Listen courtside and the biggest voices you hear usually come from the smallest guys.
Duke guards Seth Curry, Quinn Cook or Tyler Thornton might be calling out the play as they bring the ball across half court.
Two-guards Andre Dawkins or Austin Rivers could be calling for a foul after being floored on a drive to the basket.
Or the voices you hear might be from the sidelines, as head coach Mike Krzyzewski—a former point guard—offers advice to players or refs. His assistants, Chris Collins, Steve Wojciechowski, and Jeff Capel—former guards all—could also be offering an opinion.
You’re less likely to hear the booming voice of a big man. Perhaps it’s because we’re all too close to the floor, but the more likely explanation is that it’s tougher to be vocal under the basket.
Big men are the wide receivers of the sport. Any input they offer on offense sounds more like whining than leadership. “I need the ball more. Feed me.”
That provides an additional challenge for this year’s Blue Devils. Both of their captains this season are 6’10” or taller.
“Being the big guy, you’re not running the offense. You’re not saying, ‘Hey, we need to run this,’” said Miles Plumlee.
The leadership responsibility falls, but not too far, onto the shoulders of Ryan Kelly and Plumlee. Both are hard workers and have no trouble leading by example. When it comes to speaking up, however, that’s a challenge for both players.
“I’ve got to lead more emotionally,” Plumlee said. “I’ve been keeping tabs on the guys mentally.”
“Off the court, I’ve been working on it more,” Plumlee continued. “I’ve been trying to get the guys together and build chemistry.”
Kelly has also staked out an area where he’s able to contribute vocally.
“The bigs anchor our defense,” Kelly said. “We have to do a lot of the talking on the defensive side of the ball. That’s where communication plays the biggest role.”
Both players admit that being more vocal on the court and in the locker room is something they need to consciously work on. It’s a skill, just like shooting or defense, and it gets better with practice.
“That’s good,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski when informed of the players’ comments. “Because it’s something they need to work on. We tell our guys you come to practice to think, but when you’re talking, you’re thinking globally. If you don’t talk, you’re just thinking of what you’re doing. It’s not selfish, but it doesn’t help as much.”
“Some guys respond, finally, when they see there’s a need to,” Krzyzewski of Plumlee’s vocal leadership. “I’m not sure, as a big guy, he thought he needed to until now. Miles is not normally a talker, but as a captain, he’s talked more.”
Krzyzewski doesn’t accept the premise that big men can’t lead a team, however. “Some of our best talkers have been big guys,” he said. “Christian Laettner was a big talker. Elton Brand was. So was Carlos Boozer. Shelden (Williams) was not a good talker.”
That list of four big men manned the post for Duke in 13 of the 18 seasons between 1989 and 2006. Since the departure of Williams, however, the focus of the team has shifted from the paint to the three-point line. Coach K’s choice of captains signals an effort to refocus the offense from the inside out.
“It’s incredibly important for them to talk on offense,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re trying to change the vision of our perimeter. With the perimeter players we’ve had they’ve gotten into the custom of looking for one another, so their more east-west in how they look. We need our big men to force them to look north-south.”
“So when you are open inside, you need to be able to say, ‘Austin! Seth! Didn’t you see that?’” Krzyzewski continued. “It’s a very fundamental thing. You get into a habit of always looking out the same window. We’ve got to show them a new window and help them break the habit.”
“This is a big thing we’re doing,” Krzyzewski concluded. “We’re trying to change our culture of how we view the court. It seems like a fundamental thing, but sometimes the fundamental things are the hardest things to change.”
Their ability to make the change will determine whether or not they can have a year worth talking about.