Team USA and Coach K are on top of the basketball world

Basketball is one of the few sports the United States rules these days. And the man in charge of it just happens to run the most polarizing college basketball team in the nation.



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Duke Basketball: How Much Do Coach K, Blue Devils Benefit from USA Basketball?

Under Mike Krzyzewski, Duke basketball has won 910 games, reached 11 Final Fours, won four national titles and sired 49 NBA draft picks28 of those first-rounders. If there’s any coach in college basketball whose reputation precedes him, it’s Coach K.

Those accomplishments have earned him a plum job as head coach of the United States men’s team, a gig that allows him to lead teams of NBA stars in international competition while presiding over a feeder system full of elite, uncommitted high school prospects who want to compete both in the NBA and on the senior national team one day.

Does Krzyzewski’s work with the senior team aid his efforts to turn blue chips into Blue Devils? Absolutely. Are Twitter pictures with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant the only reason Coach K lands elite talent? Hardly, but it certainly seems that way to one writer.

In a takedown only slightly less blunt than a WWE wrestler felling an opponent with a steel chair to the cranium, veteran Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski posted a column Monday demanding that the NBA stop sending All-Star talents to international competitions, in part because Krzyzewski exploits his ties to iconic pros for a Duke recruiting boost.

Wojnarowski‘s motivations are fuzzy, but his agenda is crystal clear: It’s time for the NBA to stop losing stars like Paul George of the Indiana Pacers to injury in international competitions that barely move the needle anywhere in the world, including America. That’s a very fair point, especially considering that many NBA elites2014 MVP Durant chief among themwould rather have some time off in the summer.

Still, the fervor with which Woj singles out Coach K is somewhat stunning:

Krzyzewski never violated an NCAA rule when he climbed aboard a flight, flew cross-country and addressed the 2013 under-19 USA Basketball national team at its Colorado Springs training camp. He addressed players in a group, and talked to them individually, sources told Yahoo Sports. For the record, Krzyzewski is USA Basketball’s senior national coach and the visit gave him an opportunity to personally welcome those young men into the program’s feeder system.

Well, the trip did something else, too: It gave the Duke coach unfiltered access to two of the best high school players in the nation. Florida’s Billy Donovan was the under-19 head coach. Virginia’s Tony Bennett and VCU’s Shaka Smart were his assistants. They probably didn’t need Krzyzewski’s voice, but he probably didn’t ask their permission, either.

The roster of college stars happened to include two 17-year-old prep phenoms: Chicago’s Jahlil Okafor and Houston’s Justise Winslow. When Krzyzewski makes his triumphant return this week, two freshmen stars will be awaiting him on Duke’s campus: Okafor and Winslow.

Never mind that Donovan, Bennett, Smart or even Syracuse coach Jim Boeheimthe head of the selection committee that picks the youth teamshave a lot more “unfiltered access” to the uncommitted stars than Krzyzewski does.

“Two days in nine years,” Krzyzewski said at a news conference in Durham after his return from the World Cup. That’s how many days he’s spent speaking to youth teams rather than focusing on the senior team or his day job at Duke. From that primary gig, Coach K said, “I’ve given up 50 days this summer.”

It’s time well-spent, compared to following the Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League), Under Armour Association or AAU all over the country.

But what if the USA loses to a country like Serbia or Spain? Krzyzewski elaborated on that point:

Anybody who wins, or if someone writes a great book or article, somebody wins a championship—they have an advantage. It’s advantage through accomplishment. The notoriety you get from that, there’s a risk to that. In other words, you can lose, and there’s time you give up. The fact that you win and if you gain an advantage from that, then so be it. It’s like if someone wins a national championship. (Connecticut coach) Kevin Ollie has an advantage recruiting because he won.

In other words: Winning draws more respect than speeches.

Krzyzewski has in some form or fashion been affiliated with USA Basketball since 1979, before he even took the job at Duke. He was an assistant to Chuck Daly with the original Dream Team that stampeded through the 1992 Olympics. Was that a recruiting boost? Probably, but the two straight national titles Duke had just clinched couldn’t have hurt, either.


RSCI Business

With the help of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), we can determine just how much benefit Krzyzewski and Duke have reaped from the coach’s tenure as the czar of USA Basketball.

From 1998 (RSCI‘s first season) through 2005 (the final recruiting class signed before Coach K took over the national team), Duke signed 20 top-100 prospects. Those players carried an average national rank of 22.25. Seven would go on to earn some form of All-American honor. Three of the eight classes finished first or second in RSCI‘s team rankings, but the rest finished outside the top 10.

In that eight-year span, the Blue Devils made five Sweet 16s, a Final Four, a national title game and won the 2001 championship.

From the Class of 2006 on, Duke has reeled in an impressive 29 RSCI top-100 players. The quantity is nice, but the quality has actually taken a slight dip. Those 29 players’ rankings averaged out to 26.1. Once again, seven earned All-American accolades. Only one class ranked outside RSCI‘s top 10, but the 2014 group was Duke’s first chart-topper since 2002.

In these eight seasons, Duke made two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight, won the 2010 title…and was bounced in the tournament’s first weekend four times.

This is a benefit? It’s easier to claim that Coach K is burning the candle a bit too much at both ends. Signing McDonald’s All-Americans is awesome, but second-round losses in the NCAA tournament dim the shine very quickly at a place like Duke.

It’s disingenuous to claim that USA Basketball’s winning ways under Coach K haven’t aided his profile at all. Still, Duke has received just as much publicity for Krzyzewski’s domestic accomplishments during his USAB tenure, including his pursuit of Bob Knight’s all-time wins record and the small matter of that national title in 2010.

