We could focus only on the raging success stories: Bobby Hurley, Jay Williams, Chris Duhon, Tyus Jones. Or we could include those who had to work to master the job, such as Greg Paulus or Trevon Duval. In his time as Duke head coach, though, Mike Krzyzewski has demonstrated he is willing to put his basketball team in the hands of a freshman.
So long as it’s the right freshman.
And he earns it.
“He always told me that the spot would never be given,” Jeremy Roach told reporters on a Zoom call Tuesday. “So I just got to work my butt off, and if it’s right, then he’ll give me the starting spot.”
Roach was a McDonald’s All-American, the No. 23 prospect in the class of 2020 and was pursued by Kentucky, North Carolina and Maryland. He said Krzyzewski’s track record of using freshmen at point guard, which dates back to the earliest days of his Duke tenure, influenced his decision to play for the Blue Devils.
Krzyzewski has been coach at Duke twice as long as some of his players have been alive, and one does not last so long in such a precarious profession without learning a thing or two along the way. Among the first lessons he was taught: Winning is much easier to achieve with a Tommy Amaker on his team.
From the day Amaker arrived on Duke’s campus in 1983, the Devils have been in the hands of an exceptional point guard nearly every year, notably Tre Jones, his brother Tyus, Chris Duhon, Jay Williams, Bobby Hurley and, for a season each, current Duke staffers Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith. Each of them either became a national champion or All-American. Or both.
“All the coaches are a big help, but especially Coach Scheyer and Coach Nolan,” Roach said. He added that there is a natural connection with Smith because they both are from the “DMV”; Roach is from Leesville, Va., and attended Paul VI High School in Fairfax. Smith moved to the area when his father, Derek, became an assistant coach with Washington’s NBA team.
“He’s been telling me early what to expect in the ACC, what to expect from Coach K, showing me the little things that Duke brings, being vocal, ball screens, just breaking a guy down — my whole offensive game.”
Roach’s competition for the point guard job is serious, serious enough that it’s not impossible that both he and senior Jordan Goldwire could be in the lineup. Goldwire started 15 games last year, averaging 4.7 points, 2.3 assists and 48.7 percent shooting from the floor. Krzyzewski complimented him during a Wednesday Zoom call with reporters on his practice performance to date, calling him “outstanding,” but the coach also made sure to mention that Roach “has really come on, especially this week.”
And that’s the idea with a freshman just learning what Krzyzewski demands from his players, particularly the one who is at the front of the offense and defense. There may be no coach in any sport who emphasizes communication on the field of play more ardently and effectively than Krzyzewski. Bill Walsh had his West Coast Offense and Dick Bennett had the Pack Line Defense; Krzyzewski will mold his strategic approach according to the players on hand, but he insists his players talk enough among themselves for their actions to be as one.
It seems less than a coincidence that eight of the players who filled that position for Krzyzewski went into coaching, including six who became head coaches at the Division I level: Amaker, Hurley, Snyder, Jeff Capel, Steve Wojciechowski and Greg Paulus.
“He’s definitely been on me about just talking,” Roach said. “I think I’m doing a pretty good job of it, but I can definitely still get better. But that’s his biggest thing, just being vocal.”
Roach was described by 247 Sports director of scouting Jerry Meyer as someone who can score at all three levels and play through contact, and rates him highly as a leader and passer.
Duke point guard is a high-profile position. Those who have succeeded have been widely applauded; those who struggled often have been criticized to excess.
“I came my junior year to the Duke-UNC game, and I just saw the atmosphere, how Coach K carries himself, how he cares so much for his staff, his team, everybody in his organization,” Roach said. “They brought me in as a brother, and the coaching staff has looked out for me. It’s everything I asked for.”
It’ll get harder when the games begin. Or easier. That’s up to him.