DURHAM, N.C. — Jon Scheyer had to climb the steps.
Not just in his life or career — like getting to where he is now, the new coach of Duke‘s men’s basketball program since Coach K’s retirement in April — but the actual steps that lead to his office on the fifth floor of the Michael W. Krzyzewski Center.
The building is undergoing changes and has shut down the elevators, so it takes Scheyer more time than normal to reach his destination: an office that sits one floor beneath the one Mike Krzyzewski, who recruited him and led him to a national title as a player and subsequently made him one of his assistants before naming him his successor, still keeps.
“That’s how I get my workout every morning,” he said.
Upon reaching his spacious office, Scheyer gushed about his new digs like a designer on HGTV. The chic, soft couches had just arrived a few days ago. The glass table to the right is large enough for meetings requiring his entire staff. He then pointed to the sturdy Willow oaks adjacent to the building. Where they stand will be an extension of the men’s and women’s basketball facility.
When he’s up here, Scheyer never has to worry about his players embellishing the number of hours they spend in the gym. He can see their cars from his window.
Even with unopened boxes outside his door, it — the new office, the new job — was beginning to feel like home.
“My ‘oh wow’ moment really was a recruiting meeting [after becoming head coach], and you sit down and everybody looks at you,” said Scheyer, who spent eight seasons as an assistant under Krzyzewski. “It’s like, ‘All right. What do you have to say?’ That’s when it feels very real.”
Yet something is missing. Well, someone is missing.
Scheyer doesn’t see Krzyzewski often.
Sure, if he needs some advice, or just wants to talk to the game’s all-time winningest coach who retired in April after leading the Blue Devils to the Final Four for the 13th time, he can just call him. But Krzyzewski, who still works as an ambassador for the university, has not been a constant presence around his protégé or his former team, even though he’s often on campus and active in his official duties.
It has changed the vibe around the program.
“I just think that everybody is loose now,” said Jeremy Roach, a key player on last season’s Final Four team and a crucial veteran on this year’s. “When Coach K is around, you obviously want to make sure you’re doing everything right for him because that’s what he expects, 100 percent. I feel like everybody’s comfortable now. Kind of relaxed, not uptight. You don’t have to think about too much. Very comfortable.”
Don’t take that the wrong way.
Roach only described the focus and discipline demanded by a revered coach whose career is nearly unrivaled. Sure, the feats of John Wooden, who won 10 national titles in 12 seasons at UCLA, seem mythical nearly 50 years after his retirement in 1975. But Krzyzewski found success consistently as the sport evolved, from when the NCAA tournament featured just 48 teams, to this century’s one-and-done era. He began his career at Duke the same year “Love Boat” was a popular TV show. By the time he left, college basketball fans could watch Duke games on their phones.
Coach K’s post-retirement distance from the program during the offseason is by design, according to Scheyer. Krzyzewski wants the 35-year-old head coach to figure it out, the same way he had to when he took over at Duke at just 33. But, Scheyer also knows his former coach trusts him.
“I just take it as there is confidence there,” Scheyer said. “At the end of the day, there is an amazing trust that we have together. He knows that I know the history of our program. I know the values that we’ve had in our program and those values are what I believe in.”
The legends sometimes linger, though.
After the late John Thompson Jr. left his post at Georgetown, he continued to attend practices and voice opinions at press conferences for his son John Thompson Jr., who was the second head coach Georgetown hired after his father had left. He could see the team’s practice facility from his house across the river, and would call the former head coach out on his schedule. When Kevin Ollie led UConn to the national title in 2014, former head coach Jim Calhoun held a sporadic press conference in the locker room before the championship game.
And years before he died in 2017, former Michigan State head coach Jud Heathcote told ESPN he couldn’t shake his passion for basketball after retirement, despite having more freedom to do whatever he wanted.
“I’m not sure I enjoy anything about retirement,” he said at the time.
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said he’s not sure how Krzyzewski, one of his best friends, will feel about his retirement once the 2022-23 season starts. The 77-year-old Boeheim said he has returned for his 47th season, in part because his mentors once told him they weren’t happy when they quit.
“If I had left at 65 or 70, I’d probably be upset,” Boeheim said. “Many coaches told me, when I would see them, ‘Don’t stop.’ Many retired coaches.”
Many expected the same love for the game and his school to turn Krzyzewski into Scheyer’s shadow. Instead, he has allowed Scheyer to shine without interference.
