PORTLAND, Ore.—The phrase “it’s always darkest before the dawn” does not make much sense. But for Blue Devil freshman Tyrese Proctor, it seems that truer words have never been spoken.
Proctor exploded for 16 points on 57.6% true-shooting in the eighth-ranked Blue Devils’ 75-56 loss to No. 24 Purdue Sunday afternoon. There were more than a couple factors contributing to Duke’s failure to come away with a Phil Knight Legacy championship, but for the first time in almost two weeks, Proctor was a major bright spot. The entirety of the combo guard’s career-high scoring tally was unassisted, and he added five rebounds and three assists, the second-most he has had in a game this season, while committing just one turnover.
The performance was enough to raise Proctor’s shooting percentage, which had ranked in just the sixth percentile in Division I, per CBB Analytics, by over five points.
“He's been battle-tested, and Tyrese is probably going through the worst shooting slump he's ever been in. And that's part of how it goes,” said Duke head coach Jon Scheyer. “The thing that I liked with him is he was aggressive and followed his instincts today. And that's what we need him to do.”
To say that Proctor was struggling coming into Sunday would be an understatement. Outside of a three-half stretch between halftime against Kansas and the final buzzer against Delaware, Proctor had not hit more than two shots in a game and had as many turnovers as he had assists. He shot just 1-of-7 in the Blue Devils’ narrow quarterfinal win against Oregon State, and seemed to respond to that by taking just two shots against Xavier in the semifinals.
If Proctor were only passing up shots against the Musketeers, it would have been one thing. But the times when he did choose to attack were even more concerning. His lone attempt from 3-point range came when point guard Jeremy Roach set him up for an open spot-up from the corner, but instead he pump-faked, allowing a defender to contest his out-of-rhythm shot. The Sydney native ran a pick-and-roll the very next play, and instead of trying a mildly contested layup, he hesitated and tried to pass through a paint defender’s legs.
It was fair to wonder if Proctor’s cold streak had given him the yips.
“He was, I think, carrying the prior games into the next game—and you can't do that,” said Scheyer. “He's young.”
As it turns out, Proctor did not have the yips. He just needed to see the ball go through the hoop—which he did on each of his first two shots Sunday.
“I think [the difference was] just my confidence,” Proctor said after the Purdue loss. “[I] just gotta keep being confident in myself and just know that I'm gonna make shots.”
If Proctor were only hitting open shots and layups against the Boilermakers, it would have been one thing. But his shots were entirely self-created, from behind-the-back step-backs to ankle-breaking crossovers—he did everything a great scoring guard could. He showed off smooth finishes, varying the speed of his dribble and timing in the air to make layups around even the 7-foot-4 Zach Edey. And when he did not have an angle, he kept the ball moving, earning himself a couple highlight-worthy passes in the process.
“I thought he played a great game,” said Scheyer. “And I think that's part of the evolution, where he didn't have the best game versus Xavier. And then you bounce back and he has that. … It's just learning how to do it every day at the highest level.”
Proctor was not immune to the problems that plagued Duke down the stretch; as with most of the Blue Devils against Purdue, the energy he had chasing loose balls and keeping possession over the first 30 minutes had dissipated a bit by crunch time. But given his age and relatively late reclassification, physical tools and track record of success back home in Australia, there is every reason to think Proctor’s career day is just the start of something big.
“He wants it so badly, and for him, it was just a matter of just going for it,” said Scheyer. “What he's done, and the ability to bounce back in the same tournament one game later, I think that says a lot about his character, his toughness and who he is as a person and player. I'm not surprised. He'll only continue to get better and better.”
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