Andre Dawkins was talking to his father about a place to further his basketball education after four seasons at Atlantic Shores Christian Academy. The idea was to find a school where the talented wing guard could polish his game before he enrolled at Duke for the 2010-11 season.
“It wasn’t serious at first,” Dawkins said. “It was kind of a joke, like, ‘I’ll just go to Duke.’”
When the father and son stopped laughing, they got serious and settled on a year at Hargrave Military Academy, an excellent academic preparatory school that plays an impressive schedule against other prep schools, small colleges and college junior varsity teams.
Then news arrived from Duke that changed everything.
“I kind of figured that G [Gerald Henderson] was going to leave,” Dawkins said. “I had kind of heard that Elliot [Williams] might leave too. When that happened, I thought, ‘Wow, they only have two guards.’”
Sudden, his old joke popped in his mind.
“I had already been in high school for four years,” Dawkins said. “I was already planning to leave Atlantic Shores anyway. I was going to play at Hargrave.”
It’s important to understand that Dawkins was planning to attend prep school to allow his body to mature and to improve his game. He didn’t need the academic work – he was an excellent student with an outstanding score on his SAT.
“We called the [Duke] coaches just to see if it was a possibility,” Dawkins recalled. “They looked at my transcripts and saw that I had the credits. I still needed one English course to fulfill the graduation requirements from Atlantic Shores. I took an on-line course over the summer and I was able to get my diploma.”
He arrived at Duke on August 18 and joined Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly as the third member of the Blue Devils’ freshman class.
“Everything fell into place,” the young guard said with a smile.
Actually, it fell into place because Dawkins is an exceptionally hard worker who put himself in position to capitalize on the unexpected opportunity.
His determination to be a great player dates back to a very young age.
“I’ve been playing basketball ever since I can remember,” Dawkins said. “When I was three years old, I used to go down in the basement and shoot at the dirty clothes hamper. I’d take all the clothes out to use it as a hoop. My parents would get all mad at me.”
Andre’s father, who is also named Andre – but don’t call them Andre Sr. and Andre Jr. – soon became his mentor.
“When I was six, my dad coached me in a local rec league,” the younger Dawkins said. “We were undefeated. My father played basketball in high school. He didn’t play in college. He was definitely my best teacher. He’s been there since forever. We’ve had our differences. He’s been my biggest fan and my biggest critic.”
The Dawkins family lived in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., when Andre was growing up. They moved to Chesapeake, Va., when he was 13 years old.
It was there that Dawkins’ learning curve suddenly accelerated.
“There wasn’t really a time when I was like ‘Wow, I’m good,’” he said. “It was gradual. I was okay, but really started getting serious about when I wasn’t allowed to try out for the varsity as a freshman at Deep Creek. I really took that as a slap in the face.
“They said freshmen couldn’t try out for varsity. I thought I was good enough to play. That lit a fire underneath me. I buckled down and busted my butt that summer. That summer is when I really came out. I had a great summer. I worked on my shot all the time and became one of the better shooters in the country. I guess that’s when I realized I was pretty good. When big time coaches started calling all the time I realized, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.’”
Dawkins ended up leaving Deep Creek High School after his freshman year and transferring to Atlantic Christian Academy.
“It was kind of weird,” Dawkins explained. “I was planning on going back to Deep Creek, but my Dad was in the running for the coaching job at Atlantic Shores. He didn’t get it, but I went there anyway. We just thought it was the best thing.”
When Dawkins arrived at his new school, his family decided that he should repeat his freshman year.
“It wasn’t an academic issue,” he said. “We thought I might as well do my freshman year over again because my first one was a waste.”
Dawkins blossomed at Atlantic Shores. He also won acclaim playing for the Boo Williams summer travel team. That’s when the recruiting started.
“When I was 15, I had a great summer and got a lot of letters. Coaches weren’t allowed to call, but a lot wrote me. Duke sent me a questionnaire.
“After my sophomore year [at Atlantic Shores], recruiting picked up. Coaches would come to my open practices – sometimes there would be four or five coaches there. It was kind of funny to see how they’d compete. The first coach would see my stepmother and give her a hug. The second coach would give her a hug and a kiss.”
Duke was an early contender for Dawkins’ services. The Blue Devils started in a strong position – one of Andre’s earliest basketball memories was watching Duke lose in the 1999 NCAA finals. He was pulling for the Devils that night.
“I visited here my freshman year and I was here for the Carolina game my sophomore season,” he said. “I came down the next summer and played some pickup ball. That’s when they explained to me how much they wanted me. After that visit, I was in love with the place. When I got home, I was thinking about it. My Dad said, ‘If you’re 100 percent certain, then go ahead.’