“It’s definitely different, not seeing [Krzyzewski] around as much,” Chris Carrawell, Scheyer’s associate head coach and the 2000 ACC player of the year under Krzyzewski, said. “He’s been a staple of the university, not just the men’s program but for the school, for 42 years. Not having him around, it’s different. He’s around, but just not the day-to-day. But Jon has done an excellent job of trying to carve out his thing.”
For months, Scheyer and his assistants — Amile Jefferson, Jai Lucas and Mike Schrage (special assistant to the head coach) — have played a series of intense tennis competitions (Carrawell is recovering from knee surgery) on the courts near the office. There are debates about the tally. Scheyer said he’s been the king of the court during the most recent matches, a respectable achievement since he believes his assistants secretly take lessons.
Lucas, however, disagrees with Scheyer’s recollection. “I’m undefeated,” he said.
The fun battles are Scheyer’s attempt to encourage a work-life balance in a field that has traditionally celebrated the absence of it. He is a husband and father of three, and he wants to ensure he has time for his family in his new role.
It was that approach that convinced Lucas, one of college basketball’s most coveted young assistants, to leave Kentucky and move to Durham. Lucas, whose father is former NBA star and coach John Lucas II, already had deep ties to the area (his parents were born and raised in Durham, N.C., and a local school is named after his grandfather). And Scheyer’s approach to teamwork was too attractive to ignore.
“Working with [Scheyer] and being closer in age, you’re working more collaboratively,” the 33-year-old former standout point guard at Florida and Texas said. “If you’re working with someone like [John Calipari], he doesn’t need any help. What am I going to do for [Calipari] on the basketball side? His stripes are earned. This is something that I also felt would help me in my coaching career in getting to my next step because I do want to be a head coach.”
Scheyer’s personal touch on the program hasn’t diminished Duke’s blueblood reputation, or its chances at future success. In June, he hired Rachel Baker, who worked in sports marketing at both Nike and in the NBA, to help players capitalize on name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities.
The talent pipeline hasn’t gone dry since Krzyzewski’s retirement, either. Duke enters this season with the No. 1 incoming recruiting class, per ESPN. The 2023 recruiting class will feature four top 16 players. He has an edge in the future battle for Cameron Boozer, the No. 1 player in the 2025 class and also the son of former Duke star Carlos Boozer.
“I picked Duke for a couple of reasons,” Dereck Lively, a 7-foot-1 freshman center and projected draft lottery pick, said. “My relationship with the recruits coming in, and the relationship I had with Coach Scheyer. I really just love the fact he was able to be real with me. I was able to put my trust in him.
“Also, coming to Duke, the situation at Duke. It’s a new era. All the spotlight is going to be on us. Everyone will be doubting us.”
They won’t doubt the potential.
Together, Lively and Roach are a pick-and-roll nightmare. Dariq Whitehead, another incoming freshman and projected lottery pick who is recovering from foot surgery but expected to be available for the bulk of the season, is an elite wing and scorer.
While this team has talent, it doesn’t look like some of Duke’s most imposing squads from the past, with a go-to star who can do whatever he wants on the floor. That’s fine with Scheyer, who won a national title in 2010 with a group that did not feature any lottery picks.
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“We have a lot of versatility on this team,” he said. “We have a lot of unselfishness, really good passing. I don’t know if we have one guy that just, you give the ball to him and get out of their way. Which is also exciting, at the same time, because we have to score together.”
As Scheyer instructed his first Duke team last month, NBA All-Star Jayson Tatum entered the gym with his son, Deuce. Tatum was there for a workout as he prepares for his sixth NBA season.
As he took shots from different spots around the court and spoke with current players, there were whispers in the gym. From a corner entrance, the facility’s namesake — who coached Tatum during the 2016-17 season — walked onto the court, grabbed the young NBA star’s shoulder and talked to him.
After about 15 minutes, Coach K left the court and entered the weight room, watching from behind a window as Scheyer continued practice. There was the sound of shoes squeaking across the floor as Scheyer stopped a play to show his team the proper way to come off a high screen.
Krzyzewski did not speak with Scheyer or any players. He had no interest in making a scene. He just observed in silence, and then, he left.
“It’s a challenge because there is so much noise and for us, I’m sure anything I do will be criticized,” Scheyer said.
“Bring it on. I know that it comes with the territory. But it’s the same thing for our guys. Blocking out the noise, playing for each other, and I really believe good things will happen.”
DURHAM, N.C. — Jon Scheyer had to climb the steps.