It’s a well known rule of thumb – it takes NBA talent to win national championships.
Duke certainly contributed to that truism in 1991 and 1992, when future NBA All-Stars Grant Hill and Christian Laettner helped anchor the back-to-back NCAA champs, along with NBA lottery pick Bobby Hurley, whose pro career was cut short when he was injured in an auto accident early in his rookie season. Three starters off the 2001 Blue Devil champions are still starting in the NBA (on playoff teams) … and that doesn’t count Jason Williams, a potential all-star who had his career – Hurley’s -- ruined by an off-the-court injury.
When Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis in 2010, the Blue Devils boasted a number of potential pros. But two seasons after that triumph, NBA-impact of that championship team has been limited by a combination of factors – mainly two serious injuries and the disruption caused by the NBA lockout last fall.
It’s created a fascinating bit of trivia: What member of the 2010 Devils has started the most NBA games in his career? Amazingly, the answer is Lance Thomas, a senior forward in 2010 who was not drafted after averaging less than five points a game for the NCAA champs.
The only other member of the 2010 team to play in the NBA (so far) said that he’s not surprised by Thomas’ success.
“No … Lance works hard,” Nolan Smith, who returned to Duke this week to work at the K Academy, said. “He really worked to get there and he took advantage of his opportunities. That’s what Duke teaches you – to take advantage of your opportunities.”
Thomas had to work his way to the league. He played for the Austin Toros of the NBA Developmental League in 2010-11 and developed to the point that he earned a couple of tryouts with the New Orleans Hornets. After impressing the team during two 10-day contracts, Thomas was signed late in February for the rest of the year.
He ended up playing in 42 games and starting 10 for the Hornets. His numbers were modest (4.0 ppg.; 3.0 rpg.), but he impressed the team with his defense and his energy. Last week, Thomas was added to the USA Basketball Select Team that will scrimmage against Team USA before the London Olympics.
Clearly, he’s had a season he can build on.
Nolan Smith is trying to so the same after his first season with the Portland Trail Blazers.
A late first round draft pick by the Trail Blazers, the Duke All-American was one of the players hurt most by the NBA lockout. Denied any preseason transition into the league, Smith struggled early to find a role on a team that was undergoing transition.
“There were a lot of changes on my team, but I learned a lot and what I got my opportunity, I took advantage of those opportunities,” Smith said.
Smith’s chance to shine came late. Although he played in 44 games, his playing time was limited through February. However, his playing time expanded in the last six weeks of the season – when he got his first four starts and saw his average playing time go up from less than four minutes a game to almost 16 minutes a contest. It was during that stretch that Smith – who averaged a mere 3.8 ppg. as a rookie – gave the Trail Blazers a taste of his skill. Over the last five games of the season, Smith hit double figures four times and averaged 12.5 ppg with 4.8 assists.
In the team’s final game at Utah, Smith set career highs in points (16) and assists (7).
He equates his rookie season in Portland with his freshman season at Duke, when he averaged just 5.9 points a game in limited action. But he emerged as a star as a junior in 2010, when he averaged 17.4 points and 3.0 assists for the national champs. A year later, he was the ACC Player of the Year and a consensus first team All-America as he led Duke with 20.6 points and 5.1 assists a game.
Can we expect similar growth in the NBA?
“Absolutely,” he said. “Now, take what I learned from there and stay ready. Next year will be better.”
Smith was one of two juniors who started on the 2010 championship team. The other – Final Four Most Outstanding player Kyle Singler – also ran up against the lockout. Drafted early in the second round by the Detroit Pistons after the 2011 season, Singler decided to play in Spain while the NBA sorted out its labor issues.
He signed with Lucentum Alciante and in his professional debut, scored 23 points for the Spanish team. He was leading the team in scoring when the NBA lockout ended. Singler’s contract allowed him to opt out at that point, but instead of joining the Pistons, the former Duke All-American switched to Real Madrid – the most famous team in Spanish professional basketball.
“The opportunity to play a lot more was here, but the bottom line was I was happy and felt no pressure to leave and go back to the NBA," Singler told the Associated Press at that time. “Deep down, I knew it was the best decision for me to stay. I'll have another chance to play in the NBA. There was no real rush.”
Singler didn’t make it back to Durham for the K Academy. He was still helping Real Madrid to the Spanish championship, averaging 14.4 points a game.
“This whole experience opens your eyes a little bit, especially being out of the States and over here, it's a breath of fresh air,” Singler recently told the AP. “It’s a different culture, new experiences. I like to mix things up, that's probably the easiest way to explain it.”
Detroit still retains Singler’s NBA rights. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars was in Spain to scout Singler during the Spanish playoffs and told the Detroit News that he expects the former Duke star to play for Detroit’s summer league team in Orlando this summer.