That same year, Jahlil Okafor was invited to his first developmental team minicamp. Smell the conspiracy.


Fakin‘ It?

Oh, and speaking of conspiracy theories, here’s Wojnarowski‘s coup de grace:

The beginning of the end for USA Basketball had come on that August night, when George crumpled to the court and a bone blasted out of his flesh. It was a sick, sobering moment, and the USA players were still talking about it on Sunday night in Madrid.

The image was startling, and it’ll stay with people for a long, long time. It’ll be one of the catalysts to get NBA stars out of FIBA basketball. As the hours passed that August night, Krzyzewski changed the conversation about his involvement in the NBA losing a $100 million star in a worthless scrimmage. At the foot of George’s hospital bed, someone had been waiting to snap the photo of the U.S. national coach reaching down and embracing his stricken player.

Suddenly, this most private and personal moment turned out to be anything but that. Within minutes, that image would be flying through Twitter and Instagram for all those moms and dads to see the compassion and caring of Duke’s coach.

“Someone had been waiting.” The inference is clear. Did Coach K drag a photographer along with explicit orders to “watch for the hug”?

Not unless Woj found a paper trail placing Paul George’s sister Teiosha on the USAB payroll. Her Instagram accountnot some Duke or USA Basketball flunkyoriginated the picture that went viral, launching either proud tears or cynical sneers, depending on your feelings toward Duke and Krzyzewski himself.

We have a very good guess as to how Wojnarowski reacted, considering he did everything short of accuse Coach K of whacking George with the basket stanchion himself to stage a Twitter-friendly photo op later.

Coach K explained himself to the media:

I went back to the hospital the next day secretly. ESPN had cameras in front of the hospital. We were able to go through the back and go in. I spent a half hour with Paul, his mom, dad, two sisters, a couple of friends and his girlfriend. There was an emotional moment during it. I did not take any pictures. I did not know a picture was taken. I think his sister took a picture and she tweeted it because it was an emotional scene.

Duke’s basketball office tweeted the picturealbeit technically a retweet of alumnus Jay Williams. You remember Jay Williams, right? He was one of those blue-chip recruits Duke landed back in the dark ages before Coach K ran the national team. Won a national title, too.

Williams was proud of his coach and his school. The office was simply doing its job, promoting the program. Recruits probably saw it over and over again on their own Twitter and Instagram feeds. How any of this should be a source of shame for Coach K is a question that only some higher power and Adrian Wojnarowski can answer.

Displays of emotion like this come much more naturally to college coaches, men who are trusted as surrogate parents by a teenager’s family, charged with helping these youngsters become competent, responsible adults. That responsibility is no small commitment to a West Point man like Krzyzewski, who was shaped by Bob Knight, one of the most demanding mentors sport has ever known.

Wojnarowski‘s more used to NBA coaches who must deal with their players as mercenaries out for a paychecksince that’s a succinct summation of a professional athlete’s raison d’etre. The sport becomes a job, and the coach-player relationship much more strongly resembles boss-employee. Cynicism is easy, but that doesn’t make it any less unbecoming.


I Got Your Accomplishment Right Here

Absolutely no one can deny that Duke has been enriched through its coach’s summer job. But it’s just as incontrovertible that USA Basketball has drawn strength from Krzyzewski’s legacy as well.

LeBron James himself spoke to the Miami Herald in 2012 about his relationship with Coach K, one that truly took shape when player and coach came together on the national team in 2005 (h/t Eamonn Brennan of ESPN).

“We have a great relationship,” James said. “We’ve been together since ’05, and our relationship has grown every year. I’ve grown from a young man into a man into a leader of that team. He’s helped me develop that. I give a lot of credit to him.”

Guys like LeBron and Kobe, the last vestiges of the era that allowed high school ballers to go directly to the NBA, haven’t shied away from the kind of mentoring they missed out on. Without their cooperation, bred by respect for Krzyzewski’s accomplishments, the US national team would still be struggling to rediscover the swagger that evaporated as the shock and awe of the original Dream Teams faded.

On the other end, kids reading that endorsement from the greatest player in the world today have their minds blown, and they look at Krzyzewski and Duke in a different light.

In the post linked above, Brennan was already taking note of what coaching the national team can do for Duke’s recruiting. But it also contains the simple truth: “Before 2005, he was already Coach K.” Krzyzewski was already a legend, far from the conniving, opportunistic hanger-on Wojnarowski describes.

Any system in which college coaches spend time instructing uncommitted high school prospects is open for distortion and exploitation. Coaches less scrupulous than Donovan, Bennett, Smart or BoeheimI’m sure you all have some names you’d like to share in the commentswould surely find the unobstructed time with so many talented players too tempting to resist.

At the same time, in a publicity-dependent profession like college coachingin any sportonly fools shy away from free face time. If that reticence damages their recruiting, they often become unemployed fools in short order. Shrinking violets don’t make the Hall of Fame.

Mike Krzyzewski is a Hall of Famer and is certainly no fool. He doesn’t deny that his accomplishments with USA Basketball have aided his efforts. What chafes himand should equally rile most college hoop observersis the insinuation of abuse of power and exploitation of a tragic injury, all for personal gain.

As an NBA writer, Wojnarowski has seen the steady procession of Duke players who’ve been marching into the pros for three decades now. The faucet wasn’t just turned on in 2005.

Sure, Duke’s drawing some talent from the way Coach K spends his summers. But it’s not like Duke will be settling for 3-star prospects if he’s attending the Nike EYBL Finalsaka Peach Jaminstead of the World Cup.

After all, Peach Jam probably draws better TV ratings.


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