September 05, 2008

DURHAM, N.C. -- While Coach K was in Beijing with the Redeem team, he could rest assured that his college crew was on its own mission.

For some Blue Devils, it started in Durham, in one of the country's basketball hotbeds, with college powerhouses North Carolina and Duke less than 10 miles apart and neighboring N.C. State just a short drive away. In the summer, though, partisanship was left to the election and Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Wolfpack and even a stray Kansas State Wildcat played nice at the Greater N.C. Pro-Am summer league in Duke's backyard.

Spearheaded by UNC alum and current Dallas Maverick Jerry Stackhouse, the league (dubbed "Rucker of the South") brought together basketball talents from all levels and generations: Duke freshmen Olek Czyz, Elliott Williams and Miles Plumlee; current N.C. State standout J.J. Hickson and K-State's Dominqiue Sutton; pros Ronald Murray, P.J. Tucker and Josh Powell. Even former Missouri star Ricky Clemons.

But among the array of talent at the N.C. Pro-Am league, it was Krzyzewski's boys -- sophomores Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, and the freshmen trio -- who drew the most oohs and ahs.

The 6-foot-7 Czyz, who made it clear that his name is pronounced Oh-Lek Chuzsh, he would respond to the nickname O.C. and had aerial skills that could would make Vince Carter proud, proved he could throw it down as well as dish it out. In one game, he threw a lob to Sutton for a dunk that reverberated through the gym. Williams had people on their feet with his ankle-breaking cuts and soft shots from behind the arc. Smith guided the "RDU Barnstormers" -- without a number of its top players -- to the championship game, fending off Stackhouse and Miami's Julian Gamble.

It was odd to see summer-league ball played with such vigor. It's name alone implies lax, pickup, just-for-kicks basketball. Perhaps the Blue Devils were looking to quash any lingering doubts from their late-season slide and early exit from the NCAA tournament. Perhaps they were hoping to live up to Krzyzewski's Olympic experience. Perhaps they were genuinely eager to learn from those more experienced than them. Or maybe they wanted to do all of that, because, their summer ball was actually taken seriously.

"It would be very easy to come out here and just play around like it's a pickup game," Smith said. "But everybody out there can play, so you have to bring your 'A' game. Everybody takes it seriously."

Stackhouse made that clear from the start. "It seems so cliché," he said, "but just the small pieces of advice like 'work on your game,' and 'don't ever think that you have it all even though you got a college scholarship,' and 'don't take that scholarship for granted, take advantage of it' [can help you get better]."

But while Smith took heed in Durham, junior forward Jon Scheyer split his summer between his hometown of Chicago and Durham. Early this summer, Scheyer guarded Ben Gordon and tried to contain former Virginia point guard Sean Singletary's speed.

"To see how good [Ben] is, how skilled he is offensively and how many different things he can do -- it was just really good for me to guard him and to just watch him," Scheyer said. "And Sean, he's as quick of a player as I've seen. I've been trying to get my shot off quicker and he's such a quick player, so that helped me a lot."

Having nursed a minor leg injury last season, which Scheyer says is 100 percent, he spent much of his time in the gym simply preparing his body for a a tough season. Lifting, ballhandling, taking shots, playing pickup and, of course, watching Team USA, even if a gold-medal game was played at 2:30 a.m.

With every U.S. win in Beijing, the anticipation of the 2008-09 season mounted for the Blue Devils. Coach K would return with a gold medal in tow, a book deal looming and the experience of coaching the best of the best. He would return looking to be as successful at home as he was in China. But it seems his players knew that before he even left.

"After last season, expectations are very high this year," Smith said. "I've been working out hard all summer and I'm on a mission. I want to take my basketball to another level."

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