The Duke Way

A fabulous freshman class has the Blue Devils ranked No.1, but those frosh are in for vigorous training in Coach K culture
November 21, 2005

The last five MVPs of the McDonald's High School All-American Game include three players--LeBron James, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith--who never set foot on a college basketball court and have contracts and endorsements worth a combined $200 million, or nearly the gross domestic product of Tonga.

And the other two MVPs, J.J. Redick and Josh McRoberts? Let's just say they enjoy rewarding but slightly less lucrative gigs. After a late October practice Redick, a Duke senior, and McRoberts, a freshman, are motoring down Erwin Road in Durham, N.C., their oversized frames jammed into the front seats of Redick's 2001 Toyota Corolla. As they make the leafy milelong journey from Cameron Indoor Stadium to East Campus, home to the freshman dorms, Redick cranks up Journey's Don't Stop Believin' while doing his duty as college hoops' most recognizable chauffeur. "It seems like J.J.'s always driving me around," says the 6'10" McRoberts, his knees up near his chin, "and I'm always paying for his gas."

Rules are rules, after all, and carpooling is just one of the customs that might collectively be called the Duke Way. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski has never allowed his freshmen to have cars on campus, the better to build their ties with the team's upperclassmen and, as assistant coach Johnny Dawkins puts it, "create help situations and trust, all the things we're going to use on the court." The notion may seem quaint, but it works. "That five to 10 minutes a day is easy bonding time, and Josh has become one of my best friends," says Redick, who took McRoberts home with him to Roanoke, Va., and visited the freshman at his home in Carmel, Ind., over the fall break.

Whether they make a return trip to the Hoosier State and cut down the nets at next April's Final Four in Indianapolis will depend largely on whether the nation's best senior class (led by All-Americas Redick and Shelden Williams) can persuade the country's most decorated freshman class to embrace the Duke Way. "That's the key thing," says Coach K, who counts only one sophomore (guard DeMarcus Nelson) and no juniors among his top 10 players. "The things we do are so ingrained in these seniors, but for half the team it's their first time. It really puts a lot of pressure on the older guys to teach."

After coming up short of a national title the past three years (the last two times as No. 1 seeds), Duke's six seniors can't wait around for all five scholarship rookies to ease into the college game. "We don't have time for some of those guys to go through the same ups and downs we did," says Redick.

Adds Krzyzewski, laying down the challenge that could define his team's season, "The freshmen are going to have to win some games for us." To get to that point they must pass through a fascinating process of discovery that's unfolding day by day, practice by practice, cramped car ride by cramped car ride.

IN SOME WAYS Duke's freshmen appear to have been assembled as much by a diversity-seeking admissions director as by a Hall of Fame basketball coach. "I don't think we could get a more different group of five people," says forward McRoberts, a smooth Midwesterner with eye-popping athleticism who most likely would have been the first high school player drafted had he chosen to turn pro. "For a big guy he has incredible ball skills," says Krzyzewski, "and he understands the game the way Christian Laettner and Danny Ferry did." When the Blue Devils, including the incoming freshmen, gathered to watch the NBA draft, their eyes widened at some of the prep-to-pro picks. "Probably every college team in the country watches [the draft] and thinks, Man, that could have been one of us, but I always saw myself playing college basketball," says McRoberts, who will start for Duke immediately.

As agonizing decisions go, that was almost as hard as the one that faced Greg Paulus. A 6'1" point guard at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, he was New York State's Mr. Basketball--and also happened to be one of the nation's top-rated quarterback. Paulus could have played both sports at Notre Dame, but in the end he opted for the Blue Devils, promising Krzyzewski that he would focus on hoops. "I love the camaraderie of football," Paulus says, "but basketball is where my heart is."

For now Paulus will have to settle for quarterbacking during the basketball team's touch-football games and competing with senior Sean Dockery for the starting point guard spot. Noting Paulus's confidence, Redick predicts the freshman will succeed him as "most hated Duke player" by opposing fans. But Redick also sees him as "the next great Duke point guard," not least because of Paulus's court vision. Indeed, one great advantage Paulus may have is that the Duke offense is based less on set plays than on the kind of reads a quarterback must make on the gridiron (box, page 59).

