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The last five MVPs of the McDonald's High School All-American Game include three players-- LeBron James, Dwight Howard and J.R. Smith--who never set foot on a college basketball court and have contracts and endorsements worth a combined $200 million, or nearly the gross domestic product of Tonga.
And the other two MVPs, J.J. Redick and Josh McRoberts? Let's just say they enjoy rewarding but slightly less lucrative gigs. After a late October practice Redick, a Duke senior, and McRoberts, a freshman, are motoring down Erwin Road in Durham, N.C., their oversized frames jammed into the front seats of Redick's 2001 Toyota Corolla. As they make the leafy milelong journey from Cameron Indoor Stadium to East Campus, home to the freshman dorms, Redick cranks up Journey's Don't Stop Believin' while doing his duty as college hoops' most recognizable chauffeur. "It seems like J.J.'s always driving me around," says the 6'10" McRoberts, his knees up near his chin, "and I'm always paying for his gas."
Rules are rules, after all, and carpooling is just one of the customs that might collectively be called the Duke Way. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski has never allowed his freshmen to have cars on campus, the better to build their ties with the team's upperclassmen and, as assistant coach Johnny Dawkins puts it, "create help situations and trust, all the things we're going to use on the court." The notion may seem quaint, but it works. "That five to 10 minutes a day is easy bonding time, and Josh has become one of my best friends," says Redick, who took McRoberts home with him to Roanoke, Va., and visited the freshman at his home in Carmel, Ind., over the fall break.
Whether they make a return trip to the Hoosier State and cut down the nets at next April's Final Four in Indianapolis will depend largely on whether the nation's best senior class (led by All-Americas Redick and Shelden Williams) can persuade the country's most decorated freshman class to embrace the Duke Way. "That's the key thing," says Coach K, who counts only one sophomore (guard DeMarcus Nelson) and no juniors among his top 10 players. "The things we do are so ingrained in these seniors, but for half the team it's their first time. It really puts a lot of pressure on the older guys to teach."
After coming up short of a national title the past three years (the last two times as No. 1 seeds), Duke's six seniors can't wait around for all five scholarship rookies to ease into the college game. "We don't have time for some of those guys to go through the same ups and downs we did," says Redick.
Adds Krzyzewski, laying down the challenge that could define his team's season, "The freshmen are going to have to win some games for us." To get to that point they must pass through a fascinating process of discovery that's unfolding day by day, practice by practice, cramped car ride by cramped car ride.
IN SOME WAYS Duke's freshmen appear to have been assembled as much by a diversity-seeking admissions director as by a Hall of Fame basketball coach. "I don't think we could get a more different group of five people," says forward McRoberts, a smooth Midwesterner with eye-popping athleticism who most likely would have been the first high school player drafted had he chosen to turn pro. "For a big guy he has incredible ball skills," says Krzyzewski, "and he understands the game the way Christian Laettner and Danny Ferry did." When the Blue Devils, including the incoming freshmen, gathered to watch the NBA draft, their eyes widened at some of the prep-to-pro picks. "Probably every college team in the country watches [the draft] and thinks, Man, that could have been one of us, but I always saw myself playing college basketball," says McRoberts, who will start for Duke immediately.
As agonizing decisions go, that was almost as hard as the one that faced Greg Paulus. A 6'1" point guard at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, he was New York State's Mr. Basketball--and also happened to be one of the nation's top-rated quarterback. Paulus could have played both sports at Notre Dame, but in the end he opted for the Blue Devils, promising Krzyzewski that he would focus on hoops. "I love the camaraderie of football," Paulus says, "but basketball is where my heart is."
For now Paulus will have to settle for quarterbacking during the basketball team's touch-football games and competing with senior Sean Dockery for the starting point guard spot. Noting Paulus's confidence, Redick predicts the freshman will succeed him as "most hated Duke player" by opposing fans. But Redick also sees him as "the next great Duke point guard," not least because of Paulus's court vision. Indeed, one great advantage Paulus may have is that the Duke offense is based less on set plays than on the kind of reads a quarterback must make on the gridiron (box, page 59).
The other freshmen will come off the bench, but Coach K says they'll get significant playing time in a rotation that goes 10 deep. Martynas Pocius, a 6'4" guard from Lithuania by way of the Holderness School in Plymouth, N.H., may be the Blue Devils' quickest player, and his relentless style has inspired some to compare him with Manu Ginobili. "I'll never have to tell Marty to take it strong," Krzyzewski says.