In Greensboro, N.C., on the eve of the 2010 ACC tournament, head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff were preparing for their first-round matchup with Virginia. Meanwhile, in Richmond, Va., high school junior Michael Gbinije was calling his high school coach, Sean McAloon, to tell him he was ready to commit to the Blue Devils.
“To me, it was all about winning,” Gbinije said. “And I just felt like [Duke] is the most competitive school in college basketball.”
That belief was validated in the weeks following his commitment, as the Blue Devils won nine straight games en route to a national championship.
In Feb. 2011, Gbinije made his first appearance at Cameron Indoor Stadium, scoring 21 points in an exhibition game between his high school team and a New York prep squad. Then, as a senior at Benedictine High School, he averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game, leading his team to a 26-5 record and an independent-school state championship. He scored 18 of his team’s 52 points in the championship game to take home the State Finals MVP award.
Gbinije transferred to Benedictine after his sophomore year at Christchurch School, bringing prodigious talent but a shaky understanding of the game to McAloon’s program, which had just sent power forward Ed Davis as one of the top recruits in the nation off to North Carolina.
“I think when we first got him, he felt like he could score on anyone at any time, and he would almost ruin a possession because he wanted to just run to the ball,” McAloon said. “And we taught him how to make... the game easier for himself and put him in more efficient positions.”
Gbinije now counts basketball I.Q. as one of his strengths, and the increase in his on-court intelligence opened the way for his considerable natural ability to shine through. He is a smooth wing player with what he calls “sneaky athleticism,” and McAloon praised him for being “multifaceted.”
Gbinije expressed confidence in his driving ability, but said his jumpshot depends on “if it’s my day or not.” Some experts disagree with that assessment, though, as Scout.com has praised his stroke from beyond the arc. He runs the floor well, key for a Duke team that likes to run its offense in transition, and can score in a variety of ways with his combination of length and quickness.
It was this considerable physical skill-set and on-court maturity that drew Duke special assistant Nate James to Benedictine’s games on multiple occasions. James attended high school in Frederick, Md., before opting to play for Krzyzewski at Duke, and the recruitment of Gbinije was one of his first assignments as an assistant. The northern Virginia area has been a hotbed for Duke recruiting of late, having produced 2011 graduate Nolan Smith, junior Andre Dawkins, sophomores Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston and one of Gbinije’s fellow freshmen, Quinn Cook.
Of those recent D.C.-area recruits though, only Duke legend Smith ranked higher than Gbinije coming out of high school according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, which aggregates expert recruiting rankings.
So while it might be easy to see why Duke was interested in Gbinije, he was initially hesitant about his interest in Duke.
“People either love [Duke] or they hate it,” McAloon said. “Mike grew up not loving it as much. So as a kid, it became hard for him to realize the good [things about Duke].”
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But McAloon found a way to make the Duke experience more appealing by drawing a parallel with Gbinije’s high school experience.
“Our high school in this area, either you love us or you hate us,” McAloon said. “People go in automatically hating us. I said, ‘Duke is the same situation. So you’ve already been there as a player. How do you feel about that when you walk into places?’ He was like, ‘I love it. I love when people hate us.’”
McAloon also pointed out Krzyzewski’s experience coaching the world’s best at USA basketball and his track record of developing wing players like Gbinije.
Ultimately, though, it came down to Gbinije’s desire to win and his comfort with the Duke coaching staff.
“I had 50 percent of [the decision], my dad had 25, and my mom had 25,” Gbinije said. “We all agreed on the same school.”
The freshman still has work to do on his game before he’s ready to be a big-time college player, though, and he is aware that his role might be limited in the early going.
“My role is to play off the ball really, to get rebounds,” he said. “I guess I’m one of the last options, you could say, but just whenever my number is called, to make something happen, and run in transition.”
His ball handling skills will require some improvement to compete at the collegiate level, and his lanky 6-foot-7 frame will need to fill out if he is to compete with the bigger bodies of the college game.
“There were times when he would make moves in high school and somebody would bump him off, and he wouldn’t be able to get where he wanted to go,” McAloon said. “We got him as strong as we possibly could, but strength and conditioning is different [in college]. Once that translates to his game and his body, he will be a beast.”
Krzyzewski clearly sees that potential in Gbinije. He said Gbinije is “doing a good job defensively” in early showings, and perhaps most telling of all, he is paying plenty of attention to the quiet freshman swingman in practice.
“I had a chance to go in and dunk it [during a practice], and instead I shot a floater and it didn’t go in,” Gbinije said. “Coach K let me have it.”
And McAloon is confident that Krzyzewski will get the most out of the former Benedictine star.
“Every time I read about the [Duke 2011] class, everybody would talk about every other kid. It was always like, ‘Oh, and they got Mike Gbinije.’” McAloon said. “The kid’s a winner…. Out of that class, Mike, in the end, once he figures it all out and his body gets stronger, will probably be the best.”