Tim Crothers is an author and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is joining the sports staff to write a regular column during the rest of the college basketball season.
Andre Dawkins was in the fourth grade at Faith Baptist Christian School when he competed in a local event called the Math Olympics. Dawkins took a test and thought he'd botched it. He was wrong. He won. "To this day, that's one of my proudest moments," Dawkins recalls. "The next year I returned to the Olympics and I was probably a little too overconfident and ended up getting fourth. That was disappointing, because I was hoping to go back-to-back."
Dawkins grins at the memory, because he recognizes a familiar pattern. "My whole life I have tended to become complacent," he says. "When I get a little bit of success, I think, 'OK, I'm good now,' instead of getting a little bit of success and thinking that I want more success."
Dawkins, who would grow up to become one of the most explosive but least predictable scorers in Duke men's basketball history, was smart enough to finish high school in three years and matriculate to Duke a year early. That feat might suggest some intense commitment on his part, but mild-mannered Dawkins acknowledges the idea actually began as more of a lark.
A shot in the dark
He and his father, Andre, were watching ESPN one night during 2009 when they read on the crawl that Elliot Williams had decided to transfer from Duke. Coupled with the news a month earlier that Gerald Henderson was leaving the Blue Devils early to go to the NBA, the high school junior turned to his dad and joked, "Why don't I just go to Duke now?"
Andre's father phoned Blue Devils assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski, Andre took a summer school course, and before he knew it, Dawkins was a Duke freshman at age 17. "My first day of conditioning I didn't make any of the times," Dawkins says. "I thought, 'This is crazy. But I'm here. Can't go back now.' "
When Duke fans first witnessed Dawkins' silky jumper honed by studying his favorite player, J.J. Redick, Dawkins was anointed Redick redux. Dawkins produced double-figure scoring in four of his first seven games, but then, just as his career appeared ready to launch, his older sister, Lacey, was killed in a car accident on her way to see her brother play for the first time in college. The tragedy propelled Dawkins into a tailspin. The freshman averaged fewer than three points per game the rest of the season. When Duke won the national title that season, Dawkins felt only an ancillary part of it. "I was just happy to be along for the ride with those guys," he says. "I'm glad they got me a ring."
With Jon Scheyer's career over, Dawkins appeared primed to fill a critical role on the 2010-11 team, but Dawkins' sophomore season unfolded much like the previous one. He got off to a promising start but scored in double-figures just twice in the final 24 games and candidly admits he was psyching himself out. "I think I would overthink sometimes," Dawkins says. "In our system, there aren't tons of shots going around for everyone, so when I did get shots, I knew there was a lot riding on each one."
After the departures of guards Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving, Dawkins began the 2011-12 season in Duke's starting lineup with yet another chance to realize his potential. Against Michigan State in Duke's third game of this season, Dawkins hit six 3-pointers and scored 26 points. In the next game against Davidson, he took only three shots and scored five. After being held scoreless in the loss to Ohio State on Nov. 29, a game in which he admits he was "too nonchalant," Dawkins lost his starting job. Duke's most consistently inconsistent player responded to that setback by scoring in double figures in three straight games for the first time during his career, but he then followed that up by producing 14 points combined in the next four games, including another zero-point effort in a loss at Temple.
Nobody could see the dreaded statistical trend repeating itself more clearly than the former Math Olympian. "It has happened to me multiple times and hopefully I can learn from that and change it," Dawkins says. "My dad has always told me that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."
A new approach
After the Temple game, Dawkins says he altered his approach in practice, trying to compete more aggressively and concentrate more on his weaknesses, rebounding and defense, rather than just being a 3-point shooter. Says Dawkins, "My mindset was that I'm going to make coach put me in the game, instead of saying, 'Maybe he'll put me in and maybe I'll play well.' "
When the Blue Devils struggled early against Virginia on Jan. 12, coach Mike Krzyzewski called on Dawkins, who produced eight points in the first half to keep his team close at halftime. After Duke defeated the Cavaliers 61-58, Krzyzewski made a point to praise Dawkins for playing the best defensive game of his career.
During warm-ups before the next game, Sunday against Clemson, assistant coach Chris Collins could sense some stress in Dawkins. "Are you feeling all right today?" Collins asked reassuringly. "Are we going to get good Andre or are we going to get bad Andre?"
"To be honest, I didn't really think I was going to shoot that well at Clemson because in warm-ups I wasn't hitting a lot of shots," Dawkins says. "That probably wound up better for me, because then I knew in the game I had to keep my mechanics sharp."
Good Andre scored 24 points during a 73-66 win, but more telling was his all-around game. During the final five minutes, Dawkins registered a steal that led to a dunk, a blocked shot and hit the clinching 3-pointer with 1 minute, 16 seconds left.
After the game Krzyzewski told him, "Don't listen to Andre on the left shoulder anymore. Keep listening to Andre on the right shoulder."
"You try to beat the (heck) out of the guy on the left shoulder for every player," Krzyzewski says. "Replace the guy on the left shoulder with the twin of the guy on the right shoulder and then you've got Singler and Scheyer and Redick and (Shane) Battier and all those guys."
Answer isn't simple
Dawkins clearly understands his flaw. So why can't he fix it?
"If it was as easy as everyone makes it out to be, there would be a lot more really good players in college basketball," Dawkins says. "I'm trying. It's not like I'm not trying. I can't change the past, so now I'm just trying to take what I've been doing the last few games and keep that up moving forward."
"You've got to be immersed in the game and not yourself," Krzyzewski says. "If you're immersed in the game and immersed in winning, yourself will come out. The best voice in the choir still sounds better when it's immersed in all the voices in the choir."
This is so significant because the difference between what Dawkins is and what he could be might just be the difference between a very good Blue Devils team and a legitimate Final Four contender. Dawkins, who ranks second in the ACC in 3-point percentage (41.8 percent), returned to the starting lineup in Thursday night's 91-73 win against Wake Forest. In a signature Dawkins performance, he exploded for a team-record seven 3-pointers during the first half (and didn't score in the second half). "Have I turned a corner?" Dawkins asks. "I hope so."
As fourth-ranked Duke prepares to host Florida State this afternoon, if we've learned anything about evaluating Dawkins, it's that a small sample is inconclusive. Check back in a few weeks. But on Thursday night anyway, Andre Dawkins looked very sane.