When you think of the guys at Duke, you think of the Grant Hills, the Bobby Hurleys, the Laettners, the J-Wills, the Scheyers, the Smiths, J.J. Redicks. I can go on and on. Those guys were winners here. The guys who made Duke and started the blue print were all winners. When I got to campus, I knew I wasn’t a one-and-done guy or a lottery pick. I wanted to leave my mark here as a winner, just win as many games as I could. That’s what those guys did.
But I didn't always have the right mindset to do it. I wasn’t even close early in my career. I can remember losing my spot in the rotation, and I kind of just gave up. I gave up on everything. I was really selfish. We had lost to Temple, and Coach gave me the opportunity to start. I thought I was playing well, and then I had a bad game against Wake Forest. I fell out of the rotation, and that was probably the lowest point for me at the time. And then losing to Mercer was the lowest. I can just remember not being in tune with the team until Coach took me to the side and dug at me really good, and then I was back all in.
I had ups and downs, and I don’t think that all really hit me until the summer before my senior year. Coach always talks about crossing that bridge and turning the corner. I was just stuck in my ways a little bit my freshman year. I came in hurt, and I used that as an excuse. I didn’t want to change. Coach gave me plenty of opportunities to take over the team, and I started a couple games. I just wasn’t consistently that leader he needed me to be. I just never crossed that bridge until sometime my sophomore year, but sometimes I would revert back. My junior year I got hurt a little bit and reverted back. Then senior year, I promised myself, my family, the coaches, and Coach Will that I wouldn’t turn back even when adversity hit.
Getting to that point started with a meeting. Coach, my mother and me had a big meeting a week-and-a-half after we lost to Mercer. That’s when it really hit me I had one more shot at it. I just wanted to be remembered here as that winner. At the time, I didn’t really win anything besides a couple preseason tournaments. I had nothing to show for my time at Duke. I just thought that my leadership could help the young guys coming in and help the guys who were here. It was that meeting that got me on the right path, and being with Coach Will all summer, staying with Kenny, getting my classes right, and doing better in the classroom -- that got me into a great routine.
I really put in the work that summer. Coach Will didn’t take it easy on me. Sean Kelly and I were the only guys here at the first session of summer school. And Coach Will and I had constant communication. He instilled confidence in me, helping me believe I could take my game to another level.
I got confidence from him. He helped me understand that all great teams here had a great leader. No matter how talented the freshmen were, no matter how talented the guys coming back were, it was riding on me to be the leader. Him telling me that kind of gave me the confidence to be the leader I knew I could be. I was with him every day for about three straight months. We have a great relationship, and he got me going in the right direction.
By the time the second session of summer school and the whole team arrived, I was two steps ahead. I was in the best shape. I was focused. With the guys back, I wanted to be the first guy in the gym. I wanted to be the last to leave. I wanted to be first in every sprint. I wanted to win every shooting drill. Win every one on one. I took my momentum into the season. My confidence was so much higher than it had been.
I could just feel we were headed in a good direction. I first realized it early on when our pickup games were so competitive. Obviously our talent was there, but during my four years I had never seen pickup so intense. We had guys getting so upset over a loss in pickup -- that’s how much it meant to us. Coach came back from the World Championships and put everything together.
When we beat Wisconsin I knew that we had a chance to win big. Our closeness started with the freshmen coming in as close friends, and the guys coming back were really close. It wasn’t cliqued up. Sometimes in the past, Coach had to force us to hang out or go out to eat together, but this was genuine. We would go to each other’s houses, go to each other’s dorms. I’d catch myself at the freshman dorm playing video games and being around the guys. We genuinely liked being around each other, and that helped on the floor so we could hold each other accountable. We all held each other accountable.
Being a student of the game got me prepared also. I started by taking a challenge. I can remember we played Michigan State in the third game of the season. I didn’t start out on their great guard, Travis Trice. I asked Coach during half time, “Can I guard Trice in the second half?” He let me, and then after that I started guarding better players. That gave me a lot of confidence.
For me personally, Coach would call my number a couple times or put the ball in my hands. And then he told me I could guard the best offensive player after that win we had over a good Michigan State team. I think it was just a mindset that I developed. My whole life I was never a defensive guy. I wasn't trusted on defense. I was always subbed out for defense and I took it personally. Doing stuff with Coach Will gave me that edge and confidence, and then just studying the game, asking Coach questions, asking Coach Capel, “What should I do here?”
By the time the tournament came around, we had come so far as a team and I knew I had come a long way. We were tough. We were together. I was very excited. I remember that people say to take it one game at a time and it’s easy to get caught up in the brackets, and possible matchups, but I can remember us really taking it one game at a time.
The way we prepared from the players’ standpoint was big time. I know the coaches don’t sleep during that time. They have us more prepared than any team in the country, but guys knew everything, every stat. That helped us. I think we were one of the better defensive teams in NCAA Tournament history because guys were really locked in. We weren’t watching other tournament games. We stuck to the script and stuck to what got us there. I think that if you asked our walk-ons about a certain player they would know. If you asked Justise Winslow about the other point guard, he would know. I can remember us being so locked in on personnel, schemes, and execution. We had been through so much. We were never favored in the big games we played in this year. Everybody picked against us at the Final Four. We always used that to our motivation.
We were on a mission and believed in each other. We knew we could do it. The tournament favors those who really pay their dues and play hard together. That was us my senior year. When we won it, it all hit me. When you put in your full effort, and 100% of your time, great things can happen. I felt like my first three years I didn’t put in my all to what I was doing. Obviously I didn’t get what I wanted, and I didn’t deserve winning, but my last year I gave everything. I had no regrets. I think every year except my senior year, I had regrets about the year. My senior year was about no regrets and just me giving my all. And I got that banner and that ring and memories that will last a lifetime.
When we won it, I was thinking about my dad. That was the first thought that went through my mind. I started with my dad, so I wanted to go see my mom and my sister and then Nolan. Then I just thought about all the times where I stayed in late. I thought about coming in early, working out, staying in summer sessions, working out with Coach Will, all the tough times, and all the sacrifices that the team made to win it. That was pretty much what was going through my mind the whole time.
Looking back, I can tell the young guys now with confidence: all of the sacrifices are worth it. Duke isn’t easy and a lot of guys don’t have four years to figure this out. But they will have the teammates to help them through. The Brotherhood is booming right now with so much talent and character. We do this together.
Coach always tells guys to get outside themselves. Talk on the court. Give back to the group. Play with emotion. Be a great teammate. Fight. Move on to the next play. Do those things, man. Write down the little stories and words of wisdom Coach brings. Work together. Have fun. Keep it simple. Play for the wins, not stats. Because when this thing ends, you want to leave here with championships, not regrets. With the talent and coaches at Duke, it’s gonna be one of those two outcomes: banners or regrets. Choose banners, man. Every day.