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'A lifetime decision': Jon Scheyer takes on latest challenge in first season as Duke men's basketball head coach

After more than a year of waiting, Jon Scheyer's first season is finally here.
After more than a year of waiting, Jon Scheyer's first season is finally here.

Mike Krzyzewski sat in front of a small crowd gathered on the court bearing his name, one day after news of his plans to coach one last season at Duke rocked the college basketball world. Far beyond the walls of Cameron Indoor Stadium, all eyes fixed firmly upon the winningest head coach in the history of the sport.

That day, and the season that followed it, revolved around Krzyzewski’s goodbye to the game. But when the buzzer sounded in New Orleans and Krzyzewski’s final chapter officially drew to a close, those eyes slowly turned toward the man waiting at his side to take his place.

Now, as Jon Scheyer makes his final preparations for the first season of the rest of his life, his turn has come.

“You can look at the 2010 national championship,” Krzyzewski said of Scheyer June 3, 2021, one day after Scheyer was named Duke’s next head coach. “I believed in him and Nolan [Smith] running our team. Any of the guys who work for me, they were my former captains. They all had great résumés, and I tell all of them when they come on, ‘I only want you here if you want to be a head coach.’”

At 33, Scheyer was the same age on the day that athletic director Nina King’s name popped up on his phone as Krzyzewski was when he became head coach in 1980. Unlike his predecessor, though, Scheyer’s path to where he now stands—as the 20th head coach in program history and first new hire in nearly half a century—has run through Duke all along.

“It was the best phone call I’ve ever received in my life. … You immediately go back to the first time you pick up a ball, to the first time I was recruited to play here, to all the moments with those guys back there,” Scheyer said at his introductory press conference in June 2021. “The ups and the downs, the blood, sweat and tears, and then it comes to that moment. I’ll never forget that in my life.”

In Durham, Scheyer has proven himself to be a champion and competitor at every junction. His next task, as he put it at his introduction, is nothing short of “the hardest job in the history of sports.”

There is plenty of belief in Scheyer to conquer that task. Take a walk back along his path—from the first time he picked up a ball to today—and the reason for that belief is clear.

‘Always ready’

With time ticking down in Glenbrook North High School’s Chicago-suburb showdown at Proviso West, head coach David Weber sat down on the bench and handed his clipboard to a team manager, his Spartans trailing 71-58. Even for the unlikely reigning Illinois state champions, the thought of mounting a comeback was a preposterous one.

No one, evidently, told this to Scheyer.

“All of a sudden, Jon is stealing the ball and shooting threes, hitting threes, getting fouled, getting four-point plays, stealing the inbound,” Weber recalled, chuckling, in an interview with The Chronicle. “And I was like, we’re right back in this game.”

What happened over the course of the next 75 seconds of basketball became instant legend, both in Northbrook, Ill., and beyond. Scheyer, already a Duke commit in his senior season, hit five 3-pointers and six free throws between 1:24 and fouling out with nine seconds to play.

As a dejected Scheyer walked off the court, his 52-point effort not enough for the Spartans, the crowd rose to its feet, giving the rising star a standing ovation.

“Coach K said this and it hits me: Jon is always ready,” Weber said. “Jon is always ready for a big moment, he’s always ready for that. And he was in high school. The bigger the game, the better he played, and I think he’ll be that way as a coach now. I do.”

Scheyer’s biggest moment at Glenbrook North came one year earlier, as he lifted a team with no other Division I talent to the 2005 Class AA state championship, nearly breaking the state tournament scoring record along the way.

Before scoring 27 points in the title game against Carbondale, Scheyer burst for 48 points in a super-sectional win over Waukegan. Only then did Weber know that he was dealing with a team that could go the distance.

“Everybody said we couldn’t win a state championship because we weren’t that athletic, we weren’t that talented,” Weber said. “But he was the heart and soul of that team. He was the leader of that team.”

For Weber, his star provided a constant challenge: Even in high school, Scheyer would find a way to have his games filmed so that he could review. Weber had to watch that same film, too, knowing that Scheyer was going to arrive at practice the next day and “tell me things we did wrong and things we need to work out.”

That attention to detail served Scheyer well, helping him to become a champion and bring a championship to his hometown.

“Nowadays you don’t have what we had back then,” Weber said. “He wanted to win a state championship for the community that he grew up in. … And he did.”

After reaching the top of Illinois basketball as a junior, Scheyer committed to Duke, where fellow Glenbrook North graduate Chris Collins was assistant coach, over Illinois, where Weber’s brother, Bruce, was head coach.

When he left Northbrook for Durham after his senior year, Scheyer was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, a McDonald’s All-American and the fourth-highest scorer in state history. Before he ever suited up as a Blue Devil, he had already begun to preview what was to come.

Scheyer and co-captain Lance Thomas celebrate as the buzzer sounds to signal Duke's 61-59 win over Butler in the 2010 national championship game in Indianapolis.
Scheyer and co-captain Lance Thomas celebrate as the buzzer sounds to signal Duke's 61-59 win over Butler in the 2010 national championship game in Indianapolis.

‘A lifetime decision’

Scheyer got off to a fast start at Duke. The Blue Devils had a down year, finishing 8-8 in the ACC and bowing out of the NCAA tournament in the first round, but Scheyer made an instant impact, entering the starting lineup and earning ACC All-Freshman Team honors. 

By season’s end, he was starring in Duke University Improv’s two-minute featurette, “Jon Scheyer in 75 Seconds.” On his mission to get to class on time, Scheyer hops out of bed, commandeers a bike, stops at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and saves a baby, all in the time it once took him to score 21 points.

