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Monday, November 28, 2022

Duke’s new king: Jon Scheyer’s journey to one of basketball’s biggest jobs

While the majority of students were waking up to head to class on a fall morning in Northbrook, Illinois in 2004, the lights were on at the gym at Glenbrook North High School as the sun rose. Inside the facility, 17-year-old Jon Scheyer began what became a daily routine, getting shots up and starting his day with basketball.

A full school day came next, followed by the team’s practice, which went to roughly 6 p.m. Scheyer and his teammates headed back to their homes, and while the day began to wind down for most high school kids, he still had work to do. His mother, Laury, had dinner on the table and conversation ensued with her and his father, Jim. After homework assignments, the day finished the way it started — with the orange ball and the smooth sound of nylon. 

Scheyer would hop in the car to head to nearby Bannockburn Health Club and Gym to close the day with a workout on the hardwood.  

He had one thing on his mind: win a high school state championship for his community. That’s what his roots meant to him, and after a third-place finish as a freshman and an Elite Eight run as a sophomore, coming up short of a title was what he was on the chase for every day.

Scheyer worked his way to becoming a high school star at Glenbrook North High School. Here, he is pictured competing during the Nike Camp at Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) on July 6, 2005. (Photo by Jay Drowns/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

The relentless pursuit of a goal that he reached at Glenbrook North in his junior year can best be summed up by one night between Scheyer and his AAU coach Scott Lidskin. It was after 11 p.m., and Scheyer was not going to head home until he made 50 consecutive free throws.

“We’ve been here for two hours, and you want to make 50 in a row?” Lidskin said with a look of disbelief.  

Scheyer nodded, and went to work. He made 30, then a shot rimmed out. He had a round of 25 straight, then an in-and-out. Scheyer’s vision didn’t change. He didn’t change his goal once adversity hit. He only intensified. The next round: 49 straight makes.  

“Naturally, he misses the 50th,” Lidskin said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Alright, let’s go home, Jon.’ He stared at me and went, ‘No chance. No chance.”

About 20 minutes later, Scheyer hit 50 straight. He couldn’t head to bed without that fulfillment. 

“The No. 1 thing about Mike Krzyzewski is that he’s never lost because he’s been outworked or out-prepared,” Scheyer told FOX Sports. “He is a machine because of the level of routine that he’s been able to achieve. The amount of work he does, it can be matched but it can never be beat.”

Oh, the irony. Scheyer himself has to outwork everyone. It’s in his DNA. And it’s why those closest to Scheyer are confident that he will succeed. It’s why they believe the 35-year-old is built to handle one of the toughest coaching takeovers in sports history — succeeding the great Coach K at Duke

*** *** *** 

There were plenty of avenues for Scheyer to take for his high school playing days, but he had pride in where he came from and wanted to deliver hardware to Northbrook. He went to Glenbrook North, where he was coached by Scott Weber, the brother of then-Illinois head coach Bruce Weber.

That connection, as well as being labeled the “Jewish Jordan” in high school, led to plenty of intrigue about where he would end up. Recruiting database 247 Sports pegged the 6-foot-4 guard as a four-star prospect just outside the Top 40.

But before all the praise and fandom poured in for Scheyer, his career began with doubters and criticism. 

As a freshman in 2002, Scheyer was getting a lot of buzz entering the Proviso West High School Holiday Tournament. The gym was packed to see him, but Scheyer actually had a poor outing to start the tournament weekend. The next morning, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a piece advising folks to pump the brakes on Scheyer as a prospect.  

“I woke up and read the piece and said, ‘Oh no’ because I knew Jon was going to read that and go crazy,” Scott Weber told FOX Sports. “Jon’s dad came to me and said he was really upset. Well, that reporter ended up getting thanked (by me) because of how wrong he was. Jon led us the rest of the season and was absolutely phenomenal. And that reporter? He came around sheepishly because he knew he had it all wrong about Jon.”

Scheyer takes rich pride in his upbringing and the early challenges he faced there, making him who he is today.  

“The roots in Illinois, they’re everything to me,” Scheyer said. “I don’t think there’s a better place in the country to grow up with the game of basketball. You had [at that time] Derrick Rose, Patrick Beverley, Evan Turner, Jeremy Pargo, Jerome Randle. For me, growing up and playing against those guys, it gave you a certain level of competition. You also are going to get your butt kicked at times, and you have to fight through adversity, which is something you’re going to see if you’re going to make it to the highest level.”

