Jai Smith doesn’t mind admitting what’s obvious; that a big part of the intrigue of potentially playing at Duke was the chance to play for Mike Krzyzewski.
Naturally, he was excited when the Blue Devils started to reach out more frequently in hopes of luring the 6-foot-9 forward to Durham in 2022.
“They’re like a dream school for me,” said Smith, who hails from Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh, N.C.). “I don’t know where I’ll end up, but Duke is a school that you have to get excited about when they call. It’s Duke. It’s Cameron. It’s Coach K.”
Since the late 1980s, Duke’s greatness, and even college basketball as a whole, has been synonymous with Krzyzewski, and when news broke Wednesday of his impending retirement at the end of next season the basketball world seemingly let out a collective gasp.
“I don’t think we ever thought Coach K wouldn’t be at Duke,” Smith said. “Man! That’s pretty crazy. He’s such a legend. It’s just hard to believe because he’s been there forever.”
Smith’s sentiments are echoed by multiple players on Duke’s radar in the 2022 class who are coming to terms with the fact that they won’t get to learn under the winningest coach in men’s Division I history (1,170 wins).
In 41 years at Duke, Krzyzewski has won five national championships and reached 12 Final Fours.
“I have always had a lot of respect for what Coach K did at Duke. How can you not?” said Montverde (Fla.) Academy wing Dariq Whitehead, who will visit Duke on June 11. “But Duke is Duke. It doesn’t really change anything for me with him leaving.”
Smith is in the process of setting up a visit to Duke and jokingly said his first words to Krzyzewski will be in the form of a plea.
“I think I’m gonna say, ‘Please don’t retire!” Smith said with a laugh. “No, but even though it will feel different and it’s somewhat of a letdown to know I can’t play for him, it doesn’t make me not want to go there. All of his captains are there! Nolan Smith is my guy. I’m very comfortable with him. I know Coach (Jon) Scheyer is a great coach too."
Duke announced that Scheyer, a former star player for the Blue Devils who now serves as associate head coach, will be Krzyzewski's successor.
Scheyer won a national title as a player in 2010 then as an assistant for the Blue Devils in 2014 before being promoted to associated head coach in 2018.
It is a given that filling the proverbial shoes of a living legend will be a tall order, but, in terms of recruiting, the greater question is whether the perception among prospects is that he’s capable.
The general consensus in that regard is yes.
That’s important since Krzyzewski said he’d be leaving the recruiting up to the guys who will actually be coaching the prospective players.
“It'd be tough to recruit for next year if I'm not coaching the kids,” Krzyzewski said. “That's not fair to a kid that you would be recruiting, saying 'I think I'm going to coach,' and then at the end of the year say you're not coaching. That doesn't mean I hate recruiting. I just want to use that time better. I want to allocate that time better in my life."
With that in mind, Scheyer was on the frontline, working the phones Wednesday night and immediately following Krzyzewski’s retirement press conference on Thursday, reassuring Blue Devil targets that Duke would remain on top.
“Coach Scheyer and Coach Nolan called me twice both days, just talking me through everything,” Whitehead said. “I trust Coach Scheyer 100% as a head coach. He said he couldn’t wait for me to get down there. I’m just as excited to see him as I am to see Coach K.”
Westtown School (West Chester, Penn.) center Dereck Lively said his primary point of contact with Duke has always been Scheyer, a coach he was excited to hear from because of the name recognition.
“When I think of Duke, I think of Coach K for sure, but I also think of Coach Scheyer,” said Lively, who will visit Duke at the end of June. “Everyone knows that. Sadly, I won’t be able to be a part of Coach K’s legacy, but him leaving won’t deter anything for me with Duke. I still have them high on my list. Coach K is an amazing coach but playing under Jon Scheyer is still a huge privilege and something I’m really considering.”
While the disappointment among players was palpable on Wednesday, they leaned toward awe over awful, focusing on what Krzyzewski was able to accomplish with Duke as a brand.
“He built a brand that can stand without him,” Lively said. “When you think of Duke, you definitely think of Coach K, but that brand is big on its own too. How many things can you say that about? That’s a testament to him, but also proves that Duke is gonna be Duke.”