Sometimes, you just need to get your feet under you in order to make the leap.
Going into last season, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore Jr. were consequential members of another stellar Blue Devil recruiting class tasked with returning Duke to the Final Four. While they never got the chance to prove themselves in the postseason, they added to Blue Devil lore with some memorable moments.
Who could forget Moore’s tip-in at the overtime buzzer to vanquish North Carolina in Chapel Hill, capping off a 17-point, 10-rebound performance? And just two days later, in a game largely overshadowed by the preceding victory, it was Hurt’s late rebound and clutch free throws that clinched the win against then-No. 8 Florida State.
But it was an overall rocky freshman campaign for the duo. Moore struggled with his outside jumper all year and missed six games due to a hand injury, while Hurt had issues defending the paint and fitting alongside the team’s other big men.
After an offseason that defied conventional wisdom, however, both players are now over a year into the Duke experience, mature enough to embrace the spotlight while helping their younger teammates along the way.
“Freshmen—they’re a little loose or they’re not as locked in as you would like them to be,” Duke associate head coach Nate James said. “It’s really cool to see a Wendell Moore, and even Matt Hurt, say, ‘Guys, come on, let’s bring it in, everyone huddle up.’”
‘A mindset thing’
For Moore, last season could only be described as a roller coaster. He began the season coming off the bench, seeing his minutes fluctuate depending on the matchup. A 17-point showing on 70 percent shooting against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden looked promising, but Moore simply couldn’t take that next step.
The two-time USA Basketball gold medalist went scoreless in consecutive contests in December, making it clear that not every blue-chip freshman walks into Cameron Indoor Stadium ready to drop 20-point double-doubles every time out on the floor.
Moore has explained throughout this preseason that a lack of confidence was the main thing holding him back last year. The former five-star recruit is someone who tries to let the game come to him, which often fails to happen immediately when transitioning to the college level.
“I think for me it was more of a mindset thing, just getting into my own headspace where I can play the game how I want to play, at my speed, at my pace,” Moore said of his work in the offseason. “Just developing a confidence that I felt like I was missing last season.”
Continuing with the roller coaster theme, Moore did display some extremely encouraging signs as the calendar shifted to February. Obviously, there was the unforgettable moment in the Dean Dome, but there was also the 25 points at Wake Forest as well as the 10 points, six rebounds and six assists at home against N.C. State.
In both contests, Moore seemed to pick his spots beautifully, knowing when to attack and when to find an open teammate. That’s a strategy that will serve him well, as the Charlotte native has more than enough athleticism and court vision to put pressure on opponents every possession.
“Just really keeping everything under control,” Moore said with regard to how he will approach this upcoming season. “I feel like a lot of times [last year] I kind of got sped up and things were going too fast in my mind, so really just having a chance to look at the game and it kind of slows it down for me.”
The new Hurt
When it comes to Hurt, last season was likely not what he or the Blue Devil coaching staff quite had in mind. While many expected his perimeter marksmanship to be the perfect complement to Vernon Carey Jr.'s interior dominance, that type of high-low combo never fully materialized.
At times, the Minnesota native displayed the shooting touch that helped make him the No. 10 overall recruit in the country. Performances such as when Hurt racked up 25 points in 26 minutes during a New Year’s Eve victory against Boston College showed just how high the former McDonald’s All-American’s ceiling could be.
However, in similar fashion to Moore, there were also nights in which Hurt struggled to even stay on the floor, particularly during both battles with North Carolina and a physical road loss to Virginia.
In the wake of the cancellation of the ACC and NCAA tournaments, though, Hurt returned home to Rochester, Minn., with a specific goal in mind. Throughout last season, many pundits speculated that Hurt needed to add weight in order to adjust to the physical play that defines the ACC. Well, Hurt seemingly had the same idea, bulking up to 235 pounds over the summer, 21 pounds heavier than his listed weight entering last season.
"I got home around mid-March last year, took a week or two off since the season ended and just [tried] to focus on eating right, eating a lot and just stay working out and lifting," Hurt said. "I got with our strength coach, Coach [William Stephens]—three, four times a week we lifted."
With a different body comes a different playing style, and Hurt is envisioning himself having more of an impact down on the block this year. The sophomore still has the same smooth jumper, but it’s obvious that the 2020-21 season will see a more varied skill set from Hurt.
“A knock on me was [the fact that] I was a little lighter guarding the four—people would try to take advantage of me down low,” Hurt said. “I feel like this year, especially on defense but also on offense, just attacking it, being stronger with the ball, taking contact and finishing over taller defenders.”
A new era of leaders
The end of the 2019-2020 season saw the end of an era for the Blue Devils. All four captains departed, as Jack White, Justin Robinson and Javin DeLaurier saw their collegiate eligibilities expire and Tre Jones decided to take his talents to the NBA. In their void, fresh voices are needed, a development that begs for Moore and Hurt to take another kind of leap.
If Duke is to be a true contender this season, it will need its sophomore duo to take that next step from a leadership perspective, and it appears they’re doing their best to follow in the footsteps of previous Blue Devil leaders.
“Last year we had three great seniors in Jack, J-Rob and Javin, helping me out through practice, what practice was going to look like once the season starts and just everything around campus,” Hurt said. “For this year, I’m just trying to do the same thing as last year, trying to help [the freshmen] get to class, what coach likes, what to do off the court [and] how to handle the academics.”
The coaching staff has started to take notice. For Moore in particular, the change started with consistent conversations over the summer regarding social injustices, and it has now translated into a new role within the program as well as the NCAA, with the forward being named as one of the 11 student-athletes on the NABC Player Coalition.
“Normally, guys like Wendell, they’re only around for a year,” James said. “But now to see a talented player come back—now he’s becoming a man, he’s a sophomore. You hear the voice [and] all the things we try to instill in him as coaches.”
All in all, both Moore and Hurt are ready to return to the floor and change the narrative after last season. While this year’s team projects to be one characterized by depth and balance, if crucial experience is needed, expect Duke’s sophomore tandem to take center stage.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.