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‘We have a good mojo going’: Key takeaways from Coach K’s press conference

Mike Krzyzewski has been leading Duke for 40 years, but it’s safe to say he’s never had a preseason like this one.

Nevertheless, the legendary head coach says that his squad is “better prepared than they usually are” for the upcoming campaign, largely thanks to no injuries and increased individual instruction since the team’s arrival on campus Aug. 2.

No positive COVID-19 tests throughout the entire program—including “secretaries, trainers, everybody”—also helps.

Still, Krzyzewski had a lot to talk about Wednesday morning in his first press conference since March’s win against North Carolina. Here are some takeaways:

The People’s Champ

It’s safe to say Krzyzewski has been impressed with Nolan Smith.

First, a few numbers:

Krzyzewski spent over 20 percent of the 31-minute press conference talking about his former All-American guard and current director of basketball operations.

During that time, Krzyzewski uttered some version of the phrase “he’s got it” on seven different occasions.

“He really connects with people,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s unlimited, the potential for him. He’s gonna be a real early head coach at a college or university, or I could see him being in the pros, too…. He’s gotten a lot of offers already from different people and I said, ‘Just hold tight, man.'”

Krzyzewski later added that Smith wasn’t always the person he is now.

“He was not the ideal kid to coach, initially,” Krzyzewski said. “He was a tough coach for a little bit, and then he got it…. While he was [playing] at Duke, his junior and senior years here, he got it and he became outside of himself. He allowed the things that were inside of him to come outside, and he didn’t realize how many beautiful things he had inside of him that would resonate with people, not just in a sports world. He’s an exceptional human being, this kid—this kid (laughs), he’s not a kid anymore.”

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Furthermore, Krzyzewski talked about how Smith’s development as a four-year college player exemplifies some of the missed opportunities in today’s one-and-done era.

“Some of the bridges that these kids are never able to cross in their maturity as a player or as a person as a result of going early—it’s kind of sad, really,” Krzyzewski said.

Scheduling issues

Krzyzewski hasn’t been shy about his displeasure with college basketball’s lack of leadership, and that theme continued Wednesday with regard to the NCAA’s scheduling complications.

Originally, the NCAA announced that Division I teams will be able to play up to 27 regular-season games (a four-game decrease from the typical 31 games) if the team plays in up to one MTE (multiple-team event in which each team plays two or three games against the other teams), and 25 regular-season games if a team does not participate in an MTE. The NCAA even stood by that decision as late as Oct. 5. 

But then, just a week ago, it approved a blanket waiver allowing teams to schedule up to two MTEs.

Now, teams are desperately trying to find MTEs to add to their schedules, a task complicated by a flurry of recent cancellations that, according to Krzyzewski, “we should have anticipated.”

“Once you cut down from 31 to 27, you should have just given everyone an opportunity to schedule and not worry about the MTEs,” Krzyzewski said. “We actually have formed our own because we had to—it’s crazy, where it could have been easy to just say everyone’s got 27, let’s go.”

Krzyzewski added that Deputy Director of Athletics Jon Jackson has done “yeoman’s work” to complete what he thinks will be the team’s 27-game schedule, but that he’ll have to “wait until tomorrow, and then the next day and the next day.”

“When I was growing up in Chicago, we lived in Columbus Park, school yard. And on a Thursday, we could schedule a game with the guys at Riis Park on Saturday. And maybe the guys at Humboldt Park on Monday…so I’m going to check on those Riis Park and Humboldt Park guys to see if they’re available in case we get any cancellations,” Krzyzewski said with a laugh.

Almost a Laker

While unrelated to the upcoming season, one of the most fascinating portions of the press conference was Krzyzewski’s discussion on the Los Angeles Lakers nearly stealing him away from Duke in 2004, a topic he recently discussed on JJ Redick’s podcast as well.

“A huge factor was whether or not they could keep Kobe and Shaq together,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday. “I felt that not everything was being done by everybody to make that happen, which I thought was kind of strange because that’s a pretty good winning combination.”

Krzyzewski also went on to talk about why on a personal level he was considering the move to the NBA at that time.

“Going through the process, I was [58] at the time. I just looked into it because I felt I had at least another decade of coaching ahead of me and we had accomplished a good amount in college—should I try something different?” Krzyzewski said. “The only other job I really considered from the different pro opportunities that were presented over the years was the Celtics in [1990] with Dave Gavitt, because those are the two franchises I thought historically were the key.”

While Krzyzewski obviously ended up staying at Duke, he noted one more part of the Lakers’ offer that made him moving across the country to Los Angeles a lot closer to a reality than he originally thought.

“I didn’t know how close it would be, then it got very strong because you’re talking about, I’m not gonna go into specifics about the contract, but it’s like generational type of money,” Krzyzewski said. 

The Lakers’ offer was confirmed to be $40 million over five years, a far cry from the $875,000 he made from Duke at that time. Krzyzewski’s current salary is over $7 million, though still less than what he would’ve made from the Lakers 16 years ago.

‘We have a good mojo going’

While the off-topic discussions were certainly interesting, the media audience also wanted to hear about this year’s team.

And while Krzyzewski largely just repeated what many of his players and assistant coaches have already talked about—fast pace, deep squad, being impressed by Matthew Hurt—the words do form a somewhat more important meaning coming from Coach K himself.

Some other notes, besides the three listed above:

“In the last two weeks, Wendell [Moore] has really taken another huge step forward.”

“A kid that’s really come on, especially this week, is Jeremy Roach.”

“Mark Williams is somebody we’ve never really had. Now he’s young, and he’s always had some tendonitis knee problems, but he’s 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan.”

Krzyzewski also talked a little more in-depth about junior forward Joey Baker.

“In his role, whether he starts or not, he’s got to be that spacer, that guy who could knock down two, three threes in a row…. He’s different than anyone we have,” Krzyzewski said. “And when you’re different, in a good way, on a team, you need to really define that role for yourself. So that whenever we need it, and we should need it all the time, we know that we can depend on you to fulfill that role. So sometimes he has a tendency to try to do too much, which takes away from that. But that’s a good thing, because he just wants to do more.”

Coach K also touched on the role of Baker and his fellow upperclassmen as leaders of this young squad heading into the season.

“All four of my upperclassmen, including our three walk-ons, have been unbelievably good with our young guys,” Krzyzewski said. “I think Jeremy had a little presser in the last couple days where he talked about the influence that Jordan Goldwire’s had on him. And I see that every day. Yeah, that’s a good thing. We have a good mojo going with our guys.”

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