An Ode to Jon Scheyer

Saturday’s Duke-UNC game was the best Senior Night Cameron Indoor Stadium has seen in at least five years. And not just because the Blue Devils got their first home win against the Tar Heels since Tyler Hansbrough entered UNC, and not just because Duke got its most lopsided win in the last 45 years of the rivalry. Those were important, of course, but not as important as the last game in Cameron for Jon Scheyer, the best player to graduate Duke since J.J. Redick.

Scheyer’s career as a Dukie has been a turbulent one. His freshman year saw the embarrassing first-round loss to VCU, and his second year saw him lose his spot in the starting lineup. Midway through his junior year, he was asked to move to point guard, a position—as we were constantly reminded on every broadcast—that was not natural for him.

Most of all, though, Scheyer’s time at Duke, at this point, has become—fairly or not—recognized as Duke’s fall from the national stage. Scheyer saw the VCU loss, the near-upset to Belmont, the embarrassment to West Virginia, the blowout against Villanova, not to mention last year’s route at the hands of Clemson. And unlike Greg Paulus, a player also associated with (and probably more representative of) Duke’s “fall”, Scheyer was never part of a dominant Duke regular season team. In Scheyer’s four years, Duke has had the #1 ranking for a total of one week (and a winless one at that)—fewer than any four year player at Duke since before the days of Christian Laettner.

In many ways, Scheyer has become representative of Duke’s new perception: Unintimidating, but effective. Scheyer doesn’t wow fans with any one skill: He’s not the sharpshooter that Redick was; he doesn’t dunk like Gerald Henderson did; he doesn’t handle the ball as well as a lot of point guards, or blow by defenders off the dribble. But Scheyer has handled his role—whether it be shooting guard, sixth man, or starting point guard—with surprising aplomb.

Throughout his career, Scheyer has been the most consistent and reliable player on the Duke roster. He’s averaged over 11.5 points per game in all four of his seasons. He’s been one of the most impressive free throw shooters in the ACC since entering, shooting 85% through all four years. Most importantly, he’s done what the team has needed. Moved to the bench during his sophomore year, Scheyer provided the spark of energy and offense that he was asked for as a reserve—his scoring fell by only half a point per game, despite losing over five minutes of playing time. In that year’s most memorable Duke win, a last-second win over Clemson, it was a brilliant pass from Scheyer that set up David McClure’s buzzer-beater. When Gerald Henderson blossomed as the team’s best offensive weapon, Scheyer became the guy who fed him alley-oops, as well as the team’s secondary option. And when the team asked him to play to point guard, he rose to the challenge.

I’ve praised Scheyer as a point guard before, but I think his transition to the position was by far the most impressive thing about his career. I remember when Coach K shook up the lineup midway through last season, benching Greg Paulus in favor of Eliot Williams, and seemingly ditching a point guard altogether. I was sure the move would backfire. You can’t play point guard by committee, I thought, or ask someone without experience to play that position. And yet Scheyer rose to the challenge with surprisingly few growing pains, a move he made without enough recognition.

While watching Duke games this season, I’ve heard countless analysts make the point that “Duke doesn’t really have a point guard.” Scheyer is, in their eyes, a point guard “in name only.” Coach K and Scheyer himself have propagated this misconception by insisting that the term “point guard” is meaningless.*

*Coach K’s mentor Bobby Knight, during one game this season, even went so far as saying “I’ve never really known what a point guard is,” which is kind of like Barack Obama admitting he doesn’t know how to read.

This is crazy. Jon Scheyer is absolutely Duke’s point guard, and the mere fact that that isn’t his natural position shouldn’t blind people to that. Scheyer controls the pace of the offense. He sets up guys like Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Recently, he’s even started making entry passes to Brain Zoubek! His assist-to-turnover ratio is the best in the ACC. What more does this guy have to do to be considered a point guard?

Part of the unwillingness to accept Scheyer as a point guard surely comes from his lack of natural skills that point guards need. He doesn’t have the speed of Ty Lawson or John Wall, or the ball-handling ability of Ishmael Smith, or the jumping ability of Nolan Smith. But Scheyer knows how to succeed in spite of that. For someone who is “not fast,” Scheyer gets to the basket an awful lot—largely because of his ability to catch defenders out of position. For someone who is not a gifted ball-handler, he hardly ever turns the ball over—largely because of his constant mindfulness of where the defenders are. For someone who can’t jump, Scheyer scores over a lot of bigger defenders—largely because of his ability to take shots at odd and unnatural angles.

