When Duke Became Everyone Else

I’ve been writing this article in my head for some time; I’m just not sure how long. The idea has been brewing for the last month or so, ever since the Blue Devils got a commitment from 2018 forward Zion Williamson and I listened to Tate Frazier and Mark Titus spend virtually an entire podcast talking about it. But, realistically, this article has been five years in the making — ever since Duke changed their culture.

What’s important to get out of the way is that present-day Duke basketball is not the same as it was 15 or 20 years ago — when I was growing up — and if we’re keeping it real not even what it was five years ago. Duke used to be a program that was casually detested for two main reasons: the first was the Blue Devils are one of the best college basketball schools in the country, and it’s fun to root against the favorite. The second, perhaps more subjectively, are some of the personalities that have played there. Combining those two items alone have made it an easy school to dislike.

However, over the last handful of years Duke began, almost exclusively, recruiting one-and-done players (that historically went to Kentucky or arch-rival North Carolina, for instance). This goes against what they had generally been about: plucking the very best white guys out of high school and watching them blossom through the program for three or four years. That doesn’t appear to be the focus anymore. Now, the focus is getting the best NBA prospects out of high school and watching them play just one year before getting drafted.

I remember exactly when this shift in philosophy was born: I sat and watched from my dorm room in 2009 when Duke got dismantled by Villanova in the Sweet 16. On that team the Devils had two quintessential Duke White Guys in their backcourt — senior Greg Paulus and junior Jon Scheyer — and they got absolutely smoked by the Wildcats’ speed. The final of that game was 77-54, the biggest tournament blowout of my lifetime, which is when coach Mike Krzyzewski had his revelation: He needed guards who could defend dribble penetration, the same as he needed guards who could create penetration.

In other words, he needed to recruit more lottery pick-caliber athletes.

Paulus and Scheyer, the latter of which would go on to win a National Championship a year later, were becoming dinosaurs as far as that oversimplified blueprint was concerned. What followed, as one might expect since I am writing this, was a consistent stretch of getting the best, or at least one of the two- or three-best, high school kids in the country. Just as some examples:

  • Kyrie Irving (#2 prospect in 2010)
  • Austin Rivers (#1 in 2011)
  • Jabari Parker (#4 in 2013)
  • Jahlil Okafor (#1 in 2014)
  • Tyus Jones (#7 in 2014)
  • Brandon Ingram (#4 in 2015)
  • Harry Giles (#2 in 2016)
  • Jayson Tatum (#3 in 2016)
  • Marvin Bagley (#2 in 2017)
  • Trevon Duval (#5 in 2017)
  • Wendell Carter (#7 in 2017)
  • R.J. Barrett (#1 in 2018)
  • Zion Williamson (#2 in 2018)
  • Cam Reddish (#3 in 2018)

As you can see, at the beginning the idea seemed almost playful. Between 2010 and 2013 Duke got commitments from “only” three one-and-done prospects. Total. That is more or less in line with what they had always done, surrounding one can’t-miss NBA talent with an already-good roster.

Since 2014, though, as you can plainly see in the above list of names, Duke has gotten out of control signing the very best in the nation each year. As opposed to what I mentioned at the end of the last paragraph, now, the entire starting lineup is can’t-miss NBA talent. The three- and four-year players who once played around these individuals are now coming off the bench instead.

Tate Frazier, who contributes in multiple capacities to various The Ringer podcasts, is a 20-something year-old who graduated from North Carolina and is, thus, a giant Tar Heels basketball fan… meaning he isn’t fond of my beloved Blue Devils. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy listening to him on his (One Shining) podcast, because we come from opposite sides but we’re both smart. Once Duke signed Zion Williamson, giving them each of the top-3 players in the class of 2018, Tate pitch-perfectly summed up the way I feel about my favorite team, and the Duke-UNC rivalry in general. It starts around 20:20:

The problem I have isn’t even a Duke hate. It’s more a longing for what I’ve lost. And I say that from a place of love and a place of hate, because they’re very close to one another.

The best thing about the North Carolina-Duke rivalry, always, was that North Carolina was the program that had the supreme talent, the superior talent on the floor. But Duke had the moxie, the skill, and the ability to play the game of basketball better than the talented players. To know the game better. To take the charge. To dive for a loose ball. To do all these sorts of things.

And they’ve gone completely away from their identity, and everything [Coach] K built. The reason that I’m sad is because, you know what, it’s hard for me as a North Carolina fan to hate Brandon Ingram. It’s hard for me as a North Carolina fan to hate Marvin Bagley. It’s hard for me as a North Carolina fan to hate Jahlil Okafor. Because these are great, supreme talents that I cannot believe are now going to Duke. It just makes no sense. It doesn’t fit.

This was the moment I truly realized Frazier for what he is: a genuine sports fan. He understands that sports are about more than wins and losses sometimes. That it’s supposed to mean something the way in which a team goes about those wins and losses. What’s interesting about this particular take is that, while Tate is a Tar Heel fan, he and I still want — or long for, I guess — the same thing.

Unironically, Duke — the most popular college basketball team to hate — is harder to hate since they have gone the route of the one-and-done. Because while in the past the Blue Devils fielded teams full of experienced guys, who have been in the program for so long, and have played on nationally televised ESPN broadcasts so many times, it gave the audience a good reason to dislike them. They were good, and it seemed like they had been playing at Duke forever.

Now, the cast of Blue Devils is largely made up of guys who don’t play there long enough to be hated. They suit up for a year, about 35 games altogether, and then they head off to the League. Casual Duke haters don’t have enough time to build up the same contempt they reserved for, say, Christian Laettner or J.J. Redick. And if they did decide to dislike one-and-done players like Kyrie Irving, or Jabari Parker, or Brandon Ingram, would they still hold it against them when they arrived as a high draft choice in the NBA? I know for sure that these people exist somewhere, but it just seems like a grudge that isn’t worth the effort.

Conversely, what of the true blue Duke fans? How might they feel about the way Coach Kryzewski is conducting his business in 2018? And make no mistake: In order to obtain the best high school player in the country — let alone the top-3 — absolutely requires business. A transaction takes place.

I can’t speak for any Duke fans beyond myself, and I’ve honestly spent exactly zero time researching this on any of the Blue Devils message boards I used to frequent in my teenage years. But the way I feel, I don’t really appreciate the direction of the basketball team. I could make it rain with caveats about how cool it is that the best high school ballers in the country now want to play at Duke, but I also know that it requires serious money to make that happen. Under amateurism rules, the NCAA doesn’t allow its athletes to receive what are deemed as “impermissible benefits,” even though I know, and you know, and everybody knows, it happens all the goddam time.

I’m not saying that most major schools aren’t guilty of this same practice. Because they are. I’m just saying that Duke can no longer pretend to be above it. Mike Krzyzewski has been extremely precise and careful over the years to create a certain brand for himself, and for Duke University. And that brand basically gives off the impression that he runs a program that does things the “right” way, that is clean, that turns boys into men. Since there is nothing left that differentiates them from Kentucky — the school that receives the most shit for being perceived as “dirty” — Duke no longer has any moral ground to stand on now that they stoop to playing the same game that Krzyzewski was once (but on several occasions) such a vocal critic of.

I understand the “why,” as in why Coach K is doing this. It’s because he’s getting up there in years, and he knows he doesn’t have a lot of time left in the bizz. He has already built the program that Duke is, and will be moving forward. His years of building are over. What he wants now is to win as many National Championships, and hang as many banners at Cameron Indoor Stadium, as he possibly can. He believes one-and-done players give him the best chance of accomplishing that.

That doesn’t make Krzyzewski any less of a hypocrite. That doesn’t make Duke’s glossy perception any less hollow, or artificial, in reality. As a lifetime fan of the Blue Devils I don’t have an issue admitting this; if any Duke fan tries to pretend that their team isn’t just as dirty as countless others, they’re living in a bubble and I’m kind of embarrassed to support the same team as them.

And yet, none of this keeps me from loving Duke. I think it’s kind of sad that this is the way Mike Krzyzewski wants to go out, especially since he used to be so against one-and-done players, and since the record shows that Duke was extremely successful at doing what they already were doing.

Nonetheless, the transition from program-building to buying players is what Duke has become. I know my 15 year-old self dreamed of having the best NBA talents in the country playing for my favorite college team, because since they were already good imagine how good they would be. This is a clear example of not valuing the bird in hand: I seemed to care more about Duke when they played with a chip on their shoulder.

I don’t recognize what my favorite team has become, but I realize it’s by design. For the better part of the last decade Coach K has actively moved away from everything he, and Duke, once were. The only constant is he keeps winning. My beef, which was the basis for this entire article, is that all these wins somehow feel cheaper — knowing the real cost it took to get them.