May 2, 2006
DURHAM -- There was a time when Mike Krzyzewski didn't worry about losing undergraduates to the NBA. For almost the first two decades of his tenure at Duke, the Blue Devils were the only top national program that was immune to early defections.
All of that changed after the 1999 season, when two sophomores and a freshman jumped out of Durham and into the draft lottery. In the last eight years, Duke has lost as much -- and maybe more -- undergraduate talent as anybody: Elton Brand, Will Avery, Corey Maggette, Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Shavlik Randolph have given up a combined 14 seasons of eligibility. And that doesn't count the four years Duke lost when recruit Shaun Livingston jumped straight to the league.
However, even during that stampede, Coach K has benefited from some surprising player decisions to return to Duke. Jason Williams could have been the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft after his sophomore year, but he returned to play as a junior before leaving in 2002. Both J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams passed up opportunities to go pro after the 2005 season, instead returning to lead Duke to 32 wins and an ACC championship in 2006.
Krzyzewski's program got a similar piece of good news in late April, when freshman power forward Josh McRoberts released a statement announcing his intention to return for his sophomore season.
"I am looking forward to working with the coaching staff," McRoberts said, "to further develop my skills as a player."
In a rational world, no one would have been surprised to hear a player who averaged 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds as a freshman make such a statement. McRoberts does indeed need to develop his skills as a player.
But the world of college basketball is no longer rational. McRoberts was projected as a lottery pick if he turned pro. NBA scouts love his length and athleticism. He is more highly prized for his potential than UNC freshman big man and ACC rookie of the year Tyler Hansbrough, even though Hansbrough had a far more successful freshman season than McRoberts.
A month ago, many in the Duke community were resigned to McRoberts' departure. Projections at one NBA draft site suggested that he would go as high as No. 5 in the June draft. Krzyzewski was scrambling to recruit 6-8 forward Lance Thomas to help shore up a dangerously thin frontcourt.
As they have done with past players, however, the Duke coaches asked McRoberts to delay his decision until closer to the (April 29) early entry deadline, so he could have a more accurate picture of his status. He complied, and it may have made all the difference.
McRoberts' status clearly changed in the weeks after Duke's NCAA elimination at the hands of LSU. A flood of talented undergraduates began declaring for the draft. Many of the declarations were as bizarre as Randolph's decision a year ago. But several were players who likely pushed McRoberts down the draft list. Gonzaga junior Adam Morrison, Connecticut sophomore Rudy Gay, Texas sophomore LaMarcus Aldridge and LSU freshman Tyrus Thomas, along with several international big men, all were likely to go ahead of the Duke freshman.
The most recent draft speculation suggested that McRoberts had gone from sure top 10 and possible top five to a borderline lottery pick. Under the NBA's byzantine salary structure, the difference between being No. 5 and No. 15 in the draft is a big one. Plus, under the NBA's new labor agreement, drafted players are guaranteed just two years of their salary. Those who don't prove themselves in that time can find themselves in Europe or a developmental league, so it makes more sense than ever for players to make sure they're ready before they come out.
Of course, it's going to be hard for McRoberts to move up in the draft order, even if his game shows marked improvement next season. Should he come out after his sophomore season, he'll find himself battling the high school Class of 2006, blocked from entering this year's draft by the new NBA labor agreement. But a flood of talent from that group will pour into the 2007 draft, including the almost-certain No. 1 pick, center Greg Oden.
So whether McRoberts made the right choice for his future remains to be seen. But there's little doubt that his decision was the right choice for Duke.
FRESHMEN MUST HELP IN 2006-07
Krzyzewski has maintained his program at a remarkable level of consistency over the last decade, despite the early departures and other fluctuations that have become a part of college basketball. He's won an ACC championship -- regular-season, tournament or both -- in 10 straight years and reached the NCAA Sweet 16 in nine straight.
Those streaks are going to be very hard to extend next season, even with McRoberts on the roster. Without him, it would have been nearly impossible.
As it is, Duke will not return a single player who has ever averaged double-figure points in college. Krzyzewski will have three returnees from last season's seven-man rotation: McRoberts, starting point guard Greg Paulus and wing guard DeMarcus Nelson.
That's probably enough -- barely -- to serve as a foundation for another competitive ACC team. Krzyzewski will be able to surround that framework with such talented players as incoming freshman swingman Gerald Henderson, who sparkled in this spring's postseason all-star games, and fellow prep All-American Jon Scheyer, who will provide at least some of the perimeter firepower lost when Redick graduated.
Take a close look at Duke's projected 2006-07 roster to understand the full impact of McRoberts' decision.
You'll see a lot of options for Coach K on the perimeter. Paulus, who led the ACC in assists as a freshman, has a chance to be one of the best point guards in college basketball, if he makes the jump that kids usually make heading into their sophomore seasons. Nelson has a lot of talent on both ends of the floor. The injury-plagued Californian merely needs to stay healthy for a season to emerge as a quality ACC player.
Henderson, an explosive 6-5 athlete, and Scheyer, a slender, sweet-shooting guard, both have big-time potential. Holdover Martynas Pocius, who saw a good deal of playing time early in 2005-06 when Nelson was hurt, then disappeared somewhere in the depths of Coach K's bench, clearly has the offensive skills to contribute. If Pocius ever plays defense well enough to satisfy the demanding Duke coach, he could be a factor. David McClure, who started two games as a freshman in 2005 (and was on the floor as Duke edged Georgia Tech in the 2005 ACC Tournament title game), is expected back after missing last season to recover from knee surgery.
That's a deep enough and talented enough group to contend with anybody in the ACC. But it's a different story up front.
Freshman center Eric Boateng, an Englishman with considerable physical skills but a raw game, elected in April to transfer. That left little-used freshman Jamal Boykin as the only frontcourt player (other than McRoberts) returning from last season.
Krzyzewski signed 7-0, 270-pound Brian Zoubek in November, but he's a player unlike any other who has played for the Duke coach. Respected prep guru Howard Garfinkel compared the New Jersey product to former Duke star Mike Gminski, but -- like Gminski -- Zoubek is painfully slow.
Without McRoberts in the mix, Krzyzewski was going to have few options in the post. To help the unlikely Zoubek and the untested Boykin, he almost certainly would have had to use the 6-3 Nelson and the 6-6 McClure up front, instead of at their natural wing spots. Coach K's only other option would have been Thomas, a 6-8 McDonald's All-American from New Jersey, who (as of this writing) still is trying to decide between Duke, Rutgers and possibly others.
That choice is far less critical to Duke's future now. Obviously, Krzyzewski would love to add another talented frontcourt player to his roster, but it's no longer a high-stress situation for his program. McRoberts' decision to return gives him one of the most physically talented big men in college basketball to anchor his front line.
It remains to be seen how far McRoberts will advance now that he's a focal point of the Duke offense. He showed off his vast potential during the ACC Tournament (when he averaged 13 points and seven rebounds) and in the NCAA second-round win over George Washington (14 points, 13 rebounds, key role in breaking press). He does need to get tougher on the boards and develop a mid-range jump shot to emerge as a truly elite player, but few college big men can match McRoberts in transition or equal his explosiveness going to the basket.
McRoberts' return doesn't guarantee Duke's continued status as an ACC and national contender. But it gives the Blue Devils a chance to retain their accustomed stature in the basketball world, a chance they wouldn't have had if he had gone pro.