June 10, 2002 DURHAM You've got to hand it to Duke, and to coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Packed neatly into one recent story, a commitment to attend Duke by high school sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, was everything fans have come to know and love (or loathe) about the S.S. Blue Devil and its captain, Coach K: Amazing foresight. Recruiting ability galore. Good fortune. Media manipulation.
All of it, in one news item. That's pretty good (and bad), even for the Duke basketball program.
We'll take those items one at a time, but first, the PooP: Nelson is a 6-3 combination guard from Vallejo, Calif., who committed in late May to attend Duke on a basketball scholarship. Only a rising junior at Vallejo High, Nelson won't matriculate at Duke until the fall of 2004, when the members of the current incoming class Shelden Williams, J.J. Redick, Shavlik Randolph, etc. are juniors, assuming they haven't left yet for the NBA.
And that's just what Krzyzewski is guarding against. Apparently, and rightfully, scarred by the mass underclassman defection of 1999 when Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and William Avery turned pro and Chris Burgess transferred to Utah Krzyzewski clearly has vowed never to be caught unaware again.
That explains the massive recruiting class that enters school this fall, the one with Williams, Redick and Randolph. Krzyzewski knew, as far away as two years ago (at least), that he might lose Jason Williams (sorry, Jay, you're Jason to us until you hit your first NBA free throw) and Carlos Boozer to the NBA before their four years at Duke were up.
So the coach went to work on a class that had a player at every position, just in case. Just in case Williams turned pro early. Just in case Boozer turned pro early a decision, by the way, that looked more and more risky as draft day neared, as many analysts projected him as a second-rounder. Just in case a heralded signee (Casey Sanders) didn't develop as planned. And just in case something totally unexpected happened, like a skinny but gifted role player such as, oh, Mike Dunleavy turned pro early.
Impressive Foresight On Sophomore
Which brings us back to Nelson, the California state player of the year for his freshman class in 2001 and his sophomore class in 2002. Nelson is a hedge against Redick turning pro early, or rising sophomore Daniel Ewing turning pro early.
Landing Nelson this early also re-emphasizes Krzyzewski's ability to think slightly ahead of the curve. Who was the first coach to aggressively market a three-year plan for his players, allowing them to enter the NBA draft a year ahead of schedule, armed (or almost) with their degree? Krzyzewski. Who was the first coach to garner a commitment from a player before that player's junior year of high school, a difficult feat considering recruiting rules that severely limit personal interaction until a prospect completes his junior season? Well, it wasn't Krzyzewski, but he was one of the first. The earliest known commitment in recent college basketball history probably came when Iowa's Steve Alford picked up in-state guard Jeff Horner almost three years before Horner could begin his college freshman season (this season).
As high school seniors make their college decisions earlier and earlier often during the summer after their junior year, if not sooner college coaches have more time to devote to high school juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Assuming he's right, and that Nelson becomes the kind of guard ACC fans have grown accustomed to seeing at Duke, Krzyzewski deserves credit for evaluating the youngster so quickly. Who knows, Nelson might have committed in July, after the adidas ABCD Camp, to longtime favorite Arizona had Krzyzewski not offered the scholarship now.
That assumes Krzyzewski is right, of course. Which leads us to our next point.
Evaluation Track Record Strong
Krzyzewski is almost always right when it comes to recruiting. At the very least, he has a better batting average than just about every other coach out there.
Usually, whenever he signed a prospect who eventually became a practice player (Andre Buckner) or a 10-minute-per-game reserve (Nick Horvath), Krzyzewski had known the kids' roles before they even committed. That's one of the many things that make his recruiting so formidable. He has taken the hit-or-miss process of evaluating teenagers and basically turned it into a grooved fastball. Then again, it's a lot easier to sock that pitch out of the park when you have your choice of recruits, as Duke does under Krzyzewski.
