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Finding the right leader on the court

Seth Curry is a prime candidate to lead the Blue Devils, Claxton writes, especially after proving he could handle pressure last year.
Seth Curry is a prime candidate to lead the Blue Devils, Claxton writes, especially after proving he could handle pressure last year.

It’s that time of the year again.

You know, that awkward two-week period between Countdown to Craziness and the first exhibition game of the new basketball season. I imagine the feeling would be similar to a 16-year-old being given a new car and driving around town to show all his friends—only to have his parents tell him that the car needs a little tweak and he can have it back in two weeks.

Throughout the day Friday the new car effect was in full force all over campus. Krzyzewskiville came alive with students decked out in their blue and white, line monitors hustled and bustled through the crowd and the basketball jersey made a sudden grand return to Durham fashion circles. Even Duke’s resident living legend, head coach Mike Krzyzewski, acknowledged the feeling when he spoke at halftime of the Blue-White scrimmage.

“It’s our 32nd year,” Krzyzewski said, “and it feels new all over again.”

But this time around, new means something more than just a new calendar year, new schedule and a sprinkle of new talent. This year, new means something closer to its Webster’s definition: unfamiliar, unseen, unchartered, and most of all, unproven.

While the 2011 edition of the Blue Devils certainly displayed many bright spots Friday night—namely a stellar performance by Seth Curry and an epic Plumlee vs. Plumlee dunk-off—the squad will certainly need tweaking over the next several weeks.

If the past is any indication, the tweaking may last even longer. Krzyzewski, Duke’s master tinkerer, has shown that he is willing to make adjustments deep into the ACC schedule, and even the NCAA tournament if necessary. With the plethora of new faces and questions facing this team, he might need all of that time to find the right formula.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between this Blue Devil squad and the previous four is the lack of a proven, go-to leader on the floor—that heart-and-soul player that carries the team during its lowest moments. In 2007 it was DeMarcus Nelson, followed by an injury-riddled Greg Paulus in 2008, Jon Scheyer during the NCAA title run of 2009 and finally Nolan Smith in 2010.

This will be Duke’s youngest squad since Nelson was the only senior on that 2007-08 team, and much of the reason why that go-to leader has yet to develop in this group is because these players always had Smith or Scheyer or Paulus to lean on. The aforementioned leaders were called upon to play key roles as underclassmen that paid dividends as they became juniors and seniors, exemplified by the experienced title team of 2009-10.

But with so much experience on the roster over the past two seasons, the current squad has not had those same opportunities to develop into leadership roles in crunch time. Duke has never had to lean on Curry, Miles Plumlee, Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly or Andre Dawkins. The question is: Who can shoulder that load? Who is going to be the next player to step up and be the engine of this team? Who will be next in a line that includes names like Redick, Hill, Hurley, Laettner and Ferry?

If Friday is any indication, Curry is out to an early lead but the race is still wide open. It takes a certain personality to embrace that role, one that Nolan Smith proved can emerge later in a player’s career.

Aside from Curry, the strongest candidates to be the face of this squad happen to be two of the biggest question marks on the roster: Miles and Mason Plumlee. Curry and the Plumlees are essentially opposites in their current leadership styles. Whereas Curry emerged toward the end of last season as a reliable scorer and a player who can make a big shot in a close game, the Plumlees have shown flashes of brilliance yet have also had moments that caused Krzyzewski to be, shall we say, visibly frustrated with their play.

But during those flashes of brilliance, Miles and Mason have shown that extra level of emotion that invokes memories of Paulus, Laettner and Steve Wojciechowski. While Curry is more of a quiet type choosing to lead by example, the Brothers Plumlee possess a clear ability to lift the team and the crowd, but can one—or both—of them do it on a regular basis?

For now, the world waits. You got your taste of the new basketball season, but now all that is left to do is wonder while Krzyzewski tinkers behind the curtains of Cameron Indoor Stadium and the doors of the Krzyzewski Center. Next Saturday everyone will get to see what he has put together.

Until then, enjoy that new feeling of anticipation, excitement and wonder. Unlike a new car, it never gets old.


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