Luke DeCock

Mike Krzyzewski learned to alter approach with Olympic pros

No one really knew each other going into that very first meeting in 2006, except by reputation. Mike Krzyzewski was the college coach put in charge of the Olympic team and Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the NBA stars he was supposed to coach.

The Duke coach had been doing things his way for a long time, with tremendous success. He found out very quickly that his approach would have to change dramatically with the United States.

“I was saying, ‘How are we going to do this? I think we should have two practices, one contact, one no-contact. What do you think?’” Krzyzewski said. “They were all like, ‘I don’t think we should do that.’”

So much has been discussed and written and dissected about how coaching the Olympians, and his increased exposure to the international and NBA game, has changed the way Krzyzewski coaches (and recruits) at Duke.

Less has been said about how Krzyzewski has successfully adapted his approach to the professionals he coaches for a brief period every two years – a group of elite NBA players who did not play at Duke, other than Kyrie Irving, and in many cases never considered playing there.

“It was a learning process for him too, a college coach coming to coach some of the best players in the world,” said Carmelo Anthony, who has played on all three of Krzyzewski’s Olympic teams. “You’re dealing with egos, you’re dealing with pride, you’re dealing with individualism, you’re dealing with so much.

“He can’t even watch our games because he’s playing. A lot of these guys, he’s seeing for the first time, which is a big adjustment. It took time for him to figure it out. I’m sure for him it was difficult early.”

“These guys are pros”

Krzyzewski had to change both his style and his approach from what he does at Duke, in some cases dramatically, to fit more experienced, more talented, older players who live a completely different, professional lifestyle from the college players Krzyzewski coaches in his day job.

“These guys are pros,” said Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer, who is helping out in Las Vegas this week. “This is what they do. The way you talk to them, how much you have to explain to them, is different from our guys. And we have really smart players, but this is at a different level. This is what they do all the time.”

In that first meeting, the veterans’ message to Krzyzewski, as he recalls it, was simple: “Coach, we’re all professionals. We have routines. We train separately to get ourselves prepared for this. It would be important for us to carve out time to do that and make sure we have the right locations. You never have to do any conditioning in practice. We’ll be in condition.”

Krzyzewski has watched over the past 10 years as his Olympic players, on their own, get up in the morning and do Pilates, yoga, strength training, stretching. Practices are for schemes and strategy. The kind of player who gets picked for an Olympic team is stretching, lifting, running and shooting on his own long before the coaches arrive at the gym. And long after.

In June, when the team gathered in New York for the first time as the roster was officially announced, one of Krzyzewski’s main goals in that meeting was to find out from each player who he planned to bring to Brazil: security, coaches, trainers, masseuses. All of them are sanctioned by USA Basketball and will stay on the cruise ship moored in Rio’s harbor along with the team.

“Who do you have? What do you need?” Krzyzewski said. “People have no clue all the stuff that goes on and how professional they are.”

A different game

The basketball played is different as well. While Duke’s offense has become less structured in recent years, a product both of an influx of star talent and the influence of Krzyzewski’s Olympic experience, the U