March 21, 2006
DURHAM - The way Josh McRoberts finished the 2005-06 season was both very good news and - maybe - very bad news for the Duke basketball program.
It was good news because without the strong play of the freshman forward, the Blue Devils would not have won their seventh ACC championship in eight years and made another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
It was bad news because McRoberts' often-spectacular performances highlighted the talent that has some pro scouts drooling. It raised a vital question for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski: Will McRoberts return next year to anchor what is going to be a very young team, or will he leap at the chance to be an NBA lottery pick?
Don't let anybody tell you he knows what McRoberts is going to do - not even McRoberts. It's a decision he'll make after the season.
Obviously, rumors are going to fly in such situations. Asked directly about the NBA at a press conference before the ACC Tournament, McRoberts gave the standard line, basically: "I'm not thinking about that now."
But is he? There's a rumor floating around Duke circles that McRoberts told one of his tutors recently that he won't need him next year. But there also are those who insist that the talented kid wants to return next season to be "the man."
Indeed, that's certainly Krzyzewski's plan. The Duke coach will lose four seniors out of his seven-man rotation after this season, including All-Americans J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. Coach K would have a reasonable chance of rebuilding an immediate contender if McRoberts returns to join point guard Greg Paulus and wing guard DeMarcus Nelson. The Blue Devils could use that trio as a firm foundation for their strong freshman class (wing athlete Gerald Henderson and wing shooter Jon Scheyer are particularly prized) - plus three talented but little-used holdovers from this year's freshman crop - to build upon.
That might not be a national championship-caliber team. But with a presumably improved Paulus (Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt recently said that, in his experience, most point guards make a big jump between their freshman and sophomore seasons) feeding the gifted McRoberts down low and on the perimeter, it's not unreasonable to project Duke to have the same kind of success Coach K summoned from a similarly youthful team in 2003, or that North Carolina's Roy Williams managed this season after losing seven top players off his national championship team.
One of those seven at UNC was freshman forward Marvin Williams, a sixth man for the Tar Heels who was drafted second in last spring's NBA draft. He's an apt comparison to McRoberts in that he was drafted more on potential than on actual accomplishment. And while McRoberts isn't quite as universally admired by pro scouts as UNC's Williams was in 2005, there seems little doubt that he'd be taken relatively early in what's shaping up to be the weakest draft in modern times. He's currently projected as the fifth pick in this year's draft by nbadraft.net, ahead of teammates Redick (10) and Shelden Williams (15).
McRoberts' potential was very much on display during the ACC Tournament. It's not so much numbers - he averaged 13.0 points and 6.7 rebounds over the three wins - but his show-stopping plays. Against Boston College, he ripped down a defensive rebound, raced the ball upcourt with the dribble until he reached the foul line, then delivered a perfect behind-the-back pass to Williams for the dunk. Or there was the play where he rebounded his own missed free throw and exploded for a one-handed dunk follow, drawing another foul. Or his two-handed reverse slam off a feed from Redick.
It was a far cry from McRoberts' play in the first two months of the season, when the prep All-American often appeared passive and indecisive. He hit double figures in points just five times in his first 20 games. He's done it 10 times in his last 14.
"In the last month, he's gotten a feel for what it takes and he's gotten comfortable," Krzyzewski said. "When kids all of a sudden grow up like that, it's kind of neat."
Duke's second-round NCAA victory over George Washington may have been the culmination of that process. McRoberts showed almost the full range of his skills in the game: scoring (14 points on 4-of-5 shooting), rebounding (season-high 13 boards), defending (two blocks and a steal) and ball-handling. Coach K even used the 6-10 forward to bring the ball up against the Colonials' very quick full-court press.
"It really helps having Josh back there," Krzyzewski said. "He makes great decisions, and he can handle the ball like a guard."
About the only skill McRoberts didn't show off against George Washington was his shooting range. He hasn't shot from the perimeter often this season, but his three-point accuracy (50 percent; 5 of 10) is the best on the team, at least statistically.
McRoberts' overall freshman numbers (8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 61 percent FG, 51 assists, 41 blocks, 39 steals) compare very favorably with the numbers Shelden Williams posted as a freshman (8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 51.6 percent FG, 15 assists, 52 blocks, 23 steals). Maybe that's why the senior big man was so laudatory about his freshman compatriot in the post.
"The way that Josh played (against GW) was an amazing lift," Williams said. "For him to be a low-post presence and also getting his hands on defensive rebounds was a big boost for our basketball team. Seeing his face, being very energetic and into the game, was an amazing lift for our basketball team today. He's finally putting steps together and becoming more consistent."
Williams ended with the hope that McRoberts would play as well in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament. That hope is indeed vital to Duke's short-term future.
But the long-term reality is that the better McRoberts plays - and the more Duke accomplishes - the less chance there is of him returning to help Coach K rebuild next season. McRoberts very easily could follow in the footsteps of Corey Maggette and Luol Deng, freshmen who jumped to the pros after helping earlier Duke teams reach the Final Four. Team success often is part of these decisions; Roy Williams is convinced that both Marvin Williams and Sean May would have returned to college this season had UNC fallen short of the NCAA title in 2005.
For his part, Coach K left San Antonio after his 2004 Final Four loss to UConn convinced that Deng would return for his sophomore season to anchor another title run in 2005. But family pressure pushed the versatile forward into the draft.
Nobody knows the pressures that will be pushing and pulling at McRoberts this spring. But he certainly has a big choice to make, both for himself and for the immediate future of the Duke basketball program.
FOOTBALL COMPLETES STAFF SHUFFLING
Ted Roof brought his football coaching staff back up to full strength by hiring Larry Kerr, who served as the defensive coordinator at UCLA for the past three seasons, to coach Duke's inside linebackers and serve as special teams coach.
Prior to working at UCLA, Kerr spent 10 seasons on the staff at Colorado State as defensive coordinator, as the Rams captured six conference championships and participated in seven bowl games. The Bruins went to bowls in each of Kerr's three seasons, but he was fired in January after his defense finished 118th (of 119) in the nation against the run.
Brad Sherrod, who guided the Blue Devils' linebackers for the past nine seasons, will coach the tight ends while assisting Kerr with the special teams units in 2006. In addition, co-defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro will coach Duke's outside linebackers.
In an offseason filled with changes in the ACC's assistant coaching ranks, Duke suffered some of the most alarming losses. Three respected veterans - assistant head coach/wide receivers coach David Kelly, running backs/special teams coach Fred Chatham (South Carolina) and offensive line coach Don Yanowsky (East Carolina) - left for other opportunities. In addition to Kerr, their replacements were Charles London and Scottie Montgomery, two young former Duke players with little or no coaching experience.