Fresh Start

November 30, 2007

The big three: the newest Devil hoopsters—King, Singler, and Smith, from left—followed similar paths to get to Coach K Court

 

Jon Gardiner

Duke's three newest basketball players spent their summer together on campus, getting acclimated to college life and joining their new Blue Devil teammates in a series of get-acquainted pickup games. The talented trio shared a dorm room and, for the most part, they enjoyed their living arrangement.

But freshman forward Taylor King did create one awkward moment. "Taylor almost burned down the room," Kyle Singler says. "He tried to cook some noodles in the microwave in a plastic cup and no water. I swear, the room still smells like burned noodles."

King, a 6-6, 230-pounder from Huntington Beach, California, may not be a maestro in the kitchen, but he's a deadly shooter with the same kind of range that made J.J. Redick '06 such an awesome offensive force. Nolan Smith, a 6-2, 180-pound guard from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, is the son of a former Louisville and NBA basketball standout and the first two-time captain in the history of the famed Oak Hill Academy program. Singler, a 6-8, 220-pounder from Medford, Oregon, is a well-rounded forward with a game that has inspired sports writers in the Northwest to invoke comparisons with Adam Morrison and Larry Bird.

Before coming to Duke, the three freshmen knew each other from the summer AAU circuit. They played together on USA Basketball's 2006 Under-18 National team and spent a week together in Louisville for the McDonald's All-America game.

But like many first-years, Singler says it's taken time to get used to living with his roommates. "It's a different experience, being away from home and living with two other guys in one room," he says. "You've got to keep the room clean."

The three freshmen share an off-court interest in other forms of competition, especially pool, Ping-Pong, and video games. Singler claims superiority in the first two competitions, but concedes, diplomatically, "Taylor's not bad on the video games. Nolan's pretty good, too."

Coach Mike Krzyzewski is more concerned with their ability on the basketball court. "They're three talented kids," he says. "Each of our kids won championships. They bring some intangibles that I like a lot."

Smith, whose Oak Hill team won the national championship last season, believes that his experience at the prep basketball powerhouse helped prepare him for the jump to ACC basketball competition.

"I think being at Oak Hill will make it a smooth transition," he says, pointing out that as a junior he battled UNC-bound point guard Ty Lawson in practice every day, while as a senior he went up against Brandon Jennings (the top-rated point guard in the Class of 2008) and Kentucky-bound Alex Legion.

"At regular high schools, I don't think you get that opportunity to play against other D-1 point guards every practice. Every practice up there was a competition."

Smith tested his skills this summer in pickup games with Duke's returning players, matching up against junior Greg Paulus at point guard. "Me and Greg, we're competitors who make each other better," he says.

King's long experience as one of the nation's premier recruiting prospects helped prepare him for the pressure of playing big-time college basketball. The young forward first found himself in the spotlight as an eighth-grader, when he was rated the number-one junior-high-school player in the country. He earned even more early scrutiny when he committed to UCLA before the start of his ninth-grade season at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California.

"They said, 'We want to make history and make you the youngest player ever to commit to a Division I college,'" King says. When he changed his mind two years later and reopened his recruiting, it made him a marked man in southern California prep circles. Tensions reached a head when Mater Dei faced a team from Lake Oswego, Oregon, which featured prep All-American—and UCLA recruit—Kevin Love.

"Every UCLA fan in the world was there," King says. "They booed me in my gym. I'm definitely prepared after what I went through in high school. I like stuff like that. It makes me play better. It makes me play with more energy. It excites me."

Singler was also tested by Love. His four-year rivalry with the powerful big man was the Oregon prep equivalent of Russell versus Chamberlain or Bird versus Johnson.

"It was kind of a blown-up thing," Singler says of the heated rivalry with Love. "But it was good for basketball in Oregon. You don't see two players like Kevin and me go through [high school] together."

But will Singler and his roommates be ready for the ACC rivalries they will face this season—including their first exposure to the Duke-Carolina phenomenon?

"I just want to be on that court, helping Duke basketball to keep the tradition rolling," Smith says. "Last year, it wasn't a down season, but it wasn't the best season they've had. I just want to get us back to the ACC championship this year, beat Carolina two times, and [go] far in the tournament."

—Featherston is a Durham-based freelance writer.