exclusively to a zone in February. But Duke's coaches showed clip after clip, over and over again, trying to etch the right decision for any particular situation into the freshman's brain so deeply it would come instinctively.

The message was simple to convey, tough to internalize: “Just play smarter, but at the same time be who he is,” Smith said.

And it wasn't that Duval wasn't trying. But as the turnovers piled up, and even as Duval lost the point-guard job to Grayson Allen, temporarily, the video work continued on campus and in darkened hotel rooms, play after play, hour after hour.

The Duke Blue Devils practiced at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. Thursday, March 22, 2018, before their Sweet 16 game in the Midwest Regional against Syracuse Friday.

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Until the Blue Devils got to Pittsburgh for the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament. It's too facile to say that something clicked for Duval, or that the immediacy of the tournament flipped a switch for him, although that's certainly possible. The reality is Duke has been pushing him toward this point the entire season, video session after video session, without any guarantee he would ever get there.

“I think I've gotten better with just my decision-making,” Duval said. “I've grown as a player and as a point guard. I've learned a lot, just by playing in games and playing for coach.”

Find out how the Duke Blue Devils and the Syracuse Orangemen match up as they battle in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Sweet 16.

As Duke prepares for its unlikely rematch with Syracuse on Friday far outside the ACC footprint, Duval stands as a key to unlocking Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone not only because of his ability to slash to the rim before the zone can rotate and adjust, but because Syracuse basically dared him to shoot in the first meeting, when Duval went 1-for-5 from 3-point range. He was 5-for-9 against Iona and Rhode Island in Pittsburgh.

Duval frustrated as much as he dazzled for much of the ACC season, letting a solid start to his freshman year slip away from him amid the turmoil and travel of conference play. Duval had four or more turnovers in nine of 20 ACC games; he had a total of five in Pittsburgh. Duke is 19-1 when he has two or fewer turnovers, 9-6 otherwise.

In a video posted by Duke on social media Tuesday, Grayson Allen throws a pass through a car’s sunroof to Trevon Duval, who grabs the basketball and slams it through a homeowner’s driveway basket.

Late in the Virginia game, with Duke down two and 1:09 to play, Duval corralled a rebound under his own basket. Instead of walking the ball upcourt for a critical possession, he threw a long pass that Virginia intercepted, essentially sealing the win. It was an example of Duval half-understanding what he was supposed to do; the coaches had been harping on him to get the ball upcourt to Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. whenever he had the opportunity, but there are times when the only correct play is just to play smart.

“He has instincts and athleticism that you can't teach,” Scheyer said. “He has those. But it's now understanding time and score, game situations. Times where we don't want a quick shot, times when we do want to push it, all those things. That's the main thing: decision-making. He's done better at it.”

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When Duval retweeted a clip of his high-flying dunk at North Carolina from inside a losing locker room, that was the catalyst for a change, with Duke putting the ball in Allen's hands and putting Duval on the bench.

“Sometimes it takes failure in order to really get a guy's attention,” Capel said. “It takes going to the bench, which we did. Having to watch that. Some tough love. That's what it takes sometimes.”

Benching Duval made Duke a better team at the time, but everyone, from Duval to Mike Krzyzewski and everyone between, knew Duke needed Duval to be the best team it could be.

And that time has come.

Time is a big part of it. Even Duval's father told the Duke coaching staff that his son needed discipline and guidance, because all of the poisonous crossovers and leaping dunks that made Duval a star on the AAU circuit needed to be tempered and honed, especially surrounded by the talent Duke has. The comparisons to Tyus Jones, the clutch-shooting freshman point guard on Duke's 2015 national-title team didn't help, either.

Duke freshman point guard Trevon Duval talks about No. 4 Duke’s 65-63 loss to No. 2 Virginia at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 27, 2018.

“Because he was such a highly ranked guy, the No. 1 point guard or one of the top point guards, everyone expects it to happen right away,” Capel said. “Come in and maybe be Kyrie (Irving) or be Tyus at the end of the year. People forget, Tyus struggled too. But you remember in hindsight. It takes time. You have to go through good stuff but also bad stuff in order to learn. They're all teachable moments, man. And he's had a lot.”

At this point in his freshman season, Jones was a stone-cold killer. (His younger brother will arrive next fall with similar expectations.) Duval has hit some big shots for Duke this season, most notably in the home win over North Carolina, but he isn't where Jones was, not yet anyway.

He is getting closer. Duval showed in Pittsburgh that he can be the player Duke needs him to be to be the best team it can be, and he will need to be again this weekend for Duke to continue to move along.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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