“I called Coach [Steve Wojciechowski] and got him just as they were about to leave for China. Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] called me back and sounded real excited. Then we told everybody and that’s when everybody in the media called.”
Dawkins, who committed just before what was supposed to be his junior season at Atlantic Shores, would have been the second-earliest commitment in Duke history. Only DeMarcus Nelson, who committed in the spring of his sophomore season, was earlier.
Of course, since Dawkins graduated from high school a year early, he actually committed just a year before his arrival at Duke. In that sense, the former player he most closely resembles is All-American Mike Gminski, who skipped his senior year of high school to come to Duke a year early.
Gminski had a major impact as a freshman, starting in the middle for Bill Foster’s 1976-77 Blue Devils. He won ACC rookie of the year honors as he averaged over 15 points a game.
Can Dawkins have a similar impact as a year-early freshman?
“He will help from the minute he steps on campus,” Scout.com analyst Dave Telep predicted. “No question he can be a 3-point threat. He’s got a quick release. He gets his shot off high. He’s confident. He’s another athlete. He’s part of their perimeter rotation, no doubt about it. You might as well look at him like any other freshman. There’s not going to be that much of a learning curve.”
Dawkins has no specific expectations for playing time.
“I’m just trying to get better,” he said. “I’ll do whether they need me to do – I’ll be the sixth man, the 11th man or I’ll start. Whatever role, I’ll play my hardest.”
The young guard brings exceptional athleticism to the team. As a run-jump athlete, he may be in a class with the departed Elliot Williams. He’s also an exceptional 3-point shooter. Asked to pick a former Duke player that he resembles, Dawkins suggested former standout Trajan Langdon as a rough comparison – “He was a good shooter and was about the same size.”
“My shot is my strength,” he continued. “I think I’m athletic, as far as getting up and down the court. But I’m working on everything – there’s a difference between an AAU/high school jump shot and a college jump shot; there’s a difference between being athletic in AAU and high school and being athletic in college.
“The first thing I’ve got to do is get in good shape. The first few workouts were pretty bad. But I’m getting there.”
Bruce Croxton, his coach at Atlantic Shores, suggested that Dawkins has the mentality to make the quick adjustment from high school to college ball.
“Andre is a kid who likes to put things on his shoulders,” Croxton told Fayetteville writer Dan Wiederer. “He's never been afraid to carry a load. He’s always wanted the ball in clutch situations. Granted, he’s obviously entering a new arena at the top level of college basketball. But just knowing his mentality after being with him for three years, I think he’ll be ready to produce in any manner Duke needs him to.”
Croxton did suggest that while Dawkins has the skills to be a great defender, that’s the part of his game that needs the most work at the moment.
“I talk to Coach [Nate James] about defense a lot,” Dawkins said. “He tells me a lot of things about how to play defense. They think I’m getting better at it. At the beginning, I didn’t know a lot. I wasn’t in great shape, so I had trouble staying in my stance. When you get tired, it’s easy to say, ‘I’m not going to fight through this screen.’ I didn’t always know where my man and the ball were.
“Now that I’m learning our concepts, I’m able to stay in my stance longer and I know where I’m supposed to be. I still have a long way to go, but I’m making progress. I feel like I can be a good defender.”
Dawkins is already making a significant contribution to the Duke program. Since committing to the Blue Devils late in the summer of 2008, he’s been the school’s ambassador on the recruiting circuit. The soft-spoken guard spent last summer talking up his future school to potential recruits. He stays in text and e-mail contact with a number of potential future teammates – even if their arrival might force him to fight for playing time.
“I just want to play with the best guys possible ... I want to play on the best team,” Dawkins said. “I talk to those guys, especially over the summer when we’re playing in AAU events. I see [a Duke recruiting target] and I throw them some love. I tell them how great they’d look in Duke Blue.”
Since his arrival on campus, Dawkins has had to limit his involvement to conform to NCAA rules.
“That does change things a little,” he said. “When I hosted [a recent prospect on an official visit], I had to sign a waiver promising that I would not throw him a wild, crazy party or have women lined up for him.”
That was no problem for Dawkins, who claims that he’s not much of a party guy anyway.
“I listen to music and watch movies,” he said. “I’m pretty laid back.”
It’s kind of ironic. Dawkins might be a great ambassador for Duke, but because of his unexpectedly early commitment, he never got to make an official recruiting visit of his own.
Dawkins said that’s no problem. He’s where he wants to be.