Perhaps the most representative Jon Scheyer play came in last week’s loss to Maryland: He caught his defender off-guard and stepped by him to take a mid-range jump shot, but a bigger defender helped over for the block. Scheyer, already in mid-air, changed the angle of his shot. He didn’t do it gracefully, like Michael Jordan against the Lakershe was practically back on the ground by the time the shot got off, and he ended up releasing from about his shoulder—but the shot banked in. It wasn’t flashy, but it was effective.

But it’s probably fitting that Scheyer, who may win the ACC Player of the Year, remains underappreciated. It’s a little strange that Scheyer hasn’t warranted the typical animosity that is directed at Duke’s Token White Star. He seemed like the most likely candidate to replace the departed Paulus (who replaced Redick, who replaced Mike Dunleavy, who replaced Bobby Hurley, who replaced Christian Laettner, who replaced Danny Ferry), given his race, lack of imposing athleticism, and his tendency to contort his face as if he were in agony while playing. And while he has received some flak, it hasn’t reached normal Duke levels, largely because of Scheyer’s ability to fly under the radar.

It was fitting, then, that on his Senior Night, Scheyer almost flew under the radar again. He wasn’t the high scorer—Kyle Singler was—and he didn’t have the flashiest plays—Nolan Smith did. But when he was pulled from the game and the crowd at Cameron gave him their ovation, it was clear that it was his night. After four years of doing what he needed to do to make his teammates, and his team, better, it was time for Scheyer to take center stage.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on March 10, 2010 at 11:56 AM

    Scheyer has been a pretty, pretty, pretty good player, and has been someone who has sacrificed for the team. He also represents the future of Duke basketball, as Coach K has made it clear that he is not looking for players who want to go right to the pros. In summation, Duke will be pretty, pretty, and sometimes not so pretty good in the future, but I can’t see them dominating like they did in the ’80s and ’90s. This is a bad thing and a good thing. The bad is obvious. However, I do think it is important to maintain the integrity of the program as well as the school.

    What is going to be interesting is, at the same time, Duke has to recruit aggressively for football to be competitive. What compromises will be made, that will anybody’s guess.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on March 10, 2010 at 1:32 PM

      The idea that Coach K won’t recruit players who want to go straight to the pros is overblown: He went hard after Patrick Patterson, Greg Monroe, John Wall, and Harrison Barnes–all guys who were supposed to be one-and-done players. Heck, even Josh McRoberts was projected to leave after his freshman year (although everyone seemed to overestimate how good he was). The bigger problem isn’t his unwillingness, but his lack of success recruiting probable NBA stars. Players who want to go to the NBA–fairly or unfairly–don’t trust Coach K to develop them into stars, since Duke has had so many high-profile NBA busts (How you can blame Coach K for Jason Williams crashing his motorcycle is a whole other issue, though).

      Reply

      • Posted by doc on March 11, 2010 at 11:33 AM

        Interesting commentary John, but I do see a difference in Coach K’s recruiting in the past 5 years or so. By the way, it was a wonderful thing that Josh McRoberts left Duke. I thought he was a very limited player. Even Zubek exceeds him now. Now, McRoberts has no degree and is averaging 3 1/2 points/ game in the pros. What a bright future!

        Reply

  2. Posted by Wey on March 13, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    I’ll take that future at 825K a year…

    Reply

    • Posted by doc on March 13, 2010 at 7:39 PM

      Yeah, I thought of that Wey, but money goes surprisingly fast and the average NBA career is less than 5 years. I am sure McRoberts, with his limited Duke education, may not have the best accounting skills. On the other hand, there’s always seems to be room for a big, white, slow, uneducated, back-up power forward with a 61% free throw percentage in the NBA.

      Reply

  3. Posted by doc on March 14, 2010 at 6:18 PM

    Jon Scheyer had his “Duke Moment ” today with that 3 pointer to seal the ACC Championship. Good for him. Here’s some interesting stuff ESPN.

    “According to Doug Gottlieb of ESPN, Scheyer “is probably not an NBA player, but his Jewish faith allows him to get an Israeli passport and he would be one of the most coveted players EVER for a team like Maccabi Tel Aviv.”[

    David Thorpe, ESPN’s resident expert on NBA rookies and noted trainer of NBA prospects, differs with Gottlieb. He notes most NBA teams would benefit by having Scheyer on their team as a sixth man. Chad Ford, ESPN’s draft expert, rates Scheyer within the top-60 NBA prospects.”

    Reply

  4. […] of the blog Ben Cohen profiles previous subject of the blog (and we wish one day friend of the blog) Jon […]

    Reply

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