Adam Comarow (@AdamComarow)
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Though this is my first true blog entry, it might very well end up the longest I will write. There is no Duke topic that acts as a lightning rod for emotional debate among fans quite like one and done players at Duke. I thought it would be interesting to quickly recall Duke’s early entrants into the NBA Draft before the one and done period, and then analyze how the changing climate of college basketball has affected Duke teams since. I apologize for the length of my post/article, but I felt it important to detail the complexity of the debate. Each team in the one and done era needs to broken down to show how there should be more thought to anyone’s stance than just a yes or no answer to “Should Duke have signed Irving, Rivers, Parker, and Okafor, and continue to recruit these types of players?”
Led by Coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke men’s basketball program has always done everything possible to conduct operations in a moralistic manor, getting good players as well as good people. Fans view the players as part of a family, and when a player decides to leave before what some fans consider to be a “four-year commitment to Duke,” there can be resentment. I will say that the program and majority of fans have dealt with it well over the years. Luol Deng, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Shavlik Randolph and Gerald Henderson’s early departures were met with understanding and support.
On the flip side, there have also been some unfortunate situations involving Duke players who left early. The three players that stand out are Corey Maggette, William Avery, and Josh McRoberts. When they decided to leave, let’s just say that there was not too much sorrow from “Duke Nation.” It didn’t help matters when Coach K was publicly unsupportive of Avery’s decision, Maggette admitted to accepting cash from a summer league coach prior to attending Duke, and McRoberts said Duke wasn’t a good fit for him and shouldn’t have stayed so long (it was only two years!). I’m sure many also remember the controversial letter sent to Elton Brand (and his response) when he decided to leave, which still embarrasses me as a Duke fan. That came in 1999, when the climate was just starting to change in college basketball, and players leaving early wasn’t the norm. I have always considered the Brand letter controversy as more of an outlier amongst Duke fans.
On the whole, Coach K was able to make plans for players assumed to have a high chance of leaving early, surrounding them with four-year program guys. Only Deng and Maggette left after one year, so Duke still managed to be able to build team chemistry, even with the early entry types of players.
The college basketball world was shaken up in 2006 when a rule was instituted stating that a player had to be at least 19 years old, as well as one year removed from high school graduation, in order to enter the NBA draft. This put many recruits on the table who never would have considered playing in college. Any school that signed the young men were more or less renting them out for a year, which forced coaches to weigh the pros and cons. The pro was getting an exceptionally talented young man who could carry a team in the same way that Carmelo Anthony did for a season at Syracuse. The list of negatives was longer. For example, if a player knew they would leave after one season, what would be the point of attending class for the second semester of Freshman year? How would having a player for just one season throw off team chemistry? Would other players on the team negatively respond? And if a coach wasn’t sure if a player was staying longer than one year, how would that affect the next recruiting class? I will analyze each season during the era purely from a basketball standpoint, despite acknowledgment that there are financial and personal situations that could affect the recruitment and time spent at a school by these players. That very easily would delve into an entirely different discussion.
Coach K avoided going after these types of players for the first couple of years, but entered Duke into the one and done world with his recruitment of John Wall. Thinking back to Wall’s recruitment, the potential was there in 2009-2010 for Wall to be the point guard on a team with Seniors Gerald Henderson, Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, and Brian Zubek, along with Juniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Extraordinarily talented Eliot Williams would have been a rising Sophomore. So there would have been a perfect blend of young and experienced talent with Wall. Even without Wall, the 2009-2010 season had a happy ending, and Duke fans could see that Coach K was not trying to form an entire team around potential one year players. He was trying to find a good blend.
Duke’s prized point guard recruit and potential one and done Kyrie Irving came into a perfect situation in 2010-2011, but things didn’t work out. Coach K built the offense around Irving as a ball dominant point guard, and Duke looked unbeatable for eight games. A freak toe injury caused him to miss the rest of the regular season and ACC Tournament, yet he was able to come back for the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, this threw the team chemistry into disarray. Nolan Smith had taken his place as ball-dominant, and roles were thrown into question too late for a quick fix. Kyrie loved Duke, but he was the guaranteed first pick in a weak draft class and couldn’t turn that down. There was an irrational letter (which the author later claimed was satirical) published in The Chronicle, but just like the Elton Brand situation, I consider that an outlier.