The message, while hilarious, is clear: Scheyer was Duke’s do-it-all point guard, progressing from his high-scoring high school self to the Blue Devils’ floor general. He took on a bench role in his sophomore season before sealing Duke’s ACC tournament title with a late 3-pointer as a junior. Still, heading into his senior year, the Blue Devils had fallen short of the Elite Eight five years running.

Scheyer, though, was ready to do what he had done in Northbrook. The Blue Devils, led by co-captains Scheyer and Lance Thomas and senior Brian Zoubek, finally broke through in March—and April.

“For the seniors, it was do or die,” Andre Dawkins, a freshman on Duke’s 2009-10 national championship team, told The Chronicle. “For that whole group, together, just having been through the devastation of losing in the tournament, losing as a higher seed, I just think they were able to really have a sense of urgency then that was passed down really through all of us.”

With 23 points in the Final Four against West Virginia and 15 more in the national championship game against Butler, Scheyer and No. 1-seed Duke held on to once again become champions as Gordon Hayward’s half-court prayer rattled off the rim.

Three months later, a graduated and undrafted Scheyer, now playing for the Miami Heat’s summer league squad, took a poke in the eye from Joe Ingles. The permanent damage to his right eye halted his NBA dreams, leading him to Israel, Spain, and back to Duke as a special assistant in April 2013.

“I remember calling Coach, and Coach called [Duke eye doctor] Terry Kim, who was on a flight the next day immediately to come to Chicago to make sure I got the best care I could possibly have,” Scheyer said in June 2021. “If that’s not an example of Duke being a lifetime decision, I don’t know what is, and it’s set me on a path that has led me to this point today.”

Three years after winning a national title, Scheyer’s road led him right back to Durham. Dawkins, about to enter his graduate season, was there to see his old captain in his new role.

“He’s pretty quiet,” Dawkins said of Scheyer during the 2013-14 season. “That’s just kind of how he is anyway … but he’s definitely grown as a coach and kind of found his voice over the last few years.”

That growth has occurred in the nine years since Scheyer returned to Durham, won another national championship as an assistant and was tabbed for succession. Quiet as he may be, Duke’s newest head coach appears to be the same competitor he was as a player.

“I think calm kind of implies a lack of intensity, which is not the case,” Dawkins said. “He’s very intense, very driven to succeed and to win. He hates losing probably on a similar level to Coach, honestly.”

The unique thing about Scheyer’s appointment has been the turnaround time. In stark contrast to North Carolina’s changing of the guard—longtime head coach Roy Williams retired two months before Krzyzewski’s announcement—Scheyer has waited more than a year to take the reins.

But when Krzyzewski missed a January contest at Wake Forest, Scheyer had around 24 hours to prepare to be acting head coach for the second time in his career. The first, when he coached Duke to an 83-82 home win against Boston College in January 2021, came before his appointment.

Before it took the leap and became a Final Four team, Duke was simply looking to bounce back from a home loss to Miami four days prior. Freshman forward AJ Griffin excelled in the first start of his career, helping Scheyer adapt on the fly as the Blue Devils bounced back with a 74-62 win. It was not the first time that Duke had to recover from a devastating defeat, and with a home loss in the regular-season finale to North Carolina and a runner-up finish at the ACC tournament still to come, it was not the last.

“I think last year is a perfect example of staying the course, of staying together,” Scheyer said at the team’s preseason media day. “We had a couple of tough moments. … You can’t get tougher without going through some adversity, going through some experiences. So to me, I look back at last year as a prime example.”

‘I want to win today’

When Duke’s season ended in the Final Four and Krzyzewski’s retirement became official, Scheyer ceased to be head coach-in-waiting and took over, nearly a year after his appointment. Almost immediately, he was tasked with overhauling his staff and roster when assistant coach and former teammate Nolan Smith departed for Louisville and the bulk of the Blue Devils’ Final Four core joined the NBA ranks.

The result is a program that features 11 newcomers, the nation’s top recruiting class, one returning starter in Jeremy Roach and a pair of new assistant coaches. Duke has a foundation as strong as any, but that is a lot of change to endure after 42 years of stability.

“The biggest thing that I learned studying different successions and different plans is you don’t want to change too much too quickly,” Scheyer said at October’s ACC Tipoff, citing UCLA’s Gene Bartow and the Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra as case studies. “And we’ve been put in a position in the last six months where we’ve had to make some serious changes, but it’s because of the landscape of college basketball. The core of who we are as a program, the core of our values and what we stand for, that’s never going to change with me.”

With all of those changes comes a unique opportunity for Scheyer to build on the foundation left behind for him alongside a staff crafted to fit his vision. Outside pressure remains for Scheyer to fill Krzyzewski’s shoes, but his focus has been on preparing the Blue Devils for contention for some time now.

On his way to his first season as head coach, which begins Monday against Jacksonville at Cameron Indoor, Scheyer has built a legacy for himself at Duke. Now, as everybody else asks questions about the next chapter of his story, he is far more concerned with the on-court product.

“For me, I’ll tell you, the biggest challenge is staying in the moment,” Scheyer said. “I think that’s the biggest thing—not worrying about what’s said outside of our program, I don’t think it’s about worrying about next week, or I’ve been asked ‘What do I want my legacy to be as a coach,’ I don’t know what I want my legacy to be. I want to win today. I want to have a good practice and then move on to the next.”

Winning, as it stands, is something that Scheyer has mastered at each stage of his career leading up to this point. He was a champion before Duke, for Duke and in his return to Duke.

His next task—his hardest yet—is to become a champion all over again. How he gets there is what college basketball will have to wait to find out.

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.


Jonathan Levitan | Sports Editor

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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