In the last five years, Sanders might be the only marquee guy who didn't approach the Duke staff's plans for him. Andre Sweet might be another, although he probably was recruited as a role player. Besides, he left school too early for that determination to be made. Burgess also transferred before having the chance to fill Krzyzewski's expectations, although it was crystal clear that he would fall far short of his top-10 prep credentials.
Bottom line: Krzyzewski wanted Nelson. He got him. The coach does this kind of thing all the time, and he rarely makes mistakes. End of story. Well
A Little Luck Sure Didn't Hurt
College coaches can write a high school sophomore a letter, or 100 letters, as Southern Cal's Henry Bibby is infamous for doing, but they can't say much more than hello to a potential recruit until the May of his high school junior year.
Unless that recruit happens to be on campus for another reason. Say, the Tournament of Champions, or any unofficial visit. (On unofficial visits, the school can't pay for or anything not a plane ticket, not cab fare, not an ice cream cone. Official visits are school-sponsored events, paid for with athletic department funds.) The TOC is the event that drew Nelson to Duke, much as it drew a St. Louis kid named Chris Carrawell to Duke five years ago. Duke shot to the top of Carrawell's list during that fateful trip to Durham, and he eventually committed there, signed there and became the ACC player of the year there.
So it is, or was, with Nelson. Once he wandered onto Duke's campus for the Tournament of Champions, he was fair game for an unofficial visit with Krzyzewski and Co. On an unofficial visit, contrary to popular belief, coaches are permitted to roll out the red carpet. (They just can't let the prospect take the red carpet home with him.) The school is not permitted to pay for anything or offer gifts of any kind, and there are many other limits on the extent of the interaction, but they can give the prospect a tour of campus, show him the facilities and have normal conversations that go far past hello. With Nelson, it all added up to one thing: Game over.
Perhaps Nelson, who had a genuine interest in the Blue Devils even before the TOC, would have chosen to take an unofficial trip to Durham at some point to check out the school anyway. Perhaps not. (Seen the latest airfares from California to North Carolina?) In this case, though, it was an easy decision. His AAU team was playing in a tournament in North Carolina, and his AAU team was handling the relevant expenses. Once Nelson was delivered to the Duke campus, of course he was going to take advantage of the opportunity to check out one of his favorite schools.
That's a distinct recruiting advantage Duke (and North Carolina and N.C. State, the other college hosts of the Tournament of Champions) has over most of the rest of the country. Not that Duke needs any advantages.
Media Manipulation Attempt Failed
So this should be a great story, right? Duke gets the earliest commitment of Krzyzewski's
20-something year tenure in Durham! Big news!
Only, the Devils tried to mute the news. They tried to keep it quiet, even beyond the normal scope of not commenting publicly on unsigned players, as per NCAA rules. Sources close to the situation told the Sports Journal that Duke's staff advised Nelson and his father, Ron, not to announce the commitment even if asked about it to the media for several weeks, maybe longer.
Krzyzewski knew Nelson had the game to play for Duke, but he wanted to make sure Nelson had the grades, too. The prospect's sophomore grade-point average (in the 3.5 range) was enough to convince Krzyzewski to extend the scholarship offer, but it's a significant leap of faith for any university to accept the academic credentials of any student who hadn't completed even 50 percent of his high school career. It's a particularly sensitive issue at Duke, which rightfully works to protect its lofty academic reputation in all corners, including the athletic department.
To hedge against the embarrassment of a committed recruit not having the academic resume to get past the admissions office and to keep up the appearance that the Duke admissions office has the last word on which basketball players do and do not get offered scholarships the Blue Devils asked the Nelsons for time. Not much, just enough to receive and peruse DeMarcus' updated transcripts.
Of course, the news leaked. Doesn't it always? This time, it leaked on a private message board for UNC fans. Within 24 hours, the story was in print in almost every major daily in North Carolina, even though Nelson refused to come to the phone and his father refused to confirm the news.
The cat sufficiently out of the bag, Duke apparently, and no doubt resignedly, gave the Nelsons the go-ahead to speak publicly about the commitment. Which they did, one day later.
And so was written another chapter in the Duke basketball story, for better and worse.