Weber said he recognized that pride and loyalty early in Scheyer, because that’s who he was at Glenbrook North with his teammates.

“He would do anything in his power to play with his teammates,” Weber said. “One time during the summer, Jon was participating in a high school developmental camp for top recruits across the country. The day after, our team was playing at a summer tournament. Jon wrapped the camp, hopped on a red-eye plane, landed in Chicago, ate something and met us at the tournament. You would never see that from a top recruit nowadays. But his teammates were his best friends, and he always cared about them. Even in his senior year, he cared so much about his team. Jon was just so graceful. Even the opposing team’s fans rooted for him. I got booed for taking him out of a game one time when we were up 30 because people loved the way he played the game because he played for his teammates.”

When it came to Scheyer’s recruitment, the buzz only increased after he led Glenbrook North to a state championship as a junior in 2005. Meanwhile, the University of Illinois was on a parallel path, advancing all the way to the national championship game that April. North Carolina found a way to win the title with a 75-70 victory, a game that Scott Weber still believes to this day played a part in Scheyer’s decision as he narrowed his options down to the Illini, Arizona, Wisconsin and Duke.

“I swear to God, if they had won that championship game, I think Jon would have gone to Illinois,” Weber said. “Of course, it’s my brother and I wanted Jon to go there to play for him. But look at how it’s turned out. It worked out so well for him.”

*** *** *** 

It didn’t necessarily start great for Scheyer at Duke, as his four-year playing career in Durham featured its share of adversity. He was named an All-ACC Freshman, but the Blue Devils scuffled to an 8-8 record in the conference, losing four straight games to close the season, including a heartbreaking defeat to 11th-seeded VCU in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. 

The following year, Scheyer was the sixth man on a 28-6 squad, but the Blue Devils lost out on the regular season title to North Carolina and failed to make it out of the first weekend of the Big Dance. The following year, it was a similar script, though this time Duke reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Villanova. Through three seasons, Scheyer had not reached the heights he dreamed of when he first walked into Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Everything came together in his senior season, though, as he put together an All-American campaign and lead the Blue Devils to a national championship, averaging 18.2 points and 4.9 assists along the way. He climbed the mountaintop and etched his place in a blue blood’s history books. 

Scheyer (second from left), coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils celebrate after beating Butler in the national championship game on April 5, 2010 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

 Scheyer went into the 2010 NBA Draft with some momentum, and he was projected as a second-round pick by multiple outlets.

But two months later, the road got bumpy. Scheyer went undrafted but agreed to a deal with the Miami Heat’s summer league team. In the first action in Las Vegas, he hit the game-winning shot. In the second matchup, everything turned for the worse in an improbable fashion. 

Scheyer was poked in the eye by Golden State’s Joe Ingles, but it was not just any casual basketball injury. The setback was life-changing, as the optic nerve in Scheyer’s right eye was avulsed and he suffered a tear to his retina. Just when it looked like his career was about to get going at the next level, Scheyer found himself in a hospital bed, wondering if he would ever be able to play at the same level.

Even at such a low point, a one-eyed Scheyer’s competitive edge was unleashed as he got bored in his room sitting around with family and friends. 

“Let’s play Monopoly,” Scheyer said.  

“The guy was having eye surgery. He was having trouble seeing everything, and he still had to do something competitive,” Lidskin recalled with a laugh. “He was not going to have it — this ‘woe is me’ mentality — so we all started playing. He lost a game, and he took it personally. We kept playing Monopoly until he won. That’s how it went with Jon. He’s the most intense competitor I’ve ever been around. I got to a point where whether it was basketball or a board game, I contemplated not playing him because I knew he was going to beat me. If he didn’t, we would have to play again.”

Following the eye surgery, Scheyer dealt with headaches and had to wear an eye patch. It was a tough road back, and his depth perception was changed. In February 2011, after recovering throughout the fall and winter, Scheyer agreed to a contract with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Houston Rockets’ D-League team.

Naturally, with 16 games left in their season, Scheyer became a staple in the starting lineup and helped lead the Vipers all the way to the D-League championship game.

