Photo: Quinn Cook (left) and Tyus Jones earlier this season. Below, Tyus Jones.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Duke senior point guard Quinn Cook could have easily viewed himself as being pushed aside when highly touted freshman point guard Tyus Jones arrived on campus with NBA projections and his close friend with his own NBA future, 6-foot-10, 270-pound Jahlil Okafor.
Cook, who came to Duke in 2011-12 in the shadow of fellow freshman guard Austin Rivers, already spent three seasons as a role player, including his junior season on a 2013-14 team dominated by freshman forward Jabari Parker. In a modern college sports culture that values the incoming recruits over results, Cook could have been the odd man out on a lesser team.
But Duke is not a lesser team that that devours its own.
Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils' head coach of 35 years, learned teamwork and leadership as a West Point graduate. He looks for brotherhood in his players, and he’s seen the culture on the team shine in Cook this year.
For Cook, the first act the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder from Washington, D.C., demonstrated was to encourage Jones to speak up and share the leadership role.
“It's been a fabulous dynamic,” Kryzyzewski said. “They have a great relationship.”
Coach K cited a recent quote in the media from Rivers, who left Duke for the NBA after his freshman year, explain that a freshman needs to know he can speak up before he feels comfortable.
“Austin made a point, which is very, very good, that as a freshman you don't know about how much you should talk about different things,” Krzyzewski said. “We as coaches say these things, but when Quinn says them in his own language and his own way, they resonate even better.”
Cook and the 6-1, 190-pound Jones of Apple Valley, Minn., have shared the role so well, they’re interchangeable. They have switched off between point guard and shooting guard, which isn’t as easy to do as it might sound.
CBS college basketball analyst Kenny Smith, who admittedly is no fan of Duke, has noticed. He admitted grudgingly that this may be Duke’s most versatile team after he watched the Blue Devils (30-4), top-seeded in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region, defeat No. 16 seed Robert Morris Friday in their NCAA opener. The Blue Devils next face No. 8 seed San Diego State (27-8) at 2:40 pm ET Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Aztecs will have to pick their poison. Cook is second on the team in scoring with 15.9 points. He averages 2.8 assists a game and is shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range with 97 of 238. Jones is fourth in scoring with 11.6. He’s averaging 2.6 assists and hitting .39.8 percent on three-pointers with 43 of 112.
“One thing about our team, it's not just the upperclassmen, with the seniors and juniors doing all the leadership and motivating,” Cook said. “A lot of times we have three freshmen on the floor at all times and even (freshman backup) Grayson (Allen) has stepped up, which makes four. So we want to have leadership from everybody.
“There have been times when I've been in a funk and either one of these guys get on me telling me to step it up. That's one thing that makes our team so special. We're close off the court; it translates on the court so we can say whatever to each other and we can trust each other. It's not just myself. Amile (Jefferson, a junior forward), who's a captain, everybody asks (questions). He has played a part in being a great leader this year.”
When a highly recruited player arrives with high expectations but has trouble finding his place in the team chemistry, it can lead to a disappointing production. And with shaken confidence, he may not snap out of the following season. Jones didn’t have to struggle with that process.
“Quinn has been a great leader since day one,” Jones said. “”He's been a leader of this team. But as a leader he told us coming in that everybody on the team can be a leader, everyone can get on somebody, tell them pick it up or what they did wrong and stuff like that. As the leader and captain of our team, for him to say that, it just gives you confidence.”
Justise Winslow, a 6-6, 225-pound freshman that also found a starting role and is third on the team in scoring at 12.1 points, has seen the dynamic at work during crunch time.
“Pretty much it's about keeping everybody accountable,” Winslow said. “Q's our leader but at the same time if Q's not doing something right, then Tyus is going to get on him. It's just about trusting, believing in each other, having your brother's back and keeping everybody accountable.”