Playing their ninth game in 20 days, the Blue Devils had their hands full in their first true road test of the season against a feisty Indiana team. And for much of that night in Assembly Hall, freshman Gary Trent Jr. was having a nightmare of an evening as he struggled to find the bottom of the net with his perimeter jumper.
But with a little more than two minutes remaining in the contest, Trent flashed into the middle of the paint and knocked in a short jumper through contact for a 3-point play that allowed Duke to pull out a win.
Despite the concerns the Blue Devils had—and still have—about youth and inexperience, Trent’s ability to push through his struggles that night was indicative of the mental toughness that has defined the guard as he has developed throughout this season.
“Gary Trent, he could not hit a shot, but then he got that steal and he got fouled and hit two free throws,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following the team’s November win. “I’m proud of him because freshmen, if they’re not hitting, they can go, ‘That’s it. It’s not a good day.’ But that’s not him.”
In many ways, Trent’s game against Indiana was a turning point in his freshman season. After going 0-of-6 that night from long distance, the guard’s 3-point shooting percentage dropped to a measly 29.4 percent through nine games. But since his slow start, the Columbus, Ohio, native has shot 46.9 percent from deep and provided the floor spacing needed around the low-post duo of Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III.
A big reason for that has been finding his place on a team with many more scoring threats than a high school team. With Bagley and senior Grayson Allen garnering much of the media’s attention and running much of the offense, Trent has often been overlooked, even if his teammates know what his perimeter shooting does for the offense.
“I simply had to find places in the offense where I would be able to get my game off, get a shot off in that sense, help somebody or assist somebody in that position,” Trent said after his breakout performance in a come-from-behind win against Miami. “Positioning was the big thing for me—finding my spot within the offense.”
Trent’s father—Gary Trent Sr., who played nine seasons in the NBA and garnered the nickname “The Shaq of the MAC” during his time at Ohio—has been a big influence for his son as the freshman has adjusted from being the primary ball-handler in high school to playing off the ball for the Blue Devils. Along the way, Trent has relied on his coaching staff to adapt to his role and understand how to keep the defense honest even on nights when his jumper is not falling.
“He’s a worker, and that’s something his dad taught him,” Krzyzewski said ahead of Duke’s regular-season finale against North Carolina. “He’s been coached hard since he was 3. He loves the process of becoming good and he’s embraced that his entire time here at Duke. Just adjusting to length and speed at this level of play took a little bit, but he still hit big shots and made big plays for us. He’s really had a heck of a year.”
Perhaps the biggest plays Trent has made came as the Blue Devils fell behind by double-digits in the second half of their win against Miami. With Duke teetering against an opponent that has given them a good deal of trouble over the years, Trent caught fire from beyond the arc and sparked an 18-0 run to help the Blue Devils to a key road victory.
For both Krzyzewski and Trent, the performance served as confirmation of the value of Trent’s work behind the scenes and propelled him to a strong finish to ACC play. The freshman had big games in home wins against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech and delivered dagger triples late against Syracuse and North Carolina.
Making adjustments to a knockdown shooter’s form has become common for the Blue Devils and is a role that assistant coach Jon Scheyer has thrived in since arriving on the Duke bench. Before working with Trent this season, Scheyer spent time with Luke Kennard working on shooting off of screens and quickening the guard’s release. The result was a jump from 32.0 percent from 3-point range in his freshman year to nearly 44 percent in his sophomore year.
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Although it remains to be seen whether Trent will stay in Durham past this season, the freshman has developed with the help of Scheyer and the rest of the coaching staff. The first step for the guard was speeding up his shooting motion, and the next may be taking the ball more aggressively to the basket at the professional level.
For a player that always looks at ease on the court, Trent will be entering a high-pressure environment as the Blue Devils enter the postseason. Duke—and Trent in particular—has seemed to perk up when the pressure builds, as evidenced by the Blue Devils’ mastery of the double-digit comeback this season.
“When we’re down, I never think we can lose. I just continue to play. We’ve been in that position before,” Trent said. “It’s simply having that will to win. It’s helped us having that in our toolbox.”
From the start of the year to now, Trent has added much more to his toolbox than he had that mid-November night in Bloomington. But what remains to be seen is whether the Blue Devils can get each of their contributors to showcase their best tools in March.