I think most coaches would want the best player at every single position on the basketball court if they meet certain criteria – that being obviously: be coachable and also hardworking. We all would love to see every player that comes into college stay for four years and develop their game. As a fan it gives us the chance to root for them longer, to see the coaching benefits pay off in wins, we feel like we are in some way a part of that process. Unfortunately we do not own it, nor should we. Certainly Coach John Calipari drew a lot of ire when he began to make his mark as a coach who almost exclusively recruited players that would only be on campus a few months. It sucks being the first and he’s garnered just as much praise for it as he has criticism. It has paid off, if you believe his own rhetoric on the subject, in the exact way he wanted it to. Helping kids get to the next level, making dreams come true. That’s fine, Kentucky fans embraced it…mostly. I honestly don’t have a strong opinion on it either way. I’m not going to trash him for it nor am I going to call him a hero. It’s just a means to an end.
Coach K, by most accounts, was slow to embrace the recruiting of multiple one and done players – who could blame him. He’d built his program mostly on keeping players and allowing them to develop and take ownership of the program. It makes a coaches job easier when he can primarily focus on x’s and o’s rather than having to reteach culture and expectations each and every recruiting class. Having program holdovers, stalwarts is such a luxury, they become extensions of the staff in some ways and they relate to new players on a one to one level. The problem is the best talent was going elsewhere or the best talent believed that if they had eyes on leaving early for the NBA that Duke was not the place to go. Whether you believe Coach K changed his philosophy or you believe that players began to see Duke as a legitimate path to the NBA, does it really matter? Now K draws that same criticism that Calipari received. Some say he’s abandoned his principles or that he’s taking the easy way out and that he’s compromised what Duke is about. I see it a bit differently.
Winning in college basketball is important, as is being a teacher and a leader – that doesn’t change if players decide to leave early, that doesn’t change if they stay for 4 years. Coaching players that you know full well are not going to be around very long is a much harder feat. The timeline is significantly reduced and you have to adjust your coaching style thusly. Having to build a cohesive unit each season with fresh faces is no easy task but it’s the price you pay for obtaining the services of the best players – the best talent. Who can blame players for leaving early to maximize both their years being able to earn and also the buzz about their upside. It just makes sense. We also have to take into account that Coach K is also working on that abridged timeline. He knows the amount of games he has left to coach is shrinking. Maximizing your time as the clock wanes is probably the smartest thing K has done. You can argue the results in the post season have been so-so but what you cannot argue with is the fact that a brand that was already significant in the world of college basketball got bigger. The name Duke was already synonymous with college basketball, rich in history and mystique but over the past few seasons it has become even more – the brand has become a brotherhood and has extended into the NBA in a lot of ways. Sure a lot of it is smart marketing but when you look down the sidelines and see former players on staff, you see the summers workout full of former Duke players, you see them at K Academy. It’s a reality, regardless of what outsiders think and in actuality the more outsiders try to downplay or malign it, the more they strengthen it.
Where Does Zion fit into all of this? It’s hard to say, clearly he’s a talented player who had his pick of the litter. He’s being situated next to a very strong perimeter team featuring Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett. I would be surprised if the fact that Coach K used non traditional lineups with his Olympic teams, focusing on versatility rather than defined 1-5 roles, wasn’t a factor in Williamson’s decision. Coach K has used players in non-traditional ways through his venture into the one and done experiment and probably has the most experience in shaping a team around the talent rather than force-fitting the talent around a style that may not best suit who he has on the floor. Obviously there are questions still to be answered about a 6’6, 272 undersized power forward who is athletic as they come but with not much in the way of a perimeter game who wants to spend at least some time at the perimeter. What better coach to utilize him in a way that both benefits Duke and Zion Williamson. When Zion mentions that the Brotherhood was something he couldn’t pass up, he knows the machine that has been Duke in recent years, the coverage, the ire from opposing fans, the presence in the league. With recruits, program history is a draw, of course, but its also what have you done for me lately. Seeing players like Jabari, Ingram, Tatum – players that aren’t prototypical but possess an unique skillset be it size, versatility or what have you, are huge in recruiting a kid like Zion. K has made a mark recently and even going back to players like Grant Hill and Christian Laettner – players that could play multiple positions and were unique and atypical. Whether or not it will work in Zion case is still an unknown but I’m not sure there is a better place to take a chance on – definitely not a better coach.