Friedlander: Jon Scheyer-Coach K 20-game comparison ... Plenty of similarities, 1 big difference
Two young coaches. One 33 years old, the other 35. Both from the Chicago area and both in their first season at Duke.
The similarities between Mike Krzyzewski and Jon Scheyer are unmistakable.
Even their records after their first 20 games are nearly the same. The young former Army captain with the unpronounceable surname was 12-8 (3-5 ACC) at this point in his still fledgling career. His former point guard and successor is 14-6 (5-4) heading into Saturday’s date with Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
And yet, despite those many similarities, the circumstances surrounding their rookie seasons leading the Blue Devils couldn’t be any more different.
Krzyzewski may have been a relative unknown when he was hired by then-athletic director Tom Butters. But he already had 5 full seasons of head coaching experience by the time he arrived in Durham in 1980.
Scheyer is leading his own team for the first time.
Coach K inherited a roster stocked with veteran players, including 4-time All-ACC selection Gene Banks and 2 others who went on to play in the NBA. While Scheyer’s Blue Devils are also loaded with individual talent, it’s a much less experienced group with only 1 returning regular on the roster.
And oh yeah, there are the expectations.
It’s not as if Krzyzewski didn’t have any. The team he took over won the ACC Tournament the previous season and was just 3 years removed from playing for the national championship.
But as respected a coach as Bill Foster was, it’s not like Krzyzewski had to replace the man who most consider the GOAT of his profession. Replacing a guy with 5 championship rings and more wins than anyone in the history of the college game is infinitely more challenging.
To his credit, Krzyzewski did everything he could to help prepare his young protege for the challenge, including announcing the succession plan a year in advance to help Scheyer recruit and adjust.
But there are some things that can’t be learned from just watching. They have to be experienced.
Sitting in the first chair in situations that require quick, decisive decisions are at the top of the list.
Scheyer found that out in just his 3rd game, which by the way, was also the game in which Krzyzewski suffered his 1st loss with the Blue Devils.
Duke led Kansas by 5 with 4 1/2 minutes remaining at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Down the stretch, though, both its young players and young coach appeared to get tentative.
The defending national champions outscored the Blue Devils 15-5 from that point on to earn a 69-64 victory and give Scheyer his first lesson in on-the-job training.
The first of many.
“I promise you, I take away something from every game,” he said when asked about the learning process a few games later. “Sometimes it’s, ‘You did this really good.’ You tell yourself that, but for the most part I’m pretty hard on myself. I always remind myself of things I can do better.”
One thing he’s never had to remind himself is to be himself.
That means stepping out of the massive shadow Coach K continues to cast – even though he has consciously kept a low profile, in direct contrast to his former rival Roy Williams at North Carolina – and doing things his own way.
“I need to be different,” he said before the season began. “(Krzyzewski) doesn’t want me to be him.”
Gone is the military grade focus and precision the Coach K demanded. In its place is a much more relaxed environment.
Just don’t let Scheyer’s calmer bench demeanor and boyish smile in his postgame interviews fool you. He might look like a kinder, gentler version of Coach K on the outside. But the competitive fire that burns inside him is just as hot.
He showed that during a playing career that concluded with him and his teammates cutting down the nets as national champions in 2010.
There are some things, however, that even the best, most experienced coaches can’t control.
Among them is the respect, or maybe it was fear, the officials showed his predecessor.
There have been numerous calls – or in the case the shot Kyle Filipowski took to his throat in the final seconds at Virginia Tech, no calls – that almost certainly would have gone a different way had K been on the bench bellowing as usual.
Then there’s the injuries.
Scheyer has already had to deal with more than his share, forcing him to juggle his rotation and slowing the development of both the team and several young stars.
Wing Dariq Whitehead, who along with fellow 5-star freshman Dereck Lively II both missed most of preseason camp and had to be blended in after the games began. And now Whitehead is out again after injuring his foot in Blacksburg on Monday.
The Blue Devils have played only 12 of their 20 games thus far with a full roster of scholarship players available. And everyone has been truly “healthy” for just 5 of those.
Those injuries, along with the lack of a consistent offensive presence on the perimeter and a 1-4 record away from the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, have combined to drop Duke out of the national rankings after starting the season as high as No. 7.
Coach K’s 1980-81 team wasn’t ranked either. It finished that season with a 17-13 record (6-8 ACC) and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
It wasn’t until Year 4, with the arrival of a heralded recruiting class led by future National Player of the Year Johnny Dawkins and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, that the Duke we know now began to take shape.
Scheyer won’t need nearly that long to gain a foothold.
His current team, blemishes and all, is still in the process of growing and on pace to easily make the NCAA Tournament field. And his 2023 recruiting class, which includes 4 5-star commitments, is currently ranked No 2 in the nation.
Even though the learning curve is steep, Scheyer is in a much better place than his mentor at this point in their Duke careers.
Does that mean he’ll go on to be as successful as Krzyzewski? Or even come close?
There’s already enough pressure on the guy without even suggesting such a possibility.
Then again, who could possibly have imagined that as a possibility for a relatively unknown former Army captain with an unpronounceable surname after his first 20 games with the Blue Devils?