At Duke, it’s easy to supplement the freshman 15 with a Durham dozen, surrounded by eateries such as Cosmic Cantina and Cookout. To get into shape this summer, two Duke basketball players turned to a former teammate for advice.
Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton visited Cleveland and went on the Kyrie Irving workout plan.
“I was just telling them that the perfect time to go to the gym is when you really don’t feel like it,” Irving said. “That’s when you’re getting better. When your body tells you not to, your mind is getting stronger.”
Irving, who left Duke after one season and was selected first in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers, spent much of the offseason unable to play basketball after breaking his hand. But he was able to use his time on the sidelines coaching his two former teammates and classmates.
For Hairston, getting in peak-playing condition was the major priority. The junior forward averaged just 6.1 and 8.5 minutes per game in his freshman and sophomore years, respectively, a statistic he blames on his fitness.
“This is the first time in three years that I’m actually in shape. That’s one thing that’s really been my Achilles’ heel—there was no way for me to get in shape,” Hairston said. “I would never be in shape and honestly Coach couldn’t put me on the floor because I could only run up and down the floor a couple times here and there and I’d be tired. This is the first time I feel like I’m actually in game shape.”
As a freshman, his role changed from game to game, fluctuating between finding limited minutes on the floor and riding the pine for entire contests, which he did 10 times that season. Not that Irving has spent much time on the bench in his life, but he saw how the fluctuating role could inhibit his former teammate.
“It’s hard to stay in tip-top shape when you’re on and off the bench,” Irving said. “[Now] he’s one of the older guys so they need to play him.”
Hairston, who said he feels “stronger and faster” as a result of his summer workouts, also worked on his ball handling and jump shooting with Irving, saying he now repeats those drills since he has returned to Durham.
But dribbling and shooting are more critical to the development of Thornton, who will compete for minutes in a crowded backcourt that includes Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook. Although Thornton started 19 of Duke’s 34 games last year, head coach Mike Krzyzewski announced that Cook, who started just four games, will begin the season as the starter.
Thornton joined Hairston with Irving in Cleveland, but also spent a month at home in Washington, D.C. There he had the chance to work with another former Blue Devil and NBA first round pick, Nolan Smith, who currently plays for the Portland Trail Blazers and went to school nearby at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.
“Kyrie and Nolan have two totally different games but they both do things very well. I was able to pick up things off both of them,” Thornton said. “I learned a lot from those guys. They teach me little things here and there, little tricks here and there.”
Thornton focused on both his physical condition and his shooting. Although he hit notable 3-pointers in a couple games last season—against Kansas and North Carolina—Thornton spent this offseason trying to become more consistent from behind the arc.
“I’m a lot more athletic. I feel quicker, faster, and I’m definitely going to be able to use that this year,” Thornton said. “If I get the open shot, I’m going to knock it down.”
More than anything, Thornton and Hairston are happy to have such a wide-reaching network that they call the Duke family.
“You couldn’t ask for anything better,” Thornton said. “Those guys could be off doing something else in another part of the world, but they choose to come back and hang out with us and give back to us. You’ve got to love those guys for that.”
And for Irving, he said the summer was an opportunity to stay in touch with two people he calls best friends, adding that they are the type of people he will always remain close with.
“I’m a Blue Devil for life no matter what…. It’s real important to me to have that connection with Coach K and the Duke program,” Irving said. “I do miss it at times, but it’s not too bad being in the NBA either.”