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Jim Sumner On Jon Scheyer & The Sixth Man Role!

Duke assistant coach Chris Collins has taken to calling Jon Scheyer "Hondo." Collins knows his NBA history, of course. His father Doug had a long and distinguished career as an NBA player, coach, and commentator. But, if you're not an aficionado of the pro game, the reference might seem obscure. Hondo refers to John "Hondo" Havlicek, the former Boston Celtics great. Scheyer does share some similarities with the hall-of-famer. They're about the same size. Like Havlicek, the versatile Scheyer is a heady player who can do lots of things to help his team win basketball games.

But Collins has a more specific similarity in mind. John Havlicek was the greatest of Red Auerbach's sixth men, a role that helped revolutionize professional basketball and helped the Celtics dominate the NBA for a decade. It also is a role that Scheyer is filling for this year's Blue Devils.

The term "sixth man" usually is taken to mean simply a basketball team's best reserve. That works, in a default sense. But in its purest sense, the sixth man is a more refined concept. Before we look further at Scheyer, let's take a look at the origins of the idea.

Prior to Auerbach, basketball substitution was pretty simple and pretty basic. A team started its best center, its two best forwards, and its two best guards. The starting five played until fatigue, foul trouble, or ineffectiveness dictated a change. The head coach tried to massage the substitutions so that the starting five was on the court at the end of any close game. After all, these were your best players. Right?

Auerbach turned that thought process on its head. He was the first coach to articulate and act upon the idea that the lineup on the floor at the end of the game was more important than the lineup on the floor at the beginning of the game. Auerbach thought that keeping one of his best players on the bench at the beginning of the game could benefit his team. He wanted a versatile player, one who could come in at one of several positions. He also wanted an intelligent player, one who would spend those first few minutes watching and seeing how the game was progressing, how it was being officiated, what his team needed, what it didn't need. Then, at the right moment, when the opposition was getting tired, Auerbach would spring his sixth man, who would provide energy, direction, and offense. True sixth men would invariably be on the floor at the end of tight games.

The concept certainly caught on at the NBA level. The league even gives a post-season award to the top sixth man. Frank Ramsey in the 1950s was Auerbach's first great sixth man. But no one was ever better at the role than Havlicek, who in the 1960s routinely averaged 20 points per game coming off the bench for title teams. Havlicek relished the role, telling the media after he retired "It never bothered me because I think that role is very important to a club. One thing I learned from Red Auerbach was that it's not who starts the game, but who finishes it, and I generally was around at the finish."

The college game is different of course. Teams don't have the depth of pro teams and the game is eight minutes shorter, making it more difficult to keep a top talent on the bench when the game starts.

Still, Mike Krzyzewski has had some pretty good reserves at Duke. Billy McCaffrey came off the bench to make the 1991 All Final Four team and help Duke to its first NCAA title. The next season Grant Hill suffered an ankle injury late in the season and came off the bench for much of the postseason, as Duke repeated its title run. But both McCaffrey in 1991 and Grant Hill in 1992 started most of the season. Corey Maggette averaged 10.6 points per game as a freshman in 1999 and parlayed his considerable potential into a spot in the middle of the first round of the NBA draft. But Maggette played only 18 minutes per game that season and rarely was on the floor at the end of close games. Billy King was a solid reserve his first two seasons but the best sixth men can score and King wasn't much of a scorer. Likewise, key reserves like Greg Koubek or Marty Clark don't quite reach the Ramsey-Havlicek threshold.

The closest thing Duke has had to a prototype sixth man was David Henderson.

Henderson started the bulk of his freshman season in 1983 and expected to do the same as a sophomore. Before the season, Mike Krzyzewski informed the 6'5" forward that a change was brewing.

I talked to Henderson about this several years ago and he recounted the conversations he had with Coach K, conversations that sounded like they could have come straight from the Auerbach playbook. "Initially, I had some doubts," he recalled. "I had always been a starter and I saw this as a demotion. I wanted to start. Coach told me I would be the one on the floor when the game was decided. Once I knew I was going to play in the crucial moments, I was all for it. Coach thought that I was tough enough to deliver lots of things off the bench, play D, bring energy and toughness to the team. I could do lots of things, fill a lot of roles."

Henderson was the definition of a proper sixth man in 1984 and 1985. Duke started Jay Bilas at center those two seasons, with Mark Alarie and Dan Meagher at forward. Alarie's ability to slip into the center role meant that Henderson could fill in for anyone of the three front-court starters. In a pinch, he could even come in at guard. Both seasons he was third on the team in scoring. His 13.5 scoring average in 1984 set the standard for Duke sixth-men. And he certainly was on the floor at the end of close games, winning numerous contests with a big basket or defensive stop.

Mike Krzyzewski has acknowledged Henderson's effectiveness on numerous occasions. Earlier this season he stated emphatically to the media "David Henderson was the best. He served as an example of what a sixth man could do."

Fast forward to last season. Jon Scheyer came to Duke as a key member of a touted freshman class. Scheyer started his first game, against Columbia, and scored a dozen points. Scheyer started all but one game the remainder of the season. He ended up averaging 12.2 points per game and made the ACC's All-Freshman first team. Naturally, he expected to start again this season.

But Mike Krzyzewski thought otherwise. "From the end of last year, he talked about the possibility of different guys starting," Scheyer says. "It wasn't directed to me, just general comments. At the beginning of this season, coach and I sat down and told me that anything could happen during the year but at the beginning I would come off the bench but I would finish games. He told me that he had confidence in me and I know that he does. I look at it as a challenge for me and if that's the best way I can help the team, I'll try to do the best I can."

Scheyer tries to put his time on the bench at the beginning of games to productive use. "I'm watching the guys I'm going in for, who're they guarding, what they like to do, defensively how they're guarding Gerald and DeMarcus what they're doing. I'm also seeing what's open on offense, who's playing off, who's playing up. So when I go in the game, I can take what we've learned going into the game from the scouting report and add it to what I'm seeing from the actual game."

The early returns certainly are favorable. Scheyer brings the required flexibility to the role. He can sub in for either DeMarcus Nelson or Gerald Henderson at one of the wing positions. He can come in for one of the bigs, when Duke decides to go small. Scheyer has even played some point guard this season. This means he can effectively come off the bench for any one of Duke's starters.

And he is effective. Scheyer led Duke with 22 points against New Mexico State and with 6 assists against North Carolina Central. He's led Duke in rebounding three times. In fact, his 12 rebounds against Pittsburgh ties for the team lead for the season so far; Kyle Singler has a pair of 12-rebound performances. Scheyer certainly is in the game at crunch time, a given for a player who leads the team in foul shooting at 87.9% (I'm excluding Marty Pocius' 4-4 total). Scheyer is second only to Nelson in minutes played so far for Duke and ranks fourth in scoring and third in rebounds, assists, steals, and three-point percentage. Not bad for a lowly sub.

It's probably too early to declare the experiment a complete success. There's a lot of basketball left. But Scheyer is pleased with the way it's going. "Coach K talks to me a lot about how good David Henderson was as a sixth man and how Grant Hill came off the bench some and they were really good players. It's something I feel comfortable doing. We're playing pretty well right now and I feel confident coming off the bench."

So David Henderson might want to watch his back. His status as Duke's top sixth man may be imperiled. Stay tuned.