"The best thing about sophomores is that they eventually become juniors." Believe it or not, that kind of thinking was conventional wisdom back in the 1960s. College basketball was a game for experienced players. There were exceptions, of course. The Art Heymans and Billy Cunninghams of the world didn't waste much time deferring to their elders. But that was after a year of low-key freshman ball, acclimating to college, getting the books in order, and rarely venturing far from home. Even the most talented players weren't thrown to the wolves until their sophomore season.
That nurturing world was blown to smithereens in 1972 when the NCAA voted to allow freshmen to play varsity basketball and football. The NCAA wasn't trying to liberate precocious freshmen. It was trying to save money by reducing scholarships and eliminating what many viewed as extraneous freshmen programs.
Freshman eligibility fluctuated throughout the twentieth century. Manpower shortages led to freshmen being able to play varsity ball during World War II and the Korean War. Some of these freshmen were pretty good. Dickie Hemric, for example, averaged 22.4 points per game for Wake Forest in 1952.
Any doubts about the ability of freshmen to compete at the ACC level were eliminated in 1973, when Maryland's John Lucas, Virginia's Wally Walker, and North Carolina's Mitch Kupchak performed at a high level. North Carolina's Walter Davis and Clemson's Wayne "Tree" Rollins in 1974 and Clemson's Skip Wise, North Carolina's Phil Ford, Maryland's Brad Davis, and North Carolina State's Kenny Carr in 1975 reinforced the view that talented freshmen could contribute right away. In fact, Wise was voted first team All-ACC, while Ford won the Case Award as he led North Carolina to the 1975 ACC Tournament title.
Duke didn't share this bounty, at least not right away. Willie Hodge in 1973 and Tate Armstrong in 1974 showed promise. The best Duke newcomer in the first three seasons of freshman eligibility was Edgar Burch, who averaged 6.8 points per game in 1974, before leaving school and disappearing into obscurity.
This all changed in 1975-'76, when Jim Spanarkel arrived on the Duke campus. Compared to so many later Duke freshmen stars, Spanarkel was lightly recruited. In fact, fellow New Jerseyite Harold Morrison was considered the catch of the class. But Spanarkel quickly moved ahead of more experienced but lesser talented incumbents like Kenny Young and Paul Fox and put a lock on a starting spot, averaging 13.3 points and 4.4 rebounds for Bill Foster's Blue Devils. Surprisingly, the ACC did not award a Rookie of the Year Award until 1976, so Spanarkel became the league's first Rookie of the Year.
Duke repeated its Rookie of the Year dominance the next two years. Well, sort of. Mike Gminski's 15.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game in 1977 enabled him to share the award with North Carolina State's Charles "Hawkeye" Whitney. Gminski's rebounding average is the highest ever for a Duke freshman, as is his 3.3 blocks per game.
1978, of course, was the year of the Tinker Bell, Gene Banks, who had the greatest freshman season ever for Duke, and one of the best in ACC history. Banks' 17.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game are each the second-highest freshman averages in Duke history. More importantly, Banks joined Spanarkel and Gminski to lead Duke to a 27-7 mark and a runner-up spot in the NCAA Tournament. He also finished sixth in the voting for All-ACC, the closest any Duke freshman has come to being named first-team all-conference.
So Bill Foster had three ACC Rookies of the Year in his six-year tenure at Duke. His successor, Mike Krzyzewski, has been at Duke since 1980 and has produced a boatload of All-Americans and nine players who were named either national or ACC Player of the Year. So multiple rookies of year should have been a snap.
Guess again. Incredibly, only one Krzyzewski player has ever been named ACC Rookie of the Year. If you had to guess the identity of that sole winner, you'd probably have to go pretty far down your mental list before you'd come up with Chris Duhon, in 2001.
It's not like none of the top Duke players haven't had great freshmen seasons. Take Johnny Dawkins. He averaged 18.1 points per game as a freshman in 1983--the highest ever for a Duke freshman--and added more than four rebounds and four assists per game. But Georgia Tech's Mark Price picked the same year to become the only player to lead the ACC in scoring as a freshman. Since neither Duke nor Georgia Tech made much of an impact in the standings, the ROY award went to Price. No argument from me.
The same thing happened to some other worthies. Tommy Amaker's playmaking and defensive skills came up behind Tech's Bruce Dalrymple's rebounding and defense in 1984. Bobby Hurley averaged 7.6 assists per game in 1990, still the second-highest total ever for an ACC freshman. But the same year Tech's Kenny Anderson averaged 8.1 assists and 20.6 points, both tops on the ACC freshman charts. If it seems like Georgia Tech's name has popped up a lot, it's not your imagination. The Yellow Jackets captured that award six times from 1983 through 1990.
Wake Forest's Rodney Rodgers rained on Grant Hill's parade the following season. Keep in mind that these awards are voting on before post-season play begins, so deep runs into the NCAA don't factor into the voting.
