Playing Under Coach K at Duke Helped Wendell Carter Jr. Grow On and Off the Court

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO - Very few schools can honestly say they’ve been title contenders in men’s college basketball nearly every year going back to the late 70s. One of them is Duke, which has been at least a four seed in the NCAA Tournament 34 times since 1979 and at least a two seed 26 times.

The Blue Devils have celebrated five national championships, including two straight in the early 90s with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill at the top of their depth chart. Now doing big things as a television analyst on ESPN, Jay Williams led Duke to their third title in 2001. Many remember Duke winning the title in 2010 after Gordon Hayward narrowly missed a half-court heave at the buzzer for Butler in the championship game. The 2015 team, featuring three eventual first round NBA Draft picks in Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones, were the last to cut down the nets.

At the helm for each of those teams was none other than Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in college basketball history. Last summer, Coach K announced he would be retiring at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. Winning a sixth national title, which seems within reach with Duke currently ranked No. 9 in the AP poll, would be quite an extraordinary way to end an illustrious coaching career.

There have been several former Duke stars who have suited up for the Orlando Magic over the years. Among them are the now-retired Hill, J.J. Redick, and Corey Maggette. The one current Magic player who went to Duke is Wendell Carter Jr., a Blue Devil in the 2017-18 season before getting drafted seventh overall in the 2018 NBA Draft.

That season, Duke advanced to the Elite 8 as a No. 2 seed before falling to Kansas in an overtime thriller. Also on that Blue Devils squad were Marvin Bagley III, Gary Trent Jr., and Grayson Allen – each now in the NBA.

For Carter, playing for Coach K meant a lot more than just learning the X’s and O’s of the game. Through the now 74-year-old’s leadership, Carter developed a greater appreciation for things beyond the court.

“Coach K was about teaching us how to be men, more than just basketball players,” said the 6-foot-10 forward, averaging career highs in points (13.4) and rebounds (10.1) in his first full season with the Magic. “One of the biggest things I took away from him was living in the moment, and I kind of apply that to every aspect of my life, not just basketball. I give a lot of credit to him and just helping me take that leap from high school to college, and then college to the NBA. I feel like he was more of a life coach than just a regular coach.”

Staying connected to Duke’s program is important to Carter, who had hoped to visit the campus in Durham, North Carolina last summer but was unable to because of COVID-19 precautions. A Blue Devil legend he admires is Hill, who averaged 14.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists over his four seasons at the school and later became a seven-time NBA All-Star.

“Definitely look up to Grant Hill,” Carter said. “I had a couple times I was able to meet him, just pick his brain. Just his mentality, his demeanor about the game just proves why he was so successful in this league, and of course at Duke.”

Currently in third place in the ACC at 15-3 overall and 5-2 in conference play, Duke has some big games coming up. After hosting Clemson on Jan. 25, the Blue Devils go on the road to play Louisville, Notre Dame, and UNC. Unusual, but Duke was the only ACC team ranked in the top 25 in the latest AP poll.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Duke currently as a No. 2 seed in the tournament. A strong finish to their regular season along with a conference tournament championship could make them a No. 1 seed ultimately.