After that, it could be NBA or more European basketball.
“With Kyle you never know,” Smith said of his former teammate. “He’s so comfortable there he might end up staying in Spain … or he might come back.”
This summer also will have a lot to do with Jon Scheyer’s future. A senior star on the 2010 Duke championship team, Scheyer’s NBA fortunes have been plagued by incredible bad luck. Although he was projected as a mid-second round draft pick in 2010, a bout of mononucleosis forced the heady combo guard to miss the pre-draft combines.
Although he went undrafted, Scheyer was signed by the Miami Heat and was assigned to that team’s summer league team. In his first outing, Scheyer played well and hit the game-winning shot. But the second time out, he took an elbow to his right eye from Golden State’s Joe Ingles.
Scheyer suffered major trauma to the eye. His optic nerve was damaged and his retina torn. Even so, he bounced back to play in the Developmental League, averaging 13.1 points and 4.0 assists for Rio Grande Valley. He finished the 2011 season with a flourish, setting new career highs with 21-24-27 points in a one-week span in March.
With the NBA lockout looming, Scheyer signed a contract last summer with Tel Aviv Maccabi, the strongest team in the Israeli basketball league. He returned to Durham this week for the K Academy and talked about his year there.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “It was a high level of basketball. I had some great teammates and I learned a lot. It was a great life experience too. I was very fortunate to play there. I had a great time.”
Scheyer said that he still has vision problems, but insists that it is not a limiting factor on the basketball court.
“It’s something I’ll always deal with -- for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s not like a foot or a shoulder. You know it’s there. I’m blind in part of my right eye – the top half. The bottom half is 20-400 … so I’m legally blind in my right eye.
“But the people who see me play or I play against say that they don’t see anything wrong with my eye. That’s how I feel. That’s the biggest thing I want to prove – that despite my vision, it doesn’t affect me on the court.”
Scheyer is still intent on cracking the NBA. That’s why this summer is so important to him.
“It’s been a unique time since college,” he said. “Because of my eye injury and the lockout, I haven’t been able to get in front of any NBA teams when I’m in full health. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing this summer – playing in a summer league and just making a decision from there.
“I’m not signed with any team in the whole world right now. So it’s an important summer for me. I just want to show people that I can still play.
Physical problems also derailed the NBA ambitions of center Brian Zoubek, who played such a huge role down the stretch for the 2010 Blue Devils. He wasn’t drafted that June, but signed a free agent deal with the Nets.
“I went to training camp and went to summer league with them,” he said. “Unfortunately, I got pretty badly hurt [a back injury] during training camp. I tried to push through it … it just wasn’t working. Over the next couple of months, I thought about signing with a European team, but my back wasn’t in good shape.”
Zoubek wasn’t able to play in the Developmental League because of the back.
“It just kept on happening – over and over again,” he said. “I finally decided to get surgery on it. They did a good job, it’s just that with my size and all the problems … I finally came to the decision, it was time for me to move on. I had a great career with basketball and I obviously went out on the top of the college basketball world. I have so many other interests, especially entrepreneurship. I’m really pumped that I’ve been able to start my own thing.”
Zoubek’s “own thing” is a specialty bakery that he’s planning to open in his hometown of Haddonfield, N.J. The bakery will specialize in creampuffs, which he’s marketing as “Dreampuffs.”
“It has been going well,” he said. “I wanted to own my own thing. I had this concept I had been thinking about for a years … about getting in the food industry. There was this little place I had grown up next to, a few towns over and its bakery concept – all fresh, natural creampuffs and a lot of catering. So we’ll open it up in three or four weeks and see how it goes. Then we’ll bring it to New York and see how it does there.
“It’s been a lot of fun and I’ll be an entrepreneur the rest of my life.”
Zoubek is the only starter on the 2010 national champions who has closed the door on an NBA career. He admits to minor – but only minor – regrets over the end of his basketball career.
“I would have liked to have experienced it a little longer, but I believe everything works for a reason,” he said. “I have to believe that, considering how well it ended. I feel blessed in that regard.”
Zoubek explained that the 2010 veterans are still very close. He expects to see several more of his former teammates in the NBA in the future. In addition to Singler and Scheyer, there are 2010 reserves such as Mason Plumlee (projected to be a first-round pick in the 2013 draft). Recently graduated Miles Plumlee could get a chance next season, while rising senior Ryan Kelly will try and use the coming season to bolster his NBA profile. And depending on whether Andre Dawkins plays his senior season next year or redshirts and finishes in 2013-14, he could become an NBA prospect.
In the end, the 2010 Duke national champions could turn out its share of NBA players. It’s just taking a little longer than normal.