Duke willing to follow Deng's lead
DURHAM, N.C. -- It's a question being asked nearly as much as: "Who'll win the national championship?"
"Will there be another Carmelo Anthony this season?"
In other words, will a freshman arrive on campus this season and not only be among the nation's best players, but also have the ability to carry his team to the Final Four, let alone the 2004 national title?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
Troy Weaver doesn't think such a player exists in the Class of 2003. And the Syracuse assistant coach should know better than anyone. He recruited Anthony and then coached him during the Orangemen's national championship run last season.
"You'll never get a kid in college as good as Carmelo again," Weaver said. "We were lucky."
If you listen to Duke, however, the Blue Devils are just as lucky this season. While they aren't ready to anoint Luol Deng as the next Carmelo, the descriptions of their 6-foot-8, 220-pound freshman sure sound pretty close to 'Melo.
"He's the best player on our team," said Duke sophomore J.J. Redick. "No question."
Wait a minute, we're talking about Duke, right? The same team that brought in six pretty fair freshmen a year ago, four of whom played in the 2002 McDonald's All-Star Game. A team with enough existing talent such as those four burger boys -- Redick, Michael Thompson, Sean Dockery and Shavlik Randolph -- to make the Blue Devils the No. 2 team in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
"It speaks volumes to how talented Luol is," Redick said. "There's nothing on the court that he can't do. He can go baseline and dunk, step back for a jumper or a 3-pointer. He's still learning and he's got a ways to go, because he's still raw. But he's the most talented."
In any other year, being a highly-touted freshman wouldn't be such a big deal. But in College Basketball A.C. (After Carmelo), the fresh faces of Deng, Leon Powe (California), Charlie Villanueva (Connecticut), Brandon Bass (LSU) and Andrew Bogut (Utah, by way of Australia) arrive with heightened expectations. Anthony raised the bar on what freshmen can do.
The perception is an elite freshman can come in and do what Anthony did in one season.
|2003's Fab Five|
Here's a look at five incoming freshmen expected to have major impacts on their teams in 2003-04:
6-8 | 225 | F
McDonald's All-American and Gatorade Player of the Year in Louisiana averaged 19 ppg, 14 rpg for Baton Rouge's Capitol High as a senior.
6-10 | 233 | F
Named the MVP of the 2003 Junior World Championships leading Australia to the title. Averaged 26.3 ppg, 17.0 rpg in eight games.
6-8 | 220 | F
McDonald's All-American played all five positions at Blair Academy (N.J.), averaging 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists as a senior.
6-8 | 245 | F
McDonald's All-American and Gatorade California Player of the Year averaged 27.4 ppg, 14.2 rpg for Oakland Tech as senior.
6-10 | 220 | F
A teammate of Deng at Blair Academy, where he too was a McDonald's All-American after averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds as senior.
"It doesn't have to be the way Carmelo did it," said Deng, a very astute and self-assured, all-everything wing. "A lot of freshmen will come in and say they can do what Carmelo did, but not everybody is Carmelo Anthony. He was a special player. Syracuse was a great fit for him."
Anthony joined Syracuse a season removed from the NIT. The Orangemen were a team in need of an impact player. Anthony arrived at the right time. His talent was undeniable, but getting an average of 17 shots a game was a big reason he averaged 22.2 points a game.
Deng won't get nearly as many shots, at least on a regular basis. Duke's balanced offense won't demand as much from Deng. The same is true at UConn, where Villanueva joins the preseason No. 1 team with two potential All-Americans -- Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon -- and a frontcourt filled with scorers.
"Deng may be the best freshman, but he won't put up those numbers," Weaver said "It was easy for us to pass the ball over to Anthony because what we were doing the previous year obviously wasn't working."
"The expectations for Luol are high and will be high, but he's a different player than Carmelo," Redick said. "He's very versatile, but he's not going to average 22-23 points a game like Carmelo. He could average 18 and have six boards, though. This is a different situation.
"Carmelo came to Syracuse, and nobody expected them to be one of the top four teams in the country. Maybe there will be more pressure on Luol because we are one of the top teams, but there shouldn't be that (pressure) on him."
If there is, Deng isn't feeling any yet.
Nick Horvath has been at Duke going on five seasons and hasn't seen a freshman any better than Deng. Deng may not be the best shooter, rebounder or defender, but his worth comes from being able to do a bit of everything on the court, and do it very well.
Sophomore Lee Melchionni said Deng's long arms and anticipation make him a great defender who can crash the boards. He also said Deng is an exceptional passer and does more things well like driving and creating for others.
"He could be the type of player who scores 20 points one night and then doesn't score the next but still has an impact on the game," Melchionni said. "It might come as a shock for us to say he's the best player, but coach (Mike Krzyzewski) is telling us those things and he's basing a lot around Luol.
"It's not subtle. He's letting us know he's got big plans for Luol. But he shouldn't feel the same weight that Carmelo felt to carry this team."
"A lot of people expect a lot of things out of me," Deng said. "And I know we'll have a great season. I can bring a lot of versatility and help with the scoring. I know how to put the ball in the hoop."
