DURHAM — Jon Scheyer took the wheel of the Duke basketball program in April and didn’t take long to make an unexpected sharp turn.
The head coach-in-waiting for 11 months while Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski took one last year at the helm, Scheyer had plenty of time to make a smooth transition into the big chair on the sideline.
In one move, Scheyer showed that “smooth transition” didn’t necessarily mean “more of the same.”
The longtime assistant inherited Krzyzewski’s coaching staff, but he had two positions to fill — his own, since he was moving up from associate head coach, and the one vacated by Nolan Smith, who left to take a job at Louisville.
Scheyer filled one spot quickly with Amile Jefferson, a former team captain under Krzyzewski. Jefferson was the 11th straight assistant coach position that Duke had filled with a former player, dating back to 1996. The answer to the trivia question is Tim O’Toole — a Duke assistant for one season and the last non-Blue Devil alum on the staff for the next quarter century.
Just when it seemed that Scheyer was going to do his best Coach K imitation, he filled the second open spot on the staff — Kentucky assistant Jai Lucas.
The son of longtime NBA player and coach — and University of Maryland product — John Lucas, Jai played at Florida and Texas and began his coaching career with the Longhorns before joining John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky.
Lucas is considered a rising star in the coaching profession, a strong recruiter who played a role in many of Calipari’s high-profile signings over the past few seasons.
Scheyer delivered a message to fans and foes alike: This is not your father’s Blue Devils. He established himself as his own man, ready to take the program in his own direction. In addition to bringing in an outsider, he also fired a torpedo into Calipari’s staff — a frequent competitor for the country’s elite recruits.
“I’m very fortunate to have Chris [Carrawell in his fifth year on the staff] and Amile,” Scheyer said. “I coached Amile for four years. We’ve been really close and the fact he’s been with me this past year. Chris, obviously me and him have amazing history together. They know me. … But getting a different perspective, I think, is really important. Other people do great things too, and so for Jai, that adds an incredible amount of value.”
Carrawell, who coached in several other spots before returning to his alma mater, may have helped show Scheyer the value of having an outside voice.
“That’s the most important thing that we want,” Carrawell said. “I thought it helped me coming back. The fact that I was able to coach in the D League, be at Marquette for four years, coming back into it when I was in meetings, talking from my perspective and just not one perspective which you could get into sometimes.”
It’s also something that hasn’t happened at Duke since Carrawell was a freshman, long before anyone on the current roster was born.
“The outside perspective is something that’s never happened,” Lucas said. “So you didn’t think it was going to happen. I think it’s a testament to Coach Scheyer, what he’s trying to do and where he’s trying to grow the program. It’s a big thing. It’s never been done, but it just shows that he’s in the right seat and the right situation to do it because he’s trying to find a way to continue to advance Duke to be more.”
At an average age of 35 years old, Scheyer, Carrawell, Lucas and Jefferson comprise one of the youngest coaching staffs in college basketball, and they enter the season with two games of head coaching experience — both interim jobs by Scheyer after Coach K suffered illnesses.
Scheyer addressed that weakness by hiring Elon head coach Mike Schrage — a longtime member of Coach K’s support staff — to a special assistant role. While Schrage won’t be a full assistant, he will be available to do, as he puts it, “Whatever (Scheyer) needs.”
Schrage’s coaching experience should help Scheyer adjust to his new role.
“Just time management,” Schrage said, “never getting too high or too low. … Just balancing your schedule and how you process things is so important because the reality is he’s done so much with this program as a player and assistant coach, it is different now as the head coach.”
From his first moves in his new job, Scheyer is underscoring just how different things will be at Duke. After 40-plus years, there’s going to be a bit of a shake-up at old Cameron Indoor.
“It’s already been built on a great foundation by Coach K, and he’s trying to find a way to make it his own and take it to the next step,” Lucas said of Scheyer. “He’s thinking the right way, and he’s not afraid of rocking the boat a little bit to go with his vision and what he sees.”