The other freshmen will come off the bench, but Coach K says they'll get significant playing time in a rotation that goes 10 deep. Martynas Pocius, a 6'4" guard from Lithuania by way of the Holderness School in Plymouth, N.H., may be the Blue Devils' quickest player, and his relentless style has inspired some to compare him with Manu Ginobili. "I'll never have to tell Marty to take it strong," Krzyzewski says.

Coach K, who was hired four weeks ago to save USA Basketball from further international embarrassments, has not hesitated to bring in overseas talent in his day job. Tapping the same London pipeline that produced former Blue Devils forward Luol Deng, he signed Eric Boateng, a 6'10", 250-pound center who was discovered on his way home from soccer practice four and a half years ago by a mysterious talent-spotter known only as Fat Freddy. Boateng soon joined the Brixton Topcats, a top London club team and Deng's old outfit, and spent three years at the St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Del., before following Deng's path to Durham. Having watched Boateng's daily scrums in the lane with Williams, Krzyzewski calls him the most improved freshman since the start of practice. "Shelden is physically demanding," says Boateng in his thick South London accent. "You can't play passive against him, or you'll die."

Los Angeles native Jamal Boykin, a 6'7" forward, grew up idolizing Shane Battier and Jason Williams, members of Duke's 2001 national championship team, and committed to the Blue Devils without even making a campus visit. "Jamal is saintlike," says Redick, and comparisons with St. Shane seem apt: Boykin likes to lunch in the cafeteria without teammates, the better to meet five new students every day. Like Battier, it may take Boykin some time before he turns into a central figure on the court. "Jamal can be a versatile player who provides a lot of intangibles," says Krzyzewski. "As the things he's learning become habits, he'll be a valuable player off the bench."

Midwest, East Coast, West Coast, Europe. Big man, point guard, slasher, rebounder, jack-of-all-trades. The Duke freshmen may not be the Fab Five (who are?), but no rookie group in the country (with the possible exception of Kansas') can approach their breadth and depth of talent. Recruiting this many elite athletes is one thing; turning them into champions--in their first year, no less--is another project altogether.

HOW DOES A FRESHMAN learn the Duke Way? "It's not like it's on page 37 of a guidebook we hand everybody: When to floor-slap," says assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski, referring to the team's trademark rallying gesture. As with most cultures, you have to absorb the details through experience--or, in some cases, have them hammered into you. It means watching weekly highlight videos of Duke players taking charges, diving for balls and displaying unbridled emotion. It means understanding why the seniors show up early for workouts, scream at you to go hard on every play or pick you up in postpractice pep talks. (The coaches assign each freshman an upperclass "buddy" to keep an eye on his adjustment to practice.)

It also means following orders when Redick interrupts a summer lifting session to tell Paulus and Boykin to replace their high school T-shirts with Duke gear. "People would say that's a minuscule thing to bitch about," says Redick, who has become such a vocal elder that teammates call him Grandpa. "But if you're always taking pride in Duke, then you will the moment you step on the floor."

Most of all, the Duke Way depends upon a deceptively hard task: talking. "Each year we develop an offensive system, a defensive system and a communication system," says Coach K, "and that communication system--every aspect, on and off the court--is interesting to watch take shape." Small moments in the off-season, the thinking goes, can pay off big in March. If Williams takes Boykin to the barbershop and shares summer housing with Paulus and McRoberts, he'll find it easier to show them how Duke players box out for a rebound. If Dockery picks up Boateng, Boykin and Pocius for 7 a.m. conditioning, they'll feel more comfortable asking him for the ball when they're open.

"You always see freshmen come in quiet, a little unsure," says assistant coach Chris Collins, "and the coaches and older players will demand that they use their voices, whether it's helping on defense or speaking up in the huddle."

The origins of the Duke Way can be traced back to Krzyzewski's days as a cadet at West Point. The Blue Devils' buddy system, for example, comes from the bedrock Army belief that you should "take care of somebody other than yourself," says Coach K, who doesn't use the process every year but maintains that it's essential this season given all the freshmen on the team. Forbidding freshman players to have cars on campus goes back to Krzyzewski's first season at Duke, 1980--81. The coaches considered rescinding the rule a few years ago after the university required all Duke freshmen to live on the distant East Campus, but they left it in place to promote team unity. Strange but true: The only Duke students who are expressly prevented from rocking a set of wheels are some of its most recognizable athletes.

