During his four years at Duke, J.D. Simpson has never been a name to appear in the midst of heated basketball discussions. The four-year player has been referred to by fans more often as the basketball team's pretty boy than as a legitimate player, but this semester, Simpson has a new title by which he is called-team captain.
Unlike the obvious choices of fifth-year senior Nate James and Wooden Award candidate Shane Battier, Simpson's ascension to the position of captain last January came as a surprise to everyone from loyalists of the basketball program to J.D. himself.
"I was really honored and it has been a dream come true for me," Simpson said. "Being captain of Duke basketball is amazing."
The who, what, when, where are easy enough; Mike Krzyzewski informed Simpson of his decision, which was encouraged by both James and Battier, while the speechless walk-on stood underneath the basket on the far side of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The why, however, is a little bit trickier for outsiders to understand, considering Simpson has only scored a total of 33 points in his career. Still, his peers tell of a different side to Simpson, one that may not be evident from the stadium seating in Cameron.
"J.D. has earned it just as much as any captain before him," said assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski, who, as a captain three years ago, watched Simpson progress during his freshman season. "Just because he's a walk-on..., nothing was given to him; this wasn't a charity thing. Coach K and Duke basketball is not about charity. This is something J.D. has earned and he deserves."
Simpson's experience as a four-year member of the program is what the coaching staff said made him most deserving of the captaincy. In his four years with the Blue Devils, Simpson has developed alongside a class of players that include Battier and fellow walk-on Ryan Caldbeck, in addition to former players Chris Burgess, Elton Brand and Will Avery. Simpson was here for the high of the Final Four when all those players were still here, and he was here for the low the following summer when many of them decided to abandon their alma mater.
Although he spends most of his time during games planted on Duke's bench, Simpson says he carries with him the respect and admiration of his younger teammates, even the ones who play more minutes in a week than he does in a season. His advice has also paid dividends for All-ACC players like James and Battier, who have readily accepted the criticism of the 6-foot-4 guard.
"J.D. is as mature a guy as we have on our team," Krzyzewski said. "J.D. has the respect of everybody even though he doesn't play, which is indicative of his leadership ability."
The days were not always like that for Simpson, who was told from his first day on campus that he would have to earn everything he received. As a freshman, Simpson did not begin his career as a commanding figure on Duke's roster. With natural leaders like Wojciechowski, Roshown McLeod and Trajan Langdon on a roster padded by its freshman class of high school All-Americans, there was not much left to be said by a walk-on who had to work his way up the ladder at St. Francis High School near his home in Woodside, Calif.
For Simpson, credibility required maturity, maturity blossomed through experience and experience only came with patience.
"My freshman year, had I gone up to to Wojo or Trajan or one of those guys, they probably would have listened to me, but it wouldn't have had the same impact as it does now," said Simpson, a sociology major who has dabbled in acting and will follow in his father's footsteps onto medical school.
But before medical school, two tournaments are on tap for Simpson and the Blue Devils. And while he will not see playing time in any of the upcoming games until they are well out of reach, his presence on the bench and in practice could decide whether Duke hangs another banner this season.