“Work hard and always try your best.”
A handwritten word of advice from Mike Krzyzewski on a photo of him and a young, gleaming fan in Jon Scheyer is probably one of many personalized messages the Duke head coach has delivered to young kids sitting around Blue Devil fans’ houses.
Though it’s doubtful that Krzyzewski ever thought that same kid would grow up to play four years under him, win a national championship and then come back to be his eventual successor.
But that’s the exact path his former captain followed.
Scheyer’s best has taken him to unfathomable heights, and it’s now abundantly clear as he starts a year-long journey to becoming the 20th head coach in Duke men’s basketball history that he is living so many's dream of the ultimate Duke experience.
A highly-touted high school prospect rising from one of the low points of Krzyzewski’s career as a freshman to leaving college with a national title and two straight conference championships. Then after having a different dream unexpectedly cut short in the NBA with an injury, he returned to Duke for a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks.
You could find out 20 years ago when he was just a young kid, to 10 years ago when a long pro career seemed just around the corner, to just five years ago in the early stages of his coaching career—Scheyer’s journey was, if possible, both expected and unexpected, leading to him assuming the duties of the winningest coach in college basketball history over other highly credible candidates linked to the job.
"I always wanted to be a coach," Scheyer said of his dreams and aspirations growing up. "I remember when I was about 10 years old, I would have these notebooks and I would draw fake rosters, schedules and statistics of college teams, of every team. I always had a love for college basketball, as well as professionally, but always college. My aspiration was to have a long NBA career and then get into college coaching. Sometimes, life works out differently than you think.”
Scheyer certainly had a different plan after his senior year in 2010. After not being selected in that summer’s NBA draft, the Northbrook, Ill., native once again had to prove his doubters wrong with his scrappy play, sweet shooting stroke and elite basketball IQ.
Playing in just his second game of the NBA’s summer league, however, Scheyer was accidentally poked in the eye, causing optic nerve damage and legal blindness in his right eye. He would attempt a comeback with appearances in what was then the D-League, Israel and Spain, but the former All-American’s pro career was essentially over before it started.
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While the Glenbrook North product searched for answers at the end of his playing career, he was granted what Krzyzewski might have called one of those “opportunities that are backed up with belief” when Krzyzewski offered Scheyer a chance to return to Durham as a special assistant in 2013.
“I mentioned that moment before where I think it definitely sped up the process of this happening,” Scheyer said of his eye injury. “In retrospect, I learned very quickly that was the best thing that could've ever happened to me.”
After winning another National Championship the following season and rapidly rising to the title of associate head coach by 2018, Scheyer’s name began to bounce around the country as one of the sport’s up-and-coming stars in coaching and a name to watch out for in head coaching jobs. It was just hard to imagine that the first opening he would take would be the one sitting right next to him.
“Any of the guys who work for me, they were my former captains,” Krzyzewski said in his Thursday press conference. “They all had great resumes, and I tell all of them when they come on, 'I only want you here if you want to be a head coach.'”
Scheyer is the bridging gap and logical choice to continue the Brotherhood after playing with or coaching almost every Blue Devil from the 2006-07 season until now.
“Getting to experience someone else's success other than your own—when you're a player, you're solely focused on yourself,” Scheyer explained. “I played in a bunch of different places, but to be in the moment and all of a sudden, at Boston College, Joey Baker has three back-to-back shots, or we're playing at North Carolina and Wendell Moore Jr., as a freshman, has a game-winning shot. To be a part of them with that moment is incredibly rewarding and exciting."
It’s no secret that the list of coaches around the country who learned directly under Krzyzewski is a big one, and many of those names have years and years of experience as head coaches in college basketball. But other than the obvious advantage of continuity with the current iteration of the program after next year, Scheyer, who will become one of the youngest head coaches in the country, has a palpable connection with every player and recruit he meets. His ability to connect with the younger generation—also encapsulated with assistants Chris Carrawell and Nolan Smith—will keep Duke’s success on the recruiting trail rolling.
“Two young coaches, we’re both under 33 years old,” Smith said on recruiting with Scheyer. “We’re both full of energy and full of life. We both do have two kids under two [years old], so we might not get as much sleep at night. But we have a passion for this game. We have the resources, we have the Brotherhood, we have so many people behind us supporting us. We’re going to make sure this thing stays above float.”
Forty-one years apart, both Krzyzewski and Scheyer were hired as unproven 33 year olds, each with something to prove—Krzyzewski having to show that you can win at Duke and Scheyer proving he can win without the Hall of Famer. But just as Scheyer promises to "always show up" and try his best like his mentor and friend wrote to him all those years ago, this could be Scheyer’s next step in what many consider the ultimate Duke dream.
“When I was 16 years old, you came to my high school and laid out a vision for me, and it went beyond just playing basketball here,” Scheyer said to Krzyzewski. “You told me that I was meant to do something special. I don't know if this is what you had in mind when you said that, but if you did, you're really damn good—really damn good.”