May 30, 2007
DURHAM Duke's failure to land West Virginia power forward Patrick Patterson this spring will force coach Mike Krzyzewski to play small-ball next season.
The 6-8 Patterson, a strong, long-armed inside player with many of the skills that made Shelden Williams a star at Duke a few years ago, made his choice May 16, picking Kentucky over Duke and Florida. He was Krzyzewski's last chance to add a true inside player to next year's roster, or at least one capable of replacing the 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game provided by NBA-bound power forward Josh McRoberts.
There is one undeniable big man still available. The 7-1, 250-pound Brian Zoubek will return to Duke for his sophomore season, after averaging 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds as a freshman. But while the former New Jersey prep star has the potential to be an impact player at some point in his career, he still has a long, long way to go to be more than a spot contributor.
Unless Zoubek manages an amazing offseason transformation, McRoberts' departure and the Patterson miss will leave the post duties next season to 6-8 incoming recruit Kyle Singler, a combo forward whose physical skills seem to resemble those of former Duke standout Mark Alarie, and to 6-8 Lance Thomas, a 2006 recruit who needs to add considerable weight (he played at 215 pounds as a freshman) and strength to excel down low in the ACC. David McClure, a 6-6 wing forward, also saw action in the post last season and could play there again. In addition, 6-7 recruit Taylor King while a wing shooter on offense often has played down low defensively in AAU ball.
Krzyzewski is working hard to land at least a pair of true big men in the Class of 2008 (Greg Monroe, the No. 1 player in the class, is very much on his radar), but his team's 2007-08 fortunes will depend on the coach's ability to fashion a viable inside game out of the players mentioned above.
Clearly, Duke has depth and talent on the perimeter, with veterans DeMarcus Nelson, Greg Paulus, Jon Scheyer, Gerald Henderson and Marty Pocius joined by talented backcourt recruit Nolan Smith. In fact, the Blue Devils are so deep on the perimeter that they often may rely on a three- and even four-guard alignment.
That's worked before when the one big man in the middle has been outstanding. Duke went to a Final Four with 6-5 Robert Brickey in the middle; won back-to-back national titles with four perimeter players surrounding Christian Laettner; won the 1997 ACC regular-season title with 6-6 freshman Chris Carrawell battling Tim Duncan in the post; and enjoyed considerable success in 2005, with Williams usually anchoring a four-guard alignment.
Can it work next season, when the guy in the middle is Thomas, Singler or Zoubek?
It's a small straw, but Duke fans were able to grasp at Singler's performance in the Jordan All-Star Classic in late April. Singler was matched man-to-man against 7-1 Ohio State recruit Kosta Koufos and more than held his own against the talented big man. Of course, Koufos is an inside/outside player himself and not a true low-post stud.
Then again, how many of the latter will Duke face in the ACC? The Blue Devils might not have anybody to match up with UNC's Tyler Hansbrough, but how many college teams do have somebody to do that?
NBA CRITICISM LONG OUTDATED
Duke long has been castigated by its rivals for Krzyzewski's perceived failure to prepare his best players for the NBA. And, indeed, a number of Duke stars from the 1980s and 1990s failed to live up to expectations in the pros.
But that argument changed dramatically years ago, and it continued to fade as the 2007 NBA playoffs proceeded. Utah's Carlos Boozer and Chicago's Luol Deng used this year's postseason stage as they continued to emerge as NBA stars.
Boozer, who helped Duke to the 2001 national title, was a dominant force as the Jazz defeated the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, then stormed past the Golden State Warriors to reach the Western Conference final for the first time since the heyday of Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Boozer, who averaged 20.9 points and 11.7 rebounds per game in the regular season, upped those stats to 24.1 and 12.2 in the playoffs. His domination of celebrated Houston big man Yao Ming was the key to that series.
Deng, who helped Duke to the 2004 Final Four during his only season in Durham, was almost as impressive this spring. He averaged a solid 18.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game for the Bulls during the regular season, then stepped those numbers up to 22.2 and 8.7 in the playoffs. He was the Bulls' MVP in the first-round upset of the defending champion Miami Heat and played well even as the Bulls were eliminated by the Detroit Pistons in the second round.
The strong postseason play of Boozer and Deng merely highlighted the growing success of Duke products in the NBA.
Duke had 13 former players in the league this season collectively, they earned more than $76 million, a high for any NCAA school's products and most were significant contributors. Like Boozer, Elton Brand of the Los Angeles Clippers averaged more than 20 points per game. Deng, Corey Maggette (Clippers) and Grant Hill (Magic) averaged 15-plus. Mike Dunleavy (Pacers) and Shane Battier (Rockets) also were in double figures.
"We're all Blue Devils at heart," Boozer recently told the Duke Chronicle. "Whether we played with the guy or not, there is a very strong respect between all of us. We all went through the same suicides, the same practices, the same grueling schedule."
Duke's previously poor reputation for producing NBA players stemmed in part from some simple misfortune.
Former Duke star Bobby Hurley was the victim of a drunk driver, crippled just 19 games into his NBA career. Jason Williams, projected as an NBA star, was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and saw his career cut short after one season. Injuries shortened Johnny Dawkins' productive pro career and seriously hampered Hill, an all-star in six of his first seven seasons before he began to battle foot problems. Laettner, often portrayed as a flop despite averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game for the first five years of his NBA career, had just achieved all-star status when he blew out his Achilles tendon and was hobbled for the rest of his time in the professional ranks.
But it appears that Duke's run of bad NBA luck is over.
"That stuff runs in cycles," Battier said. " When I was drafted, I had to defend the alumni from my alma mater. Now it's easy to see that Duke turns out plenty of successful pro players."
McRoberts will be trying to join Duke's NBA fraternity this summer. He's projected as a mid-to-late first-round pick in the June 28 draft.