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Of Austin Rivers, Tyler Thornton, Blue Devils and Leaders

What makes a good leader on the basketball court? Is it simply the ability to score a lot of points or put up impressive statistics? Perhaps it is the ability to make a game winning shot in the final seconds or put the team on your shoulders when it needs you.

Most people  probably feel that sounds like a pretty good description but for me it doesn’t necessarily fit the bill.  The above certainly describes a very talented person who is clearly motivated to win, but I argue that some of the best leaders in history, in basketball or otherwise, may not have been the most talented.

Lets look back at the year that was for an example. I have written numerous times that Duke didn’t have a real on court leader all season, though they did have a player who was pretty much the type player that I talked about above. That guy was Austin Rivers.

He was a fabulous player as a freshman leading the team in scoring, and essentially among the team leaders in several other categories. But to me he never established himself as the team’s leader.

To me, a leader is a guy that can bring out the best in his teammates and those that surround him. The one that can motivate his team when they are down, who can keep them up instead of slipping into cruise control; a guy that is just as intense whether he is starting or coming off the bench.

Duke in its history has had several guys that fit that bill. Sometimes they are the team’s best player and sometimes not. I think of a guy like Steve Wojciechowski. When he played at Duke he wasn’t the most talented player by a long shot but by the time he was a junior and senior he was an unmistakable leader.

This past season Duke did not have that guy. Rivers for all his talent never essentially did what I think a leader should do. Now that isn’t a knock on Rivers, he was a freshman and freshman typically never become leaders. When he had the ball in his hands you liked Duke’s chances but you kind of knew it was all up to him.

Other players didn’t rise to his level and the games became about watching him work. Duke played fabulous in some games as a team, got a big lead and then let it slip away: Think the last Wake Forest game. In other games Duke would look flat and not rise to the challenge or suffer adversity and never respond: Think about any of their seven loses.

A leader I argue would not allow that to happen. You might lose some games but not necessarily in the fashion that the Blue Devils lost some of their games this past season.

I had hopes that Rivers’ talent would force others to rise up but it never did. Again, not a knock on Rivers but a reality that a great player, doesn’t necessarily mean he will be seen as the team’s leader or have the same effect as one.

In our latest episode of Another Blue Devil Podcast Jim Oliver and I discussed a question he had asked on Twitter regarding who would be the team’s leader next year. There was a myriad or responses and mostly the answers were guy’s whose names you’d expect to hear: Mason Plumlee–check; Ryan Kelly–check– Seth Curry–check.

But I began to wonder if again we might be expecting the most talented players to be the leader(s). The first person who came to my mind was Tyler Thornton. As maligned as he is as a player at times, I feel he has all the makings of a good team leader.

He is respected by his teammates. They seem to listen to him and I think as a junior he can and will demand respect. He is clearly respected by the coaching staff who believe in his abilities.

He isn’t the most talented player, not by a long shot, but he is a guy that can make the guys around him better. It may seem odd for me to pick him considering there is a possibility he may not even start next season, but I just like his intensity. I like the fact he took great exception to the loss to Lehigh and was the guy who was the most vocal about the subsequent practice that he called the hardest of the season.

Granted I hated to hear that the most intense practice came after the season was over but it is better to hear that than hearing the team pouted and sat around doing nothing but feeling sorry for themselves.

It is going to be a long off season and the players that are remaining from this past year’s team have a lot of soul searching to do, because while 27-7 isn’t bad, a first round NCAA Tournament loss to a 15-seed is simply an embarrassment that will be hard pressed to forget.

Next season is going to be a challenging one, with the loss of Rivers, the most talented player. As of now there isn’t going to be a guy like him, but that might not be a bad thing. Duke, I would expect, will get back to playing more as a team and improving on defense and I think there is a chance they could be better. But they are going to need a leader.

Whether it ends up being Thornton or someone else, the Blue Devils cannot go another season without a team leader. They need that guy that won’t allow them to sulk when things go south or get complacent when things are going well. They need a guy that will set a fire under them and keep it burning.

This season it seemed like that guy was Mike Krzyzewski, but that is his nature as coach, but Duke needs that guy on the court. At 65, I doubt Krzyzewski could get out on the court and run with the team; plus he has used all his eligibility.  So the Blue Devils will need someone, anyone, to step up and be that guy.

This year the team was burdened with a roster full of players, aside from Rivers, that had never had to be “the guy,” and perhaps it took a year like this one to help those guys realize that they all have to step up play together and expect the best from each other game in and game out.

A real leader will expect and demand that, so here is hoping that guy figures out who he is and makes it happen for next season.