There have been some recent near misses. Elton Brand appeared well on his way to a dominant freshman campaign in 1998 when he broke a foot and missed half the season. Two years later Jason Williams had what might arguably is the best freshman season of any Duke player under Krzyzewski. Thrown into the starting point guard spot after the rash of defections following the 1999 season, Williams led the young Blue Devils to a 15-1 ACC regular-season mark and the ACC Tournament title, averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 assists per game. But Joseph Forte of third-place North Carolina edged Williams in the voting. The same thing happened in 2004 when Wake Forest's Chris Paul nipped Luol Deng, In case you're wondering about J.J., Georgia Tech's Chris Bosh dominated the freshman class of 2003, becoming that school's tenth and most recent winner.
Not all of Duke's greats have exploded out of the blocks. On more than one occasion talented freshmen have taken on complementary roles on loaded teams. Danny Ferry, the nation's top recruit, averaged a modest 5.9 points per game for Duke's great 1986 team. Christian Laettner averaged 8.9 points per game as a freshman, Shane Battier, 7.6. Ferry, Laettner, and Battier all became national players of the year, in addition to becoming cautionary tales for those who would seek to evaluate a player's long-term potential on early returns.
Team success? No team has relied more on freshmen than the 1983 Duke team, where Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson, and Bilas were 1,2, 4, and 5 in minutes played. That team went 11-17. The highly-touted Trajan Langdon, Ricky Price, Steve Wojciechowsi class couldn't stop Duke's free fall in 1995. On the other hand, deep and talented freshmen classes made significant contributions in 1998, 2000, and 2003 and all three of Duke's NCAA champions have had at least one freshman in the top seven.
Let's fast forward to the present. Duke has a trio of touted freshmen, all of whom have played a major role in the team's 9-0 start. Forward Taylor King and guard Nolan Smith have been dominant at times, have struggled at times, but seem poised for future stardom. Kyle Singler, the gem of the class, was voted the ACC preseason Rookie of the Year and had played to those expectations, including being named MVP of the Maui Invitational.
More is expected of freshmen these days than the long-ago era of Jim Spanarkel or even Johnny Dawkins. The idea of a freshman becoming national player of the year, as happened last year with Texas' Kevin Durant, would have been unfathomable even a few years ago.
There are a number of trends at work here. The lure of the NBA largely has removed super-talented seniors from the equation. Earlier in the season Mike Krzyzewski compared the Dawkins-Mark Alarie class with this year's freshmen by observing that "these guys don't have to go up against players like Sampson or Jordan." Guys like Ralph Sampson and Sam Perkins tend to not stick around four years anymore and both were among the ACC upperclassmen who greeted Dawkins and Alarie in 1983. Keep in mind that in the old days Marvin Williams might be beginning his senior season in college and Florida would be going for a another title with a bevy of senior starters.
The other side of this coin is that a coach better use his talent when he can, because he never knows how long they'll be around. It's one thing for a Jordan or a James Worthy to go pro after a dominant junior season, it's something else entirely for a Corey Maggette or a Marvin Williams to leave after a single season as a promising reserve.
Then again, today's freshmen are better able to cope with many of the demands of high-pressure college basketball. Look at Nolan Smith, whose tenure at Oak Hill Academy saw him travel across the country, frequently playing in high-profile games in arenas larger than Cameron. Players at high-profile prep programs travel more, play more on television, play in front of larger crowds. They know their way around an airport.
And that doesn't even factor in the seemingly non-stop AAU/summer camp circuit. This isn't to say that these trends don't have their dark sides. A case can be made that childhoods are being robbed and egos are being excessively stroked but players good enough to play in the ACC have always been gym rats. Only now, the gyms are filled with fans and coaches and cameras.
There's still an adjustment period, of course. As Taylor King told me, college players are "bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter," than his high-school competition. "No comparison." But there's little doubt that a November trip to Hawaii, or an appearance of ESPN is not as daunting for today's freshmen as those a generation ago.
Mike Krzyzewski certainly has turned his freshman loose. Singler says Krzyzewski told them "not to be freshmen, just be players." Jump into the deep end of the pool and start swimming. How well they swim will go a long way to determining the kind of season Duke has.
Here are the top statistical freshman seasons in Duke history.
|Johnny Dawkins, 18.1|
|Gene Banks, 17.1|
|Mike Gminski, 15.3|
|Luol Deng, 15.1|
|J.J. Redick, 15.0|
|Jason Williams, 14.5|
|Elton Brand, 13.4|
|Jim Spanarkel, 13.3|
|Carlos Boozer, 13.0|
|Mark Alarie, 13.0|
|Jon Scheyer, 12.2|
|Trajan Langdon, 11.3|
|Grant Hill, 11.2|
|Corey Maggette 10.6|
Note that with the obvious exception of Scheyer, every Duke player who has scored in double figures as a freshman, went on the play in the NBA.
|Mike Gminski 10.7|
|Gene Banks 8.6|
|Elton Brand 7.3|
|Luol Deng 6.9|
|Mark Alarie 6.5|
|Shane Battier, 6.4|
|Carlos Boozer 6.3|
|Kenny Dennard, 6.3|
|Shelden Williams, 5.9|
|Jay Bilas, 5.7|
|Danny Ferry, 5.5|
|Josh McRoberts, 5.3|
|Grant Hill 5.1|
|Taymon Domzalski, 5.0|
|Bobby Hurley 7.6|
|J. Williams 6.5|
|Greg Paulus, 5.2|
|Tommy Amaker, 4.8|
|Chris Duhon, 4.4|
|Jeff Capel, 3.2|