April 26, 2004
DURHAM With every day that passed in April without any definitive word from Duke's best player and top recruit, the apprehension about the Blue Devils' prospects for next season heightened. Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston are giving the NBA more than just a cursory look, and they should. Both players are talented enough to warrant serious consideration as high lottery picks, so there is no reason why they shouldn't examine their options as carefully as possible. The longer they wait to make an announcement, the likelier they are to leave. Even though Deng and Livingston are highly coveted by NBA general managers, however, that doesn't make their respective decisions easy. Deng said immediately after Duke's loss to Connecticut in the Final Four that he intended to come back for his sophomore season. Looking back at similar utterances by players such as North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse, for example, it is widely accepted that such statements are not worth the paper they end up being printed on. Despite his lack of public comment, Deng now is known to be looking at the alternative with a much more objective eye, and he is hearing that the NBA wants him dearly. Shoe companies and other possible endorsement sources await as well. A 6-8 forward with the skills of a guard and the world-weary wisdom of someone much more experienced than his status as a teenager might suggest does not come along very often. One of the more recent players who fit that description was former Duke star Grant Hill, Deng's basketball hero and a person from whom the freshman has sought counsel. The verdict from the NBA is virtually unanimous. All draft projections have Deng going in the top 10, most in the top five. It would surprise no one if he were selected among the top three or four picks, especially if the expansion Charlotte Bobcats are involved. What it comes down to for Deng is how he prioritizes the riches and security of the NBA against the college life and the college degree he and his family value so highly. Aside from getting his Duke education, the best thing Deng could get out of staying in school is a minimal jump in the draft, perhaps to the No. 1 pick next year. It would be a gamble, considering the possibility of a serious injury or maybe even a less-than-stellar follow-up to a remarkable rookie season. If money is the main consideration, then Deng's decision is a no-brainer. The NBA's rookie pay scale guarantees huge paydays from the first pick (about $11.2 million over three years) through at least the seventh pick (about $6.1 million over three years), and the best players get their big contracts after their first three to five years are up anyway. Livingston Situation A Close Call? While Deng's situation probably will work out for him either way, Livingston may be taking a risky gamble by making himself available for the draft and bypassing college. Yes, Livingston is an especially talented player. His 6-7 size is a tremendous asset at his position, which is point guard. But there also are many unanswered questions about his professional future. To begin with, point guard is the most difficult position in the NBA to learn. Rookies, even four-year college players, typically take a season or two to adjust. The Cleveland Cavaliers quickly scrapped their plans to make LeBron James a point guard at the beginning of this season, because it was simply too much for him to take on. Also, many wonder if Livingston is even going to remain a point guard. He is rail-thin at 175 pounds as a high school senior, but if he fills out his future might be at one of the wing positions. Meanwhile, Livingston's draft status is not nearly as cemented as Deng's. Some brave team might take a chance on a high school point guard in the top 10, but Livingston would be taking a huge leap of faith without some sort of guarantee from an NBA team. Also, given the young player's recent comments about wanting to be a serious rookie of the year candidate when he arrives in the pro ranks, at least some seasoning in Durham probably would be his best option. At this point, the decision appears to be solely up to Livingston. His grandfather (who has consistently recommended college) and father (who has not) recently went on record as saying they want him to go to Duke, and coach Mike Krzyzewski has made it clear that he would like the chance to coach Livingston. But as is usually the case in situations like this, Livingston is getting advice and information from various sources, some of whom may not have his best interests at heart. 2004-05 Cupboard Won't Be Bare That the future of the Blue Devils' backcourt hinges on the whim of an 18-year-old is surely upsetting to Duke supporters, despite that fact that there still would be a load of talent coming back in the absence of Livingston and even Deng. So many other ACC teams have ridiculously deep and skilled lineups that it would be easy for anyone, including Duke, to fall a step behind. In the worst-case scenario, of course, neither Deng nor Livingston will be on the 2004-05 Duke team. That would result in a starting lineup of Sean Dockery at point guard, J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing at the wing positions, and Shavlik Randolph and Shelden Williams on the inside. That is no lineup at which to turn up your nose, but it lacks exactly what Deng and Livingston would give the Blue Devils a leader and a top-flight point guard. Dockery is one of the most well-liked Duke players, and he might have been the best defender besides Chris Duhon on this year's team. But he has yet to show an ability to knock down the perimeter shot, and his scoring in general has been inconsistent. Perhaps those problems would work themselves out if Dockery is handed the reins as a junior, but it's hardly a sure bet. With Duhon gone, the Blue Devils have a significant leadership void. Although Deng would be just a sophomore next year, he already showed a knack for inspiring his teammates with his stirring halftime speech and subsequent out-of-this-world plays in the second half of Duke's regional final victory over Xavier. If those skills develop as well as Deng's physical abilities, he could step to the forefront right away. If both players return, Duke again will be a favorite to compete for the ACC title and make a return trip to the Final Four. But with every passing day that Deng and Livingston maintain their silence, the best-case scenario faces longer and longer odds.