“It’s pretty wild, because Jon was in a situation where he could have lost his eye, and he was lucky to have his eye, let alone play basketball again,” said Chris Finch, the Vipers’ head coach from 2009-11, who coached Scheyer and is now the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“Jon was such a tough guy. He was a winner, and I think he really enjoyed the NBA game,” Finch continued. “He was always asking us questions, and always trying to get better. He became a constant for us because he had a will to win and to get better. Coaching him after the eye surgery, Jon didn’t have great peripheral vision. He would get hit really hard by screens, and he didn’t have great ability to negotiate screens well. But the guy didn’t let that stop him from competing. His toughness and competitiveness was admirable. That’s hard-wired in him.” 

Scheyer toughed it out for the Vipers, averaging 13.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in his D-League season. That said, if he was going to have a productive next basketball chapter in his professional playing career, it was going to have to come overseas. He agreed to a two-year deal with European League powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv, spending two years in Israel before heading to Gran Canaria in the Spanish League for a season.

The eye injury never allowed Scheyer to find a pathway to the NBA, but it also led him to coach. Had he never suffered the injury, Scheyer’s work ethic might very well have willed him onto a roster in The Association, or at least led him to more success overseas. Instead, his next stop was on the sideline.

Scheyer, playing for Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, defends Jiri Welsch of Belgacom Spirou Basket during a game on Dec. 22, 2011 in Charleroi, Belgium. (Photo by Benoit Bouchez/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

*** *** *** 

It happened like this: Fellow Glenbrook North High School alum Chris Collins, who was instrumental in recruiting Scheyer to Duke, took the Northwestern job in 2013. That opened a spot on Krzyzewski’s staff, and Scheyer became a special assistant to the head coach. The branches of the Coach K tree kept extending in future seasons. Steve Wojciechowski went to Marquette. Jeff Capel went to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, Scheyer stayed put … and kept moving up the ladder.

In March 2021, UNLV and DePaul were among several open jobs in college basketball. Scheyer interviewed for both positions. At DePaul, a program starved for success that had not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2004, Scheyer viewed the opportunity as a homecoming and an opportunity to resurrect a once-proud basketball institution in the days of Ray Meyer. 

“That job was close to home for him, and Jon’s huge on family,” Lidskin said. “He had the mentality that he would turn it around in Chicago. In Jon’s mind, he was going to make DePaul into a national champion.” 

Instead, the Blue Demons hired Tony Stubblefield from Dana Altman’s staff at Oregon. Those around Scheyer say he took it very hard. He felt he was ready to be the head coach of a program, and finalist or not, the schools he talked to went in a different direction. On April 1, reports of the Stubblefield hire became public. At that moment, it looked like misfortune had found Scheyer. Would he ever get his shot to run a program?

Two months later, he was named Krzyzewski’s heir as head coach at Duke. 

“It’s amazing looking back. What a pivotal moment in my life. You think your life is heading in a certain direction, and all of a sudden, you feel disappointment that it didn’t work out. Then, two months later, you’re going this way,” Scheyer said. “But I’ll say this: I don’t know if I get the Duke job if I don’t go through the other searches and push myself to be a head coach. Those searches really prepared me for the interview process at Duke.”

Scheyer’s drive and work ethic was rewarded at a place he had called home since 2006.

Now, he is the most talked-about coach in college basketball entering the 2022-23 campaign. That’s par for the course at Duke, but perhaps especially so when you’re the first new leader the program has had since 1980. 

There’s no shortage of news in Durham, where the Blue Devils sent five players off to the NBA Draft after a run to the Final Four, headlined by No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero. There are questions for Duke to answer, but Scheyer has nailed it on the recruiting circuit. He’s got the No. 1-ranked recruiting classes for this season and the next, already locking up a combined nine five-star recruits.

With Jeremy Roach back to lead the way off an impressive March Madness run, impact transfers Jacob Grandison (Illinois) and Ryan Young (Northwestern) in the fold plus a group of star-studded freshmen, the Blue Devils can contend again. 

There are questions surrounding how Scheyer will handle being a rookie head coach at his alma mater. He understands that comes with the territory, but he also knows he doesn’t have to be anyone different from who he’s been his entire life. Everything he’s been through has made him stronger.

“Any major success that I’ve had in my life, I’ve failed first,” Scheyer said. “You can go to my high school career, my college career or even dating my wife. I got lucky for a second chance with her. As a coach, the first year I was back at Duke, we lost in the first round, and the next year (2015), we won the whole thing. For me, I’ve learned to handle adversity well. It doesn’t mean there’s no anger or frustration, but I do get back up and keep fighting.” 

