DURHAM, N.C. — What Duke’s basketball team lacked most a year ago, Quinn Cook is capable of delivering this season.
The Blue Devils could have used a mid-sized slasher, but even more they needed a reliable playmaker at point guard. As a freshman, Cook factored into the Blue Devils’ rotation at the point for most of the season, but his development was constantly hampered by a right knee that was never pain free.
But after an offseason of healing and strengthening — coupled with a soaring confidence after being handed the starting job by coach Mike Krzyzewski — Cook is primed for a breakout campaign.
Junior Tyler Thornton, who has started 22 games in his career, is more of a serviceable backup, but he’s just not near the level of point guards that have preceded him. Senior Seth Curry has struggled mightily in stints as a playmaker each of the last two seasons and has settled into his wing shooter’s role.
So that leaves Cook, a highly-regarded high school prospect known as a strong penetrator capable of whipping passes to open big men on the lower blocks. And with some early success, Cook could become one of the ACC’s surprise stars this winter. That’s exactly what the Devils need to make an ACC championship a realistic goal.
Krzyzewski is excited about Cook’s progress.
“Quinn never had a chance to work out before last season,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “He was out the spring and summer and fall. … (He) didn’t have the time to prepare. But Quinn has had a great preseason.”
Cook injured his right knee before his senior season in high school and had surgery in the summer before his freshman campaign at Duke, forcing him to miss most of the preseason workouts. Cook tweaked it again in a victory over Clemson in January, stagnating his development yet again.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore from Washington, D.C., started four games, averaging 4.4 points and 1.9 assists in 11.7 minutes per contest. But he never felt like himself on the court. It was as if the rest of the team was always a few paces ahead.
“A little bit. It seemed that I was trying to play catch up but also needing to be where the team was at that point in the season,” he said. “Once I finally got on the same page, I suffered an injury against Clemson and that put me back a little bit more.”
Then the season ended on an embarrassing, un-Duke-like note. The Devils became the sixth No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 seed in NCAA Tournament history when Lehigh pulled off a 75-70 shocker last March. Duke’s perimeter players shot just 9-for-37 from the field that night, including Cook’s 1-for-5 performance in 11 minutes.
Duke will have a different look this winter with a few freshmen that should help and, of course, Cook as the primary playmaker.
Collectively, however, the bad taste from the early exit is coupled with renewed optimism — with all of it serving as fuel.
“We’re very excited, very anxious,” Cook said. “We left with a bitter taste in our mouths last year, a couple of guys on our team left on a bad note — (first-round NBA picks) Austin (Rivers) and Miles (Plumlee) — but this is a new team, a new year and we’re very focused on getting the season started the right way.”
Duke still went 27-7 overall, and with consistently solid point guard play can improve on that mark and make another push for an ACC championship. But that will be up to Cook more than any other Blue Devil.
Cook has his teammates’ full confidence.
“Quinn has really gotten a lot better,” senior forward Ryan Kelly said. “He could always play, but the injury bothered him, plus I think he just had to get out and play and do so without worrying about his knee. I think he got past that this summer and he’s going to be excellent for us.”
Cook never let the struggles of last season to get him down much.
He’s already experienced the kind of pain kids his age shouldn’t know. His father, Ted Cook, died on the operating table nearly five years ago after a three-week illness progressively worsened. An avid member of the twitter community, Cook ends every one of his tweets with “RiP Dad!”
“I lost my father in 2008. I was 14, and he was my best friend,” Cook said. “I’m very big on Twitter and I kind of remind myself every day. I started it in 2010 with every tweet and it’s just been carried on.”
Fueled by his ongoing respect for his father and everything he represented, Cook eagerly awaits his next big opportunity in life, knowing “daddy” will be with him deep down within.
There’s a measure of comfort within Duke’s camp knowing Cook’s inner balance is strong enough to handle adversity when it strikes. His teammates have already seen him handle plenty in the last 16 months. Now they know Cook is the one to get Duke back into its designed groove.
“He plays with a lot of confidence, a calmness as if everything will always be alright,” Curry said.
Cook still has plenty of proving to do in actual games, but the tea leaves suggest the Blue Devils are back in good hands at the point just like the program’s past truly great teams.