One of the newest members of Duke men’s basketball has some history woven into his jersey. He thinks he has what it takes to exceed expectations.
The date is Feb. 28, 1998. It’s senior night at Cameron Indoor Stadium and Duke has just completed a roaring comeback against North Carolina. After the horn sounds, Steve Wojciechowski, number 12 in white, dashes straight for head coach Mike Krzyzewski for a memorable and now iconic embrace between player and coach. Twenty-three years later, Duke hauled in graduate transfer Theo John, one of Wojciechowski's players from his time coaching at Marquette.
The full circle of studying and playing for that once ecstatic senior, Wojciechowski, and then-sophomore Chris Carrawell at Marquette, to now playing for Krzyzewski and Carrawell at Duke is certainly one that defines the lifelong ties formed within the Duke men’s basketball program under Krzyzewski. And since John wears the same number as Wojciechowski, maybe another white number 12 jersey will be giving the head coach a bear hug following both of their final Duke-North Carolina games at Cameron this March.
Following a 15-year stint as an assistant at Duke that included two national championships, four Final Fours and nine conference championships, the 37-year old Steve Wojciechowski finally got his shot at head coaching in 2014. Hired by Marquette University, which had made the NCAA tournament eight of the previous nine years, Wojciechowski inherited a Golden Eagles team that struggled to maintain the same level of competition it had years before.
In 2016, three-star recruit Theo John signed on to join Marquette as a 6-foot-8, 200-pound power forward after a dominant career at Champlin Park High School outside of Minneapolis. John wasn’t even born until six months after that iconic senior night moment for Wojciechowski when the top-ranked Blue Devils sank the Tar Heels in front of a raucous Cameron crowd, but his path to Duke was just beginning when he became a Golden Eagle.
Fittingly, also on the coaching staff with Wojciechowski from 2014-18 was Carrawell, who was a sophomore playing for the Duke men’s basketball team that February night in 1998. Carrawell reunited with his former teammate on the bench during a reboot phase for Marquette.
“Wojo, when we started, we was trying to rebuild Marquette. And so the guys we were recruiting, it was not... like a select few. At Marquette it was recruiting databases,” Carrawell said of the wide range of players Marquette was recruiting, including John.
Carrawell specialized in working with bigs at Marquette following a playing career that had him bouncing from one city to another around Europe, Australia, Venezuela and the NBA’s Developmental League nearly every season.
They didn’t know it yet, but between Wojciechowski, Carrawell and John, a strong “brotherhood” connection had been formed with Krzyzewski as the anchor of it all.
“His freshman year was my last year there. We kind of built a really good relationship,” Carrawell said of John from their overlapping season at Marquette. Carrawell would go on to be the very first person John heard from when he entered the transfer portal.
The build up
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During his freshman year, John played in nearly every game and averaged a modest 3.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per contest while acting as a defensive stalwart with 26 blocks on the year. He was never a big scorer since he only reached double-digit points 22 times over his 124 games at Marquette, but his defensive numbers shot up as he progressed his career.
“I love guys like Ben Wallace, Kevin Garnett, guys who dog…hard-nosed dogs. Like I'm gonna do what I got to do…. I'm trying to run games,” John said of his playstyle, which is now buttressed by his large frame.
By the conclusion of his senior season at Marquette, John had accumulated 191 blocked shots, good for second in program history. But alongside scoring whiz Markus Howard and Sam Hauser, Marquette reached the NCAA tournament just once with John on the roster, only to get eviscerated by Ja Morant-led Murray State in a first round upset loss. Four years at Marquette wasn’t all bad for John, who averaged eight points and five rebounds last season, as his future in a Blue Devil uniform was still coming into shape.
During a trip to play North Carolina in Chapel Hill last winter, Wojciechowski took his team to Durham for a practice at his old home, Cameron Indoor Stadium. In his practice jersey, John and the Marquette head coach spoke with Krzyzewski at the edge of the court. It was merely a prognostication of what was to come.
“You didn't really have to sell [Krzyzewski] on Theo, and everything that we thought he would be in terms of leadership—the physical inside presence, he's done that and more. The guys love him,” Carrawell said, now that John has prepared for the season.
John said that despite a positive relationship with Wojciechowski and Carrawell tying him to Duke, he was originally set on a professional career after getting his degree in communication studies from Marquette.
“Well my original decision was to play professionally. I was set in stone on that and I was riding with that pretty much up until talking with my family,” John said. “They just wanted me to explore all my options and not close any doors that hadn’t opened yet.”
'Hard to say no'
Duke had a rather dramatic beginning to the offseason which swung those doors wide open. Forwards Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson left to pursue NBA careers while Henry Coleman and Jaemyn Brakefield parted from Duke to continue their college careers elsewhere, leaving a massive hole in Duke’s frontcourt depth behind freshman Paolo Banchero and sophomore Mark Williams.
After an excruciating 13-11 season, Duke was in reboot mode, and alongside talented freshmen, John was the answer. Carrawell reached out following the conclusion of the season and the student remained committed to his teacher for a final year of college basketball.
“Of course [Carrawell] hit me up and it was really set in stone, the relationship we had. He made the transition so much easier,” John said.
“When he originally first hit me up he was just reaching out to see how I was doing, where my head was at, and as soon as I entered the portal he hit me up again, like ‘alright, let’s talk for real now,’” John added. “Just the relationship and how pure it was and how it was already set way back when…and when Coach K called, it’s hard to say no.”
Duke has seldom picked up impactful transfers—you have to look back to Rodney Hood (Mississippi State) from the 2013-14 team to find an incoming transfer serving a significant role for Krzyzewski. Patrick Tapé, who transferred from Columbia prior to last season, disappointed despite his minor role. But entering this season, the 23-year-old John sees room for himself to “dog” inside and help the Blue Devils on both ends.
He also earned a spot in the rotation in part due to his monster strength. He shattered the record for bench press during summer conditioning with 26 reps at 185 pounds, and his physical abilities come through on the floor. Notably, a knee injury kept him out of practice for much of his senior year, but he says he is fully recovered and is back to full strength.
The graduate student carries a massive weight into this season. His experience has led him into a crucial role for Krzyzewski and Carrawell, as a mentor to younger bigs Williams and Banchero and as one of the two players on this roster to have NCAA tournament experience. John also told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April that he wanted to honor Wojciechowski’s impact by wearing his number while at Duke.
So this time around, almost 24 years after Wojciechowski’s concluding moment at Cameron, it will be Theo John’s story to tell as he wraps up another prolific career wearing Duke’s number 12.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.