Coach K’s system has always relied on great point guard play (examples being Dawkins, Hurley & Wojo) during his tenure at Duke. When having a point guard he can trust to be a coach on the court, push the tempo and create transition opportunities, Duke has been successful. Without that point guard comes, at least by Duke standards, failure. Greg Paulus gave everything he had for Coach K, but lacked the talent to play in a way necessary to make Duke a championship caliber team. In consecutive years, Duke lucked out in having experienced Senior shooting guards, in Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith, who managed to excel in running the point when called upon.
The 2011-2012 season was the first time that a one and done player at Duke came under harsh criticism. The poor guy who unfairly bore the brunt of the this was Austin Rivers. Yet it is important to take a deeper look at the roster. There was only one Senior (Miles Plumlee) and no semblance of anyone who could play point guard besides Tyler Thornton (who gave plenty of effort but was limited in ability) and Freshman Quinn Cook, who was coming off injured ligaments in his right knee. Cook couldn’t even practice with the team during important offseason chemistry-building exhibition games in Dubai. Seth Curry, a deadly shooter but a limited ball handler, was forced into point guard duties, in turn making Duke a slow, halfcourt reliant team. The transition opportunities were few and far between. This also took away from Curry’s ability to spot up off the ball. Duke had a total of one player on the team who could create offense. His name was Austin Rivers, and what he accomplished that season for Duke with little to no help was astounding. Coach K is amazing, but even he will admit that he’s never been the best X’s and O’s coach. Mason Plumlee showed glimpses of what he would become in his Senior year, but the offense was pretty much Rivers or nothing. When Rivers was forced into being so ball dominant in order to give Curry a chance off the ball, Duke fans considered him a black hole, meaning that once he received the ball, the offense would stop and the ball would never leave his hands. This is what I consider Carmelo Anthony and why I believe that any team he’s on falls victim to Anthony’s lack of ball movement. Rivers always gave the politically correct, team oriented quote, but was never a ball of personality, preventing Duke fans from truly getting to know and embrace him. Meanwhile, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee missed important development as Freshman by being forced to redshirt, and Michael Gbinije never quite fit into the Duke system. Andre Dawkins was going through a trauma involving his sister in 2009 that affected him in ways not publicly known until 2013. To sum up the 2011-2012 Duke team, Austin Rivers kept Duke from falling apart, yet is known by many fans as the player who prevented Duke’s success. Therefore, Kyrie Irving’s NCAA Tournament comeback failure the previous year combined with Austin Rivers’ season leading to an unfathomable loss to Lehigh (despite achieving #2 seed!) led to murmurs that the one year player recruitment at Duke needed to stop.
The 2012-2013 Duke season contained no one and done types of players. Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson were the only Freshmen, and both contributed wonderfully in limited rolls. Everything seemed great on the surface, as Duke ran their team through three Seniors. Mason Plumlee played at a level he’d only hinted at prior to the season, Ryan Kelly was clutch as the stretch 4 when healthy, and Seth Curry admirably played through shin problems to be the leader. Quinn Cook ran Point Guard duties, but wasn’t asked to do too much, being his first true season as a healthy PG. Duke lost to eventual champion Louisville in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament, but the season was a success. Underneath the surface, though, there was very little growth in the underclassmen. Michael Gbinije transferred, Alex Murphy seemed lost in his role and would transfer after the year, and Marshall Plumlee was injured. Andre Dawkins took the entire year off as well. Junior Josh Hairston was a good teammate, but never developed as expected, turning into a liability on the court, eventually replaced by Amile Jefferson. So it was a great year, but there were no non-Seniors with much of any momentum going into the following season.
