Steve Wojciechowski was a Blue Devil freshman in the fall of 1994, he actually got to campus 10 days later than the rest of his class due to a USA Basketball commitment. “You feel like you are always climbing uphill,” Wojciechowski recalled of that first whirlwind semester.DURHAM, N.C. – It wasn’t so long ago that freshman basketball players arrived on campus in late August along with the rest of their classmates, reporting for university orientation less than two months before the start of preseason practice. When current assistant coach
Contrast that tradition with today’s reality. Duke freshman Mason Plumlee moved to Durham last spring, the week after he graduated from high school. He and fellow rookie big man Ryan Kelly then checked into Duke dormitories in early July for the start of the university’s second session of summer school.
When practice officially begins next Friday with the new Countdown to Craziness event at Cameron Indoor, Plumlee and Kelly will be over four months into their transitions to Duke — and as prepared as they could possibly be to handle the demands and rigors of big-time college basketball. They’ve gone through an extensive conditioning program, played countless pickup games with their new teammates and even participated in a handful of practice sessions, since the NCAA now allows basketball teams two hours of court work per week with their coaches after Sept. 15.
“I’ll be ready to go,” said the 6-10 Kelly, a product of Ravenscroft in Raleigh. “It’s going to be a fun season and we’re going to be really good. I’m fortunate to be at a place like Duke with great coaches. We’ll be ready to go. I’m going to work hard and contribute any way I can. I’ll do what the coaches ask of me and everything will work out.”
“The main thing I’ve focused on is staying in the weight room, getting my weight up to be ready physically for everything,” said Plumlee, also 6-10, from Warsaw, Ind., via Christ School in Arden, N.C. “Mentally and in terms of all the on-the-court stuff, I think I’ll be ready. I’m just trying to put on good weight that is going to hold throughout the season, so I’ll be strong enough to play inside and compete.”
Guard Andre Dawkins, the third member of a heralded freshman contingent, followed the more traditional pathway with an August campus arrival. While Plumlee and Kelly were immersed in Duke’s six-week early matriculation summer program, Dawkins was completing his final high school requirements so he could play this season. He had originally committed to enroll next year but changed his timetable when two of last year’s perimeter starters, Gerald Henderson and Elliot Williams, opted not to return to Duke. Henderson left for the NBA and Williams transferred to Memphis to be closer to home and an ailing parent.
“It was pretty hectic trying to go to AAU events and finish the class as well,” Dawkins said. “I was playing pretty much every weekend, so I had to make sure that when I was home I was using my time wisely. I was trying to do as much as I could, as fast as I could. It was all for a good cause and it worked out.”
The summer acclimation process for Plumlee and Kelly included participation in a local pro-am league hosted by N.C. Central University as well as intense pickup action with current and former players who were in town. “I got to work out with a lot of different people,” Plumlee said. “Former players like Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, and I’m glad I was here to experience it. It wasn’t anything casual — people were going at it.”
“The early matriculation program has been a really good thing for freshmen in general,” Wojciechowski said.
“It eases their initial adjustment because they’ve had six weeks to learn about the campus, learn where different things are, and six weeks to work with our strength and conditioning coach. Even though we can’t work with them on the basketball court, they’ve had an opportunity to play with their teammates, most of whom are here during that second session of summer school. A lot of the old hurdles you would have to jump when school started, they are making that transition in the summer. So once school starts, in some respects they are veterans.
“Obviously the basketball adjustment is huge, I don’t care who you are,” Wojo continued. “But just knowing where Soc Sci is — you know, all those little questions, when you start adding them up, become a big adjustment. For the most part, as opposed to guys who are my age or older, you now don’t have to answer those questions the first day of school so you are able to focus on your classes and basketball. That’s helpful, and young guys need help. Anything we can do to help ease that adjustment and get them more comfortable is a good thing.”
Since the start of the fall semester, the three freshmen have been living together in an East Campus dorm room. Kelly has gotten past the fact that Plumlee’s team beat his in the state championship game last winter (“Luckily he doesn’t rag me too much about that”). Dawkins thought their room was a little quiet the first couple of weeks without a television, although Plumlee did bring a keyboard (“But he doesn’t play many songs for us”).
They enjoy being around the rest of Duke’s freshmen students on East. “Most of the other freshmen don’t know who we are, and that’s a good thing. They just treat us like normal people, which is cool,” Dawkins reported. “But they know something’s up when they see two 6-10 guys walking around. I can stay under the radar a little more than those guys can. I think it’s cool to have the whole class together in one spot so we can get to know each other.”
Much like the members of the basketball team have been together so much during the summer and early fall that they should know each other quite well when practice begins next week.
“I think our young guys are really anxious for practice to start,” Wojo said. “All three of those guys should be able to help us. Mason is a very talented player, very good size and athletic ability and should be an outstanding player for us. Ryan is very skilled, easy to play with, and Andre can really shoot the ball and is a terrific athlete. So we expect all three of them to help us.
“More guys leaving school early in recent years has put a spotlight on younger players making an impact in a program,” he noted. “Freshmen are key. You look at the national championship teams of recent years, most of them have had a young guy who’s been a key player even if he wasn’t a starter. That’s a big part of winning it.”