Ahead of his first season, Scheyer has consulted with people he trusts, including Finch. 

“We talk on the phone quite a bit,” said Finch, who just started his second year with the Timberwolves. “A lot of what we talked about this summer was what it’s like being a first-time head coach. He asked me how I went about organizing my staff. He’s dealing with the question himself of how much he gives his staff to do versus how much he maintains control over. He’s wrestling with all these things, with the focus on how much he includes everyone else in the program and how much he makes his mark on something. It’s a lot of organizing, so we’ve talked through that. It’s a process.

“But I know one thing: Jon is built for this,” Finch continued. “It’s destiny for him to be the head coach at Duke. Most people? They’ll say it’s a lose-lose situation, but I truly believe he is the perfect fit. He’s going to succeed because that’s who he is.” 

*** *** *** 

So, what’s Scheyer’s game plan for a new era of Duke? It entails more than just the cliché of remembering the past.

“We’ve had amazing success, and there are values Coach K has built that we can never lose,” Scheyer said. “For us and for myself, I want to make sure we do things the best way we can without worrying about what we did in the past. Not because it wasn’t amazing, but because you have to do things differently than when Coach K was the head coach.” 

“There are values Coach K has built that we can never lose,” says Scheyer of his predecessor Mike Krzyzewski. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Scheyer did just that in immediate fashion by going outside of Duke’s brotherhood with one of his staff hires, luring 33-year-old recruiting superstar Jai Lucas from John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky. Lucas is the first coaching staff hire to not have played at Duke in more than three decades. 

“Look, ‘The Brotherhood’ is still strong and alive and well,” Scheyer told Andy Katz in a May interview. “We had an opportunity to really take a fresh look, fresh perspective, and talking to Jai, one, you think about the places he’s been, you know, Florida, Texas, Kentucky. Great coaches he’s been around in Coach [John Calipari], and Coach [Rick] Barnes and Coach [Shaka] Smart. I mean, to get that perspective and that experience at his age, it really doesn’t happen.” 

Lucas will only add to the pedigree of the Blue Devils, as Scheyer and his staff, which now has an average age of 37. There’s an age difference of 42 years between Krzyzewski and Scheyer, and with that, a different vibe and philosophical approach.

“How our program looks in 2022 is very different from what it can look like in 2023, ‘24 and ‘25,” Scheyer said. “You have to be adaptable during this time, and you can’t look too far ahead. I want to make sure we do things the best way we can without worrying about what you’ve done in the past. I feel the age that I’m at and the amount of experience I’ve had at Duke allows me to have great perspective and connectivity with our players allows them to have great ownership of what they’re doing, not me having to tell them what they have to do.”

In an ever-changing time in college sports, Scheyer is taking after his predecessor in speaking up about the state of the game.

“All of us need to be advocates for the game we love,” he said. “I grew up loving college basketball, and I love it more than ever today. You look at the NBA and what they’ve done, they enacted the play-in games to prepare for the playoffs, and that’s what we’ve got to do in college basketball. We’ve got to always look for ways to get better. We can’t just sit and stay the same.”

As for how he feels about his first season, in particular, Scheyer’s thought process going into it is parallel to the ladder he’s climbed to reach this point. 

“My whole thing is to stay the course, and to have deep belief in who we can be,” he said. “The reality is, we won’t be the team at the start that we’ll be in five months. It goes back to playing through adversity, and overcoming any setbacks you may have individually or collectively. We have seven freshmen, and any player that’s come through our program, you go through setbacks. How will we stay the course? That’s the key, and we have to get to know one another. We have to learn how to make each other better. There’s no question in my mind we have the right guys. I’m really excited for the challenge.”

As much as it may look very different on the sideline when Duke hits the court this week without Krzyzewski, the program will be led by a man who shares a common thread with his predecessor: a relentless work ethic.  

“This is where I want to be,” Scheyer said. 

“This is where my heart is.”

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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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Nicole Aniston
Nicole loves to write and works as a corporate communications expert by day. She's been working in the field for quite some time now. Her training in media studies has provided her a wide perspective from which to tackle various issues. Public relations, corporate communications, travel, entrepreneurship, insurance, and finance are just few of the many topics she's interested in covering in her work.
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