Duke had three Seniors on their 2013-2014 team, but none that started games or could have much impact. Andre Dawkins had a tough time proving he could do anything but spot up for three pointers, Josh Hairston fell out of the rotation completely, and Tylor Thornton hustled, but was a liability on offense and was in foul trouble much of the time on defense. Quinn Cook was hot and cold at point guard, showing glimpses of potential but not letting Coach K be able to truly trust him. His defense, constantly allowing opposing PG’s to drive past him into the lane, was tough to overcome without a true big man inside. Sulaimon started the year out of shape, and had to readjust his workouts to be able to play with asthma. Amile turned into a great leader, but relied more on hustle plays to contribute rather than anything the team could run through him. Rodney Hood was a newcomer, but had sat out the previous year as a transfer. Despite undeniable talent and tremendous production, the expectations seemed to overwhelm him at times. This put the team in the hands of Freshman Jabari Parker, an exceptionally gifted offensive player who was limited on defense. The fact that he was a forward expected to play center allowed teams to go right at him. If he fouled, Duke had no chance to win because they needed him on offense. So Duke’s defense couldn’t stop penetration, and lacked any big man to make up for it. When Cook seemed to lose confidence and aggressiveness as the year went on, the offense consisted of giving the ball to Parker or Hood in isolation and crossing their fingers. Putting that much pressure on two players, both in their first year at Duke, is too much to ask. Sulaimon started to come on strong at the end of the year, but all of the weight on Parker and Hood’s shoulders had worn them down mentally and physically. Not surprisingly, this led to another NCAA Tournament 1st round meltdown to Mercer. Though Parker and Hood were all Duke could rely on during the season, fans once again ignored the lack of development in the role players, and blamed the team’s failure on one and done players. Fans loved Parker’s character, so didn’t speak of him with the venom that was directed at Rivers, but seemed to blame him all the same. Cook’s Junior year, and first year as an upperclassmen, started to show development, but the three Senior players could not offer much at all. Out of four upperclassmen, Duke did not get much production from any.
The 2013-2014 team is still fresh in the minds of many Duke fans, so remember that Alex Murphy, Michael Gbinije and Marshall Plumlee were, when recruited by Coach K, expected to be players who had developed and could potentially be Junior leaders on the team. Josh Hairston was supposed to have progressed throughout his career, ready to greatly impact the game as a Senior, a la Lance Thomas. I heard many say that Senior Andre Dawkins, when recruited out of High School, was the next JJ Redick. The only player who truly met recruitment expectations was Tyler Thornton. He was exactly the guy Coach K thought he was recruiting four years prior. Thornton gave everything he had, and at least in my opinion, played to his ceiling. I believe he will eventually become a coach. Excluding Thornton, and including Cook as an upperclassman, made for six player that were recruited to Duke, expecting to be major contributors and leaders on last year’s team. While every single one of these players seems like a great person, I am speaking truly in a basketball sense. When Coach K recruited Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to Duke, he imagined them playing with and learning from many of the guys that I mentioned. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out, but to blame Parker and Hood is to ignore the blending of experience it takes to be successful. Too much cannot be placed on the shoulders of these inexperienced players without it becoming overwhelming.
These days, the best recruits out of High School are generally going to be one and done, and Duke fans seem to have trouble with this fact. Over and over, I hear fans say that Duke needs to stop recruiting the one year types, but will immediately follow that up with exaltation upon hearing the signing of Jahlil Okafor. The key for Duke this season will not be Okafor and the rest of the talented Freshmen. In my opinion, it will be the Senior play of Cook, Junior year development of Sulaimon and Jefferson, and the minutes that redshirt Junior Marshall Plumlee can provide. The statistics of these four upperclassmen won’t tell the whole story of how important they are. Fans will be able to gauge their true impact by how well the Underclassmen can play a role without being counted on to carry the team.
It always helps for player relationships to be symbiotic. Quinn’s interactions with Tyus Jones will be so important. Quinn has a ton of experience he use to help Tyus, and can in return watch how Jones keeps his emotions under control. Grayson Allen can be a huge sparkplug off the bench, just like Sulaimon in his Freshman year. Allen could possibly help Matt Jones with offense while Jones helps Allen with defense. Justise Winslow could help Semi Ojeleye with instincts while Semi in return amps up Winslow’s strength. Even new transfer Sean Obi can toughen up Okafor in practice. Amile is the most vocal player, but his leadership feeds off of energy. Winslow has that in spades. Plumlee will need to play minutes off the bench so Okafor can be aggressive without thinking about foul trouble. I believe Sulaimon and Winslow are the most intriguing player’s on this season’s Duke team, but will use future posts to explain why I feel this way.
Hopefully, I have gotten across how important player development is in when blending young, extraordinarily talented one and done players with upperclassmen. Roles have to be embraced, and team must come first. When successful, credit must be spread out amongst all players, but the same goes for blame during struggles. Keep this in mind when watching Okafor this season, as well as potential but unlikely one and done players Jones, Winslow, and Allen. They will be fun to watch, but have none of the experience of Cook, Jefferson, Sulaimon, and Plumlee. If everyone does their part, the 2014-2015 Duke men’s basketball team could be a special group.