When Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski stepped to the podium for Duke’s media day last month, there were plenty of strong candidates for the first player to be mentioned.
An obvious name would have been Grayson Allen, the Blue Devils’ lone captain and the experienced star of a team as young as any in Krzyzewski’s tenure. Another option could have been Marvin Bagley III, the nation’s top recruit who joined the Duke program only about two months prior. And if not one of those two, it may have easily been Trevon Duval, who has taken over as the team’s primary ball-handler.
Instead, it was a sophomore who played just 85 minutes all of last season.
“[Javin DeLaurier’s] been a big surprise,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s had a great spring, summer and doing well. The guys coming back have all played very, very well.”
For the former four-star recruit, opportunities as a freshman were few and far between.
DeLaurier began the 2016-17 campaign knocking down his first three shots for six points on opening night, but made just five more baskets the rest of the regular season. Outside of a few critical minutes when the Blue Devils were in foul trouble at Louisville, DeLaurier’s most memorable moment of the year came during the first round of the NCAA tournament when he patented the “Jav Bounce.”
But it was far from a lost season from the Shipman, Va., native. At 6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, DeLaurier was a near-perfect matchup for Jayson Tatum—the No. 3 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft—and the pair went at it almost every day in practice last year.
“Not playing was an adjustment but I never lost confidence in myself, especially when guarding guys like Jayson was only going to make me better,” DeLaurier said at the Blue Devils’ media day in October. “I would tell him all the time that he’d just frustrate the hell out of me because I’d think I’m playing great defense and he’d just hit a shot in my face.
“With him, it taught me so much defensively not to gamble, not to cheat and sometimes, guys are going to hit shots. But it was just awesome practicing against him every day because at this point I’m like, ‘If I can guard him on occasion, there’s no one I can’t really guard.’”
DeLaurier spent much of his summer in Durham working alongside assistant coaches Jon Scheyer and Nate James, improving a jump shot that fans saw very little of last season. There were also plenty of hours in the weight room with Will Stephens, the team’s head sports performance coach, as DeLaurier bulked up from 220 to 231 pounds.
Perhaps the most important step in his development will come as a leader, though. With just one senior and two juniors on one of the youngest rosters in the Krzyzewski era, DeLaurier needs to step in as a role model—and has done so already, at least in the minds of his coaches.
“He’s a great leader. He’s very smart, he’s serious in his approach, so he’s a guy that even though he hasn’t been here long, we believe in him,” associate head coach Jeff Capel said. “He understands, to the best of his ability as a sophomore, our culture and he believes in it. Those guys are important because we are so young, and the best way culture is taught is by players.”
With talented but inexperienced freshman teammates, DeLaurier will have to be both the teacher and student this season. But as the oldest of four boys growing up, he knows the big brother mindset well.
Living about 40 miles southwest of Charlottesville in central Virginia, DeLaurier spent many summers working in the fields of his family’s farm—something he still does on the occasional return to Shipman, as he explained on Scheyer’s The Offseason podcast in June.
Although weed-wacking and fence repairs may be among the 19-year-old’s least favorite activities, the rural lifestyle has taught him humility.
“It makes you appreciate things,” DeLaurier said. “It was a lot of hard work, but I wouldn’t trade any second of it because it teaches you the importance of appreciating the little things in life and working hard.”
It has not taken long to see in game action where the now-sophomore has a chance to excel on the floor. Albeit a small sample size, DeLaurier is averaging 20.6 rebounds per 40 minutes—last year’s Division I leader averaged 17.4—with a trio of blocks through Duke’s Blue-White scrimmage and first exhibition contest.
On a team that is expected to lean heavily on its unique combination of size and athleticism across the board, DeLaurier seems to fit right into the mix of guys that will make the Blue Devils tough for any opponent to handle.
“He’s as good an athlete as we have,” Krzyzewski said at Duke’s media day. “I think Javin will eventually be a pro, it’s just the process of becoming that is longer.... He’s become a really good rebounder, a hungry rebounder, and he eats up the court when he runs, and he can defend multiple positions.”
So whether DeLaurier makes it to the NBA or winds up abroad, it seems unlikely that he will give up basketball for the farm anytime soon.
“I’d rather do anything than go back and work in the fields again,” DeLaurier laughed. “I’d run suicides, take a test, whatever. It was miserable, but I wouldn’t trade it.”
Sameer Pandhare contributed reporting.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."