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Does the One-and-Done Phenomenon Produce NCAA Winners or Not?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

What Produces Teams in Sync?

In the game of basketball, how important is long-term play with the same guys? Well, every single player is unique in particular ways. One player is lightning quick off the ball in short bursts. Another is great off the dribble. Still another player is tall and thick but with his huge loping strides he’s faster getting down court than most imagine. One point guard likes to throw floating passes while another zips the ball to you like a laser. A post player signals his point and the point knows exactly where to lob it to get a flying dunk. One player is constantly communicating while another is almost silent out on the court. If the quiet guy doesn’t know his teammates, he’s likely to be clueless out there. A team that always plays together can often communicate with almost invisible signals. They foresee every move, every fake, favorite spots to set a pick, favorite places to shoot. As they say, ‘timing is everything.’

You know when a team is in sync because they play so smoothly, so confidently, so effectively. A classic example is Mercer last year in the NCAA tourney. They had a bunch of seniors who’d been playing together for years. And with that confidence they were able to defeat a Duke team that was clearly quicker and more talented than they. How much time does it take for a team to develop that extreme level of efficiency?

Exactly What is Expected of Subs?

There don’t seem to be many coaches anymore who send in two teams, their first unit and their second unit. They tend to send in one or two guys at a time. The new players on the court have to immediately sense the pace and pattern of the game. They have to seamlessly fit into the offense, the speed, the passing, the screens, the defense as a whole and the particular player they are assigned to. And as they instantly integrate themselves into the game, in the back of their minds they’re thinking that coach may only leave them in for 2-5 minutes. They’ve got to do some positive things out there if they expect more game time. So they’re also focused on trying to rebound, shoot, assist, deny a shot, steal—somehow impress coach.

Now that, my friend, is a massive amount of pressure. It’s a wonder that any subs are able to perform excellently under those conditions. Coach Krzyzewski’s philosophy is that any player should be ready at any moment to enter a game and not only do good things but make good things happen. The assumption must be that each Duke player should be so well acquainted with the offensive and defensive plays, so familiar with his fellow-players, that he can pull this off.
Is One-and-Done Good, Bad or Irrelevant?

Years ago, most typical Duke players had three to four years to develop this exceptional team and court awareness. At least by the time they were juniors and seniors they could do amazing things as a full 8-12 man unit. That was challenging but doable. Now the one-and-doners have become more and more common. Not only must they learn the plays and their fellow players in totality in that one year, the four-year guys have to majorly adjust each year to the brand new teammates who have suddenly been injected into the first unit. Regardless of team spirit, human nature says that it’s got to be tough for a senior to see a freshman come in and take his starting role.

I know Coach K has been asked if he thinks the one-year stars have hurt the program at all. His answer was that he’d have to be insane not to welcome the best of the best ballers in the nation if they are interested in coming to Duke. It’s difficult to argue with that logic. However, the last two out of three years Duke has been ousted from the NCAA tournament in the first round. If something like that happens again this year, it may initiate some serious thinking about whether the one-and-done approach has anything to do with this unhappy phenomenon. I’m not drawing any conclusions at all—just posing questions.