Editor's Note: This story has been updated to address Thursday's promotion of Nolan Smith to assistant coach.
Lost in a flurry of roster movement has been how Mike Krzyzewski plans to replace the departed Nate James, the only assistant coach Krzyzewski's had with playing experience as a big man since Jay Bilas coached in the early 1990s.
From Johnny Dawkins to Jon Scheyer and many more, assistant coaches at Duke have a history of being former lead guards as Blue Devils. James broke that assumption when he arrived on Krzyzewski’s staff in 2007, known for his tough play as a forward from 1997 to 2001. As a coach, James has specialized in developing the Blue Devil big men, including Zion Williamson, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Vernon Carey Jr. and a trio of Plumlee brothers.
Losing James isn’t just another departure of a former Duke floor general but rather a major loss for a Blue Devil position group expected to lead the team next year behind Mark Williams and Paolo Banchero. The program announced Thursday that Nolan Smith, former director of operations and player development, will be elevated to the role of assistant coach. But history suggests that Duke won’t stick with just three assistants for long, and don't be surprised to see another former Blue Devil added to the coaching staff before next year.
So who’s up next to take a seat on Duke’s bench?
Associate head coach Jon Scheyer and assistant coach Chris Carrawell look like they will be staying in Durham, and of course there’s Smith, who has been a crucial part, both on the court and off, of the Duke program since returning in 2016. ‘The People’s Champ’ should thrive in his new role, especially as a recruiter.
James, Scheyer and Smith all joined the staff as special assistants after Dawkins, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski left for other jobs, respectively. Krzyzewski will want to start training the next Duke assistant coach should one on the current staff leave to become yet another former Blue Devil at the head of a D-I program. And you can likely bet that whoever comes next will come from 'The Brotherhood.’
Now, if I’m Krzyzewski, the first call I’m making to replace James on staff is to ‘The Landlord' himself, Shelden Williams. The former first team All-American’s career accolades are endless, from two-time National Defensive Player of the Year to Duke’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots to having his No. 23 jersey hanging from the rafters in Cameron Indoor Stadium. But it’s not just his former playing days as one of the greatest Blue Devil defenders of all time that should get him the gig.
Following his playing career, Williams spent two years as a scout for the Brooklyn Nets and ultimately broke into coaching in 2018 as an assistant coach for the NBA G League's College Park Skyhawks. There, Williams has played a big role in helping develop former notable college big men like Omari Spellman, Bruno Fernando, Alex Poythress and others for the highest level of basketball.
G-League rosters are similar to Duke’s in that there isn’t much roster continuity from year to year. Williams could be a huge help in mentoring young Blue Devils in the frontcourt, especially with the tall task of teaching solid defense to underclassmen. The 2006 No. 5 overall pick was also quite the development story in his time at Duke, both as a player and a leader. Similar to James, Williams would be a high-character hire.
Williams is already gaining a great reputation as a coach at the next level, so it’s completely possible that he wants to stay the course in the NBA and wouldn’t return for a college assistant job. But it’s certainly worth making a call to Williams to see if he’s interested in the role. After all, Krzyzewski can show Quin Snyder as a pretty solid example of the path from successful Blue Devil player to Duke assistant coach to an NBA Coach of the Year candidate.
If not Williams, we could see any former Duke guard come back to take the job. Wojciechowski is currently looking for a new landing spot after being fired at Marquette, though it seems unlikely that he would return to an assistant role. Or the search can take a look at recent graduates to develop into coaches like Tyler Thornton, a current assistant at Howard. It’s also possible that the program just rolls into next season with only three assistant coaches and waits to find its perfect candidate.
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Krzyzewski’s coaching tree speaks for itself, and the next member on staff will be as qualified as anyone in the country. But perhaps the best outcome for the Blue Devils next year is Williams back in Cameron with the Crazies screaming “Pay your rent!”