A Blue Devil brotherhood
“There isn’t much to do here,” Brooklyn Nets star point guard Deron Williams said Tuesday after the Brooklyn Nets concluded their first day of training camp at Duke’s practice facility.
But that’s not a bad thing. It’s one of the reasons Nets general manager Billy King brought his team to Durham to begin the season and did so several times when he ran the Philadelphia 76ers.
"It's the best university in America,” King said. “It's a place where, for me, it instilled a foundation. It allows the guys to be able to practice, but also it allows them not to be distracted by things like home life, road life. They can take care of their business and go back to relax at the hotel."
King, who played for Duke from 1984-88 and was a captain during the team’s 1988 Final Four run, has made a practice of bringing his teams back to his alma mater for training camps. And he regularly keeps close ties to Duke in the NBA, most recently drafting Mason Plumlee in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft.
The 76ers even played an exhibition game against the Washington Wizards at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2004 when King ran the team. Current Blue Devil assistant head coach Nate James was invited to 76ers training camp at Duke that preseason and played in the game, scoring four points including a breakaway dunk.
“The 76ers, they didn't really have a spot and brought me in to their camp and said, 'Hey, look I'm going to give you a chance to play in some exhibition games so maybe another program will take a chance on you,’” James said. “He’s a fellow alum and looking out for our guys.”
James, who graduated in 2001 and averaged 12.3 points in the team’s national championship run that year, never made an NBA regular-season roster, though he played professionally from 2001-08 internationally. But he said training at Duke gave him more confidence, something that could be important for Plumlee as he aims to start his NBA career.
King has given other Blue Devils, like James, a chance when not many others would. Former Blue Devil Antonio Lang finished his career for Philadelphia with three games in the 1999-2000 season after he was waived by the Raptors earlier in the year. King traded for Roshown McLeod, along with legendary shot blocker Dikembe Mutmbo, from the Hawks in the 2000-01 season. McLeod played just one game, his last regular season one. Shavlik Randolph, who disappointed in three seasons with Duke from 2002-05 and went undrafted, was given his first chance at 76ers training camp and played his first three professional seasons there. He has now played 10 professional seasons, eight of which have been in the NBA. More recently, Shelden Williams played his last NBA season with the Nets in 2012-13 and now plays in France.
In 2011, the Springfield Armor—the Nets’ Development League affiliate—hired former Blue Devil player and staff member Chris Carrawell to be an assistant coach.
“It's a brotherhood like no other," James said. “He's done a lot of years of opening up doors for us, looking out and being a mentor.”
The help is a two-way street, too. King said he has “never made a major decision” without talking to Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has observed some Nets practices since they’ve been here. One of those decisions was the hiring of new head coach Jason Kidd, who earned gold with Krzyzewski in the 2008 Olympics. Deron Williams also played for Krzyzewski in the Olympics in both 2008 and 2012.
Expectations are high for the Nets this season, following King’s high-profile acquisitions of All-Stars such as Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko.
But he was quick to jokingly butt heads with one of his stars when Williams, an Illinois graduate and perhaps the team’s most important star, dissed the area because there isn’t much to do.
“There's more than Champaign, Illinois,” King said.