If there was an Achilles' heel to last season's Duke squad that lost in the Sweet 16, it was the need for another scorer, particularly an inside-out player. To a player, the Blue Devils adamantly feel Deng can be the difference. Sure, Randolph and Williams must produce in the post, but Deng could be "the missing piece," said Horvath.
What may be the most amazing dynamic at Duke, however, is how easily the upperclassmen have pushed Deng to the forefront, while tucking away any of their own egos.
"He's our best player," Duke junior guard Daniel Ewing said. "We have guys accepting that Luol is our best player."
NBA scouts feel the same way and are already looking at Deng as a potential first-round draft pick. Duke picked up another Deng-like talent when Peoria, Ill., point guard Shaun Livingston committed to the Blue Devils this week. But the chances of both players suiting up next season in Cameron are slim. It wouldn't be a surprise if Deng followed the path taken by Anthony, which means Deng could be one-and-done in Durham.
"The reason I came here was because I felt comfortable with the players," Deng said. "I'm not thinking ahead yet. But if I could do what he did in one year, that would be a great thing."
The same feelings exist at Connecticut, Utah, LSU and Cal. Utah coach Rick Majerus is trying to downplay Bogut's potential, but he reportedly turned down a six-figure deal in Europe to play for the Utes. The Australian big man was the MVP of the World Junior Championships in Greece over the summer. He's expected to have a major impact for Utah and lead the Utes back to the NCAA Tournament.
Villanueva has ideas of making his time in Storrs, Conn., short. A teammate of Deng at Blair Academy in New Jersey, he nearly went straight to the NBA out of high school this spring. But scouts are mixed about whether Villanueva has an NBA game. And Villanueva won't find playing time easy to come by at Connecticut (whenever he's deemed eligible by the NCAA).
The Huskies have to find minutes for Rashad Anderson and Denham Brown at small forward and Josh Boone's double figures in boards made him a factor during an exhibition this week. Villanueva is being held out while his eligibility is being reviewed. At issue is how his draft tour was paid for and whether he received any extra benefits prior to college.
Powe has the body to be a factor in the Pac-10. The 6-8, 230-pounder is Cal's highest-touted recruit since Ben Braun took over and is a load inside. He will continue to get more touches as the Bears get comfortable with his play in the post. He'll likely become Cal's primary target in the paint with Amit Tamir as an inside-out threat next to him.
But Powe is quick to push away comparisons to Anthony.
"I don't feel like I have to do what he did," Powe said. "Remember, it wasn't just him. He had Hakim Warrick, too, and they had that tough (zone) defense. They all helped him out and made him look good. Yes, it was every freshman's dream to come in and take a team to the NCAA championship."
Bass was the Louisiana state player of the year as a senior and will share the Tigers' interior with Jaime Lloreda. But the 6-8, 250-pound forward isn't about to put up Anthony-like numbers -- at least not early in the season. "I don't think Brandon Bass is Carmelo Anthony," LSU coach John Brady said. "But we'll play it out and see. He will be very, very good in this league. The expectation level is high here, but I hope they don't expect him to be Shaquille O'Neal, because it's not going to happen.
"But with all that being said, I'd rather have him than worrying about playing against him if he were at, let's say, Alabama."
As a whole, it's impossible to expect this year's class of newcomers to be as deep, talented or impactful as 2002's fabulous freshmen.
Remember, it wasn't just Anthony making headlines last season. Chris Bosh (Georgia Tech) was taken No. 4 overall in the NBA draft. And those who stayed in school make up a "who's who" list of potential All-Americans and all-conference players: Ike Diogu (Arizona State), Craig Smith (Boston College), Daniel Horton (Michigan), Bracey Wright (Indiana), Raymond Felton (North Carolina), Rashad McCants (North Carolina), Sean May (North Carolina), Redick and Randolph, Dee Brown (Illinois), McNamara (Syracuse), Antoine Wright (Texas A&M), Paul Davis (Michigan State), Torin Francis (Notre Dame), Anthony Roberson (Florida), Matt Walsh (Florida), Kennedy Winston (Alabama), Hassan Adams (Arizona), Andre Iguodala (Arizona), Francisco Garcia (Louisville) and Alando Tucker (Wisconsin) ... just to name a few.
Yes, just a few.
"There aren't going to be many Carmelo Anthonys coming through," said Wisconsin freshman center Brian Butch. "That's not going to happen. I think the better example is a player like Paul Davis. He got better as the season went along as a freshman, but he wasn't Carmelo."
But, remember, Davis didn't arrive at Michigan State with the expectations Deng carries, either.
"We were successful because the players accepted that Carmelo could come in and be the main guy," Weaver said. "Coach K is great at getting guys to play well, and Deng could end up being the guy for them. He's the best player on their team."
The Blue Devils are already willing to give Deng a chance to follow Carmelo's path. And, if he is their most talented player, he'll got the nod to take over games. If Deng does so enough times, Duke has a realistic shot to win it all in San Antonio before Deng heads to the lottery.
The next Carmelo? Maybe, just maybe.
Check back in April
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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