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Al On Duke’s Summer Trip

And what he’s going to be watching

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke
Mar 23, 2018; Omaha, NE, USA; Syracuse Orange forward Oshae Brissett (11) drives against Duke Blue Devils center Marques Bolden (20) during the second half in the semifinals of the Midwest regional of the 2018 NCAA Tournament at CenturyLink Center.
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Duke opens its three-game summer exhibition tour tonight at 7 o’clock when the Blue Devils face Ryerson University. Games with McGill and Toronto follow Friday and Sunday.

These games don’t count on the schedule, but they could have a big role in shaping the 2018-19 Blue Devil team – the least experienced Duke basketball team in history (featuring even less experience than the ultra-inexperienced team of 2017-18).

Duke’s summer experience started in the summer of 1983, when Mike Krzyzewski took another young team to France. That squad had just finished 11-17 in 1982-83. The ’82-’83 team often started four freshmen, but while kids such as Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas flashed some obvious talent in their first year of college ball, they obviously needed experience and cohesion.

They got it in France that summer.

At least that’s the way the Duke players described the trip to me. Wins and losses weren’t important. Team-building was. The time together – both on and off the court – had a great deal to do with the turnaround of Mike Krzyzewski’s program, starting in 1983-84.

The team that won 11 games in 1983 (and just 10 in 1982) won 14 of its first 15 games in 1983-84. It opened the ACC season against Virginia (which had humiliated Duke 109-66 in the final game of 1983) and won 76-72 … in Charlottesville. Before the season was over, Duke beat No. 13 Maryland on the road, No. 14 Wake Forest at home and No. 1 North Carolina in the ACC Tournament semifinals.

Clearly, the Blue Devils were A LOT better in 1984 than in 1983.

How much of that was due to the summer trip to France? No one will ever know. The natural maturity of the talented 1983 freshmen certainly helped – players are usually better as sophomores than as freshmen. And Krzyzewski added gifted point guard Tommy Amaker to his roster that fall.

Amaker didn’t get to make the summer trip to France. At the time, the NCAA banned incoming freshmen from making such trips.

Krzyzewski helped change that rule with a clever maneuver in 2002.

He was looking at a freshman-dominated team in 2002-03. J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Shav Randolph, Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni were all expected to play key roles as freshmen. A summer tour without those players would have been a waste of time.

So instead of scheduling the trip for the summer months, Krzyzewski set up a trip to England for fall break – meaning that his freshmen were eligible to play,

Rival coaches screamed foul, but almost immediately, dozens of imitators followed. Some of them didn’t even try to coordinate the trips with their schools’ fall break – they cut classes to travel overseas.

The NCAA, yielding to the prevailing wind, changed the rules to allow freshman enrolled in summer school to participate in the summer tours.

Thus, when Duke plays its three exhibition games in Canada this week, the freshmen who figure to dominate the 2018-19 Blue Devils will be on hand. Unfortunately, not all will be playing – point guard Tre Jones and wing Cam Reddish will sit out the action with minor injuries. At least they will make the trip, which ought to help team-building.

Because that’s what the trip is all about. And players who have made past summer trips have all said that as much bonding takes place off the court as during games.

It’s interesting to note that in the past, Duke teams that have made summer/fall trips have gotten off to a fast start in the ensuing season.

-- As noted, the 1983-84 team opened with 14 wins in 15 games.

-- The 1988-89 team, following a trip to Greece, opened with 13 straight wins – including victories over Kentucky, Washington and Maryland.

-- The 2002-03 team, following that fall trip to England, won its first 12 games – including victories over UCLA, Michigan, Ohio State and Georgetown.

-- The 2011-12 team, following a trip to China and Dubai, won 12 of 13 to open the season, including wins over Michigan State, Kansas and No. 2 Ohio State.

Of course, Krzyzewski’s teams almost always start fast, but the track record of post-tour teams bodes well for a tough early slate in 2018-19 – the opener against Kentucky (which also had a summer trip), a tough Maui field (including Auburn and Gonzaga or Arizona), Indiana and Texas Tech.

NOTE: Krzyzewski noted that his time with USA Basketball has limited Duke’s opportunities for summer basketball. The team has made just one summer trip since 2002. Teams are allowed one trip every four years.

A tour of the Dominican Republic was scheduled for the summer of 2017, but it had to be cancelled when Coach K needed surgery.

One other Duke tour was cancelled – a summer of 1994 trip to Australia, which was planned, I’m sure to give Coach K an early recruiting edge for two-year old Kyrie Irving, who was living in Melbourne, Australia at the time. Krzyzewski called off the trip in reaction to his team’s academic struggles in the spring of 1994.

* * *

It is a shame that Jones and Reddish won’t be playing this week. But there is still a lot got lot for the Duke fan to watch.

It will be our first real look at R.J. Barrett, the top-rated prospect in this class. The trip is a homecoming for Duke’s fourth Canadian player (after Cameron Hall, Danny Meagher and Greg Newton).

Barrett is a wing who will get to play some point guard on this trip in the absence of Jones and Reddish (another wing who can play some point). He’s not regarded as a great shooter, but is rated a strong scorer. He said he’s been working on his shot this summer.

I will also be watching to see how Marques Bolden and Javier DeLaurier look. The two big men are the most experienced players on the roster, but have been limited in the past by better players and by injuries.

If Duke is going to be good this year, then Bolden and DeLaurier need to be major players.

I’ll also be watching guys like Alex O’Connell and Jack White to see if they look ready to step up their games. And Joey Baker – will he redshirt or is he ready to contribute?

But most of all, I’ll be watching Zion Williamson.

It’s a funny thing about Williamson. He was rated the No. 2 or No. 3 player in this recruiting class, but there is an awful lot of skepticism about his game. Rivals – and even some Duke fans – suggest that he made his reputation by bullying overmatched competition … forgetting that he also bullied the best players in the country during summer basketball.

He doesn’t fit any molds. And I think that’s what has raised all the questions. Williamson in a unique player. There is simply nobody else like him.

It’s possible that his skills won’t translate to college basketball.

It’s also possible that he’ll be a transcendent player.

Williamson’s future is not going to be determined by his performance against any of the three lightweight Canadian teams Duke is paying this week. But we may catch a glimpse of what’s to come.

At least, that’s what I will be looking for.

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