But that's the point: History matters when it comes to the Duke Way. What's more, when your program's achievements include three national titles and 10 Final Fours in the last 19 years, you can access a vast bank of historical precedents to illuminate any present-day challenge. Krzyzewski likes to tell the story of the time in December 1990 when Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley informed him that freshman Grant Hill was Duke's most talented player. Coach K challenged his two stars to encourage Hill not to defer to them. To this day Krzyzewski is convinced that his first national title three months later--keyed by Hill's dunk on a half-court alley-oop pass from Hurley in the title game against Kansas--was the direct result of their efforts.

Fourteen years later the coaching staff believes McRoberts, like Hill, has the potential to earn equal billing with Duke's two senior stars, but only if Redick and Williams push him to do so. "I've talked to J.J. and Shelden a little about it, but I haven't given them that as their mission yet," says Coach K. "It's something I need to do because Josh has a chance to be very special."

Likewise, Krzyzewski's team may have to draw upon a touchstone from Duke's 2001 title run when it comes to the battle between a senior (Dockery) and a freshman (Paulus) for a starting job. When forward Carlos Boozer broke his foot late that season, Coach K rejiggered his lineup, forcing senior swingman Nate James to the bench in favor of a quicker freshman guard, Chris Duhon. James not only assured the team he was O.K. with the move, but he also tracked down Duhon and privately offered his support after the announcement. "When I heard that story, I almost cried," Krzyzewski says. "Where do you find a kid like that?"

He may have found another in Dockery, a defensive specialist whose off-season improvement has surprised observers (including, perhaps, teammates) who assumed Paulus would start at the point from Day One. "Sean had an unbelievable summer and just went right after Greg in pickup games," says Redick. "But as soon as it was over, Sean would be the first guy to put his arm around Greg and talk to him. Sean's probably a little threatened--anybody would be--but that shows you why he's the best teammate I've ever had."

Dockery and Paulus seem sincere when they say they're "like brothers" after nearly five months of head-to-head scraps, and Krzyzewski has no fears of dissension should the freshman beat out the senior. "If Greg starts, I have no doubt that Sean will give him 100 percent backing because it'll be fair," Coach K says. "Our guys respond to fair."

Less cerebral stimuli are known to work, too. Before a pickup-game session in early October senior Lee Melchionni approached Redick with an idea: "Let's play freshmen against seniors and show them what it's all about." All Duke pickup games go to seven--no need to win by two--and the rookies started off by matching the seniors basket for basket. With the score 6--6, Boykin tipped in Boateng's miss for the upset--and a chorus of primal screams echoed through the gym. "The freshmen were celebrating like they'd won the national championship, hugging, high-fiving, all that stuff," says Williams. "We got kind of mad about that."

For the next five games the seniors abused the freshmen, piling up win after win, not one of them close. When Boykin started laughing with Melchionni after the seniors had finished off the freshmen, the fiery Redick turned and delivered a stone-faced rebuke: "Jamal, if I'd just lost five games in a row, I wouldn't be making jokes about it."

NOT MANY BASKETBALL teams practice before a group of more than 200 business, media and nonprofit notables, including CNN anchor Judy Woodruff and NCAA president Myles Brand. But this is Duke, where Krzyzewski is a faculty member of the Fuqua School of Business, and he's hosting the fourth annual Coach K Leadership Conference. Wearing a wireless microphone, he welcomes his guests, invites Brand to address the players ("My first message: graduate. My second message: graduate. My third message: graduate") and explains what the audience is about to see. "There are three things we teach kids in practice: work hard, think hard and talk," Krzyzewski says. "There's a certain music to a good practice."

What follows, however, is hardly a Grammy-winning moment for the freshmen, in particular Paulus, who's spraying bad passes with regularity. For the next hour the only music in Cameron is MC Krzyzewski laying down the smack: "You freshmen are so damn loose with the ball. That's ridiculous. Pass the ball like you're passing to men, not little boys.... Greg, don't throw that pass. That's a lazy pass. That's why you have six turnovers today.... The reason you guys turn the ball over so much is because you don't talk.... You have not been competing the last 20 minutes. You want the white shirts to kick your ass right now."

The startled crowd watches, transfixed. Then Coach K turns to the audience and says, almost apologetically, "This is our first late-afternoon practice. I think they came here to work hard, but not to talk hard or think hard. Hence they played like crap."

"My worst practice of the year," Paulus will say later. But the moment the session is over, the Duke Way kicks in. Paulus is calmed by Melchionni, his minder under the Blue Devils' buddy system, who explains what Krzyzewski is looking for. "That's one thing about the Duke program: You're always going to get the absolute truth from Coach," says Melchionni. "You may go back to your dorm room and cry, but you're going to come back the next day and be better because of it." Sure enough, the next day Paulus has one of his best practices.

AS REDICK and McRoberts roll onto East Campus, coeds can't help but stare, proving that it's possible for a Corolla to be cool. Most college seniors would rather pull an all-nighter in the library than hang out with a freshman, but Redick has a kinship with McRoberts that goes beyond their connection as former McDonald's MVPs. "He's a lot like me in some ways," says Redick, who regularly IM'd McRoberts after the high school star committed to Duke two years ago. "On most weekends we'd rather stay in and play video games and kick it with a few people than go out to a club."

True friendship, of course, also carries a license to bust on each other with impunity. What was Redick thinking during the NCAA president's "message: graduate" speech the day before? "That there's no way this dude's going to graduate," Redick cracks, nodding in McRoberts's direction. "And even if he stays four years, he still won't graduate." Everyone laughs, yet like all good jokes this one contains the potential of truth. Redick may be a senior and McRoberts a freshman, but this could be the last college season for both, and there's no time to waste.

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QUICK STUDY

First-year point guard Greg Paulus is taking a crash course in reading the options of the Blue Devils' fluid offense

D

UKE COACHES consider point guard the hardest position to learn in their system, not least because the Blue Devils' fluid offensive scheme requires its floor general to run through a list of options in the blink of an eye. During his first months on campus, freshman point guard Greg Paulus has faced a steep learning curve, accelerated in part by his added experience as one of the nation's top high school quarterbacks. "There are a lot of similarities between football and basketball, and that helps Greg because he has to make a series of reads depending on what the defense is doing," says assistant coach Chris Collins. "In football Greg had to see the whole field and make quick decisions, and that carries over to the way we run our offense."

Duke has no set plays; instead it runs what the coaches call "quick hitters," brief sequences that give the players a multitude of options. Take "L.A.," the name for Duke's trademark quick hitter, in which center Shelden Williams sets a ball screen for the point guard (in this case, Paulus) near the top of the key. Paulus dribbles by the screen, which picks off the man guarding him, whereupon Williams barrels down to the post and forward Josh McRoberts breaks from the low block to a spot beyond the three-point line. Then Paulus can 1) feed Williams in the post; 2) penetrate and dish to the first-option shooter on the wing (guard J.J. Redick) or the next option in the corner (guard DeMarcus Nelson) for a three-pointer; 3) kick it out to McRoberts for a three; 4) turn the corner and beat his defender to the basket; or 5) pull up and pop his own trey.

The idea is to take advantage of optimal spacing--with as many as four Blue Devils stationed outside the three-point line at once--and maximize Paulus's court vision. "For every play you have five or six reads, and with our quick hitters we can run things pretty fast," says Paulus. "We have a lot of guys with high basketball IQs, so that allows us to have an offense that isn't as structured."

Paulus hasn't yet learned all his teammates' tendencies, but after a crash course in the Duke system, he says, "I'm definitely a lot better than I was before."

Krzyzewski still believes Duke's '91 championship was was the DIRECT RESULT of Laettner and Hurley reaching out to Hill.

Redick calls Paulus his heir apparent as "MOST HATED Duke player" and sees the freshman as the program's "next great point guard."

"You get the absolute truth from Coach. You may go back to your dorm room and cry, but you're going to be BETTER BECAUSE OF IT."

PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes PHOTOTIM LYTVINENKO/WIREIMAGE.COMKrzyzewski makes his point to Williams. PHOTOSenior guards Dockery (left) and Melchionni school the freshmen on Duke's unique X's and O's.BILL FRAKES PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (WILLIAMS AND BATTIER)2001 Williams (left) idolized his elder Battier. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (HURLEY)1991 When Hurley (right) helped Coach K win his first title, the Duke method was validated. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN (HILL AND LAETTNER) 1992 At Krzyzewski's urging, senior Laettner took sophomore Hill under his wing. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (REDICK AND MCCLURE)2005 Redick mentored David McClure (14). PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (2)Boykin is Duke's top sub. PHOTOKEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (2)Ex-QB Paulus has vision. PHOTOSARA D. DAVIS/AP (MCROBERTS)McRoberts may dominate.

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