SACRAMENTO – Three Clippers will pay particularly close attention to the top-seeded team in the South Region of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Former Duke stars J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers and Dahntay Jones all watched enough of their alma mater to believe they’ve got a legitimate shot at becoming NCAA champions this year. They shared their thoughts on Duke’s chances, along with the lessons they learned from legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski and what they took from their college experiences.
“I’ve probably seen more Duke games this year than any other year since I’ve been gone, for whatever reason,” said Redick, who’s been able to watch six to eight games this year. “I like their team.”
Redick said he texted head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels in North Carolina in early March to tell him he has a special group. That begins with freshman sensation Jahlil Okafor, who’s averaging 17.7 points and nine rebounds per game and could end up a top NBA Draft selection.
“Offensively, he’s incredibly skilled, especially at his size,” Redick said. “He’s going to be able to score the basketball. I think he’s got to learn how to be a rim protector, especially in today’s NBA. You’ve got to be able to be in pick-and-rolls and guard the rim. He’ll figure it out. He’s agile enough and quick enough to do it, and he’s a load.”
Rivers believes Okafor’s the best player in college basketball. He was honest about his alma mater, saying he’ll always root for Duke but doesn’t always like their chances to win it all. This year is different, though.
He believes Duke can become champions, and he said the Blue Devils are capable of beating undefeated Kentucky if it gets to that point. He also offered some advice for the squad.
“If there’s any lesson I could tell to one of the guys about to go to the tournament, I’d just say not to take anybody for granted, because that’s what my team did,” said Rivers, who played one season at Duke before becoming the 10th overall pick in the NBA Draft in 2012. “We took Lehigh for granted and lost in the first round. That was one of the worst feelings, because I knew I was going to the draft, and that’s the last game I played there.
“That’s not how I remember it, obviously. I remember all the great games we had there, because we had some huge games my year there. But that’s the last game, and this team this year really has a legitimate chance at winning the title.”
Rivers believes Duke had the talent but not the chemistry to win last year. This year, he sees Duke teammates who love playing with one another, and that begins with the leadership of senior Quinn Cook, who’s averaging 15.7 points in a team-high 35.7 minutes per game.
“You could see he stepped into that role,” Rivers said. “It’s fun to watch. That was a freshman I came in with, so to see him come from not getting into the game his freshman year, he never played, to now he’s the guy – he’s not the best player, but he’s the guy on the team. There’s 10 seconds left in the game, they want him with the ball, because they trust him. I think that’s beautiful, man, so I’m excited.”
If nothing else, Jones said he thinks the chances of Duke getting to the Final Four are strong.
“Once you get to the Final Four, anything can happen,” Jones said. “I’ve always thought Okafor was amazing. His footwork, he’s ahead of so many bigs footwork-wise, and Tyus (Jones) is so much more mature.”
Playing With Pressure
Their length at Duke varied, but all three former Blue Devils on the Clippers had to deal with unrivaled pressure in college that helped them once they reached the NBA stage.
That was particularly true for Redick, who’ll go down as one of the most decorated college players ever. The two-time winner of the Adolph Rupp Trophy, given to the top Division-I basketball player, had his number retired and is Duke’s all-time leading scorer.
Before he ever accumulated his 2,769 points and the numerous accolades, he was a freshman on a 2002-03 Duke team just beginning to get a sense for the pressure situations a star Duke basketball player would face on a daily basis. He was embarking on a career that would make him one of the most recognizable college athletes of all-time, while Jones was just wrapping up his college career after transferring from Rutgers to Duke.
Redick finished second in scoring his freshman year at Duke, while Jones, then a senior, led the Blue Devils in scoring. Jones said the experience he got at Duke eliminated the “shellshock” of playing in the NBA.
“You always played on the big stage, you always played in big games, so just like the NBA, you always have to be prepared,” Jones said. “Every night’s a big game, every night’s a big stage. That’s the environment we’ve always been in.”
Fast-forward nearly a decade, and that didn’t change for Rivers, even though his time at Duke was much shorter.
“Being at that stage at Duke definitely does help you when you get to the NBA,” Rivers said. “Like, ‘Oh we have an ESPN game tonight.’ Well, we had an ESPN game every night at Duke. It really is no different. To be honest in the NBA, whether you’re on ESPN or not, people know what you did…In college, people don’t pay attention unless you’re on that big stage.”
Learning From A Legend
Coach K became the first Division I men’s basketball coach to earn at least 1,000 career wins in January. Redick, Rivers and Jones all shared their memories of the legendary coach and what sticks with them today.
Redick: “I never saw him have an off day. I’m not saying he was perfect, no one is, but he woke up every morning with the intention to be great, and he worked to be great. I think that stems from his time in the military and also just the way that he’s wired. But he just doesn’t have off days. He has a standard for himself and he holds himself to that standard. I’ve tried to do that in my own life. It’s not always easy, but you try not to have an off day. Not about making or missing shots, but just in life. You wake up and say, ‘I’m going to take care of my responsibilities, I’m going to do what I’m supposed to do, and I’m going to try to be great at it.’”
Rivers: “You don’t really have one thing with Coach K that sticks with you, it’s more just about life lessons and just being around greatness. With him, you learn and pick up on stuff and you see it by example. He’s done everything you could in coaching and every game he’s fired up like it’s his first game. That just shows you in life, you’ve got to keep going. You can’t ever settle. I think he teaches lessons like that through example.
Jones: “I learned how to work hard on a daily basis and always be prepared. He taught me how to continuously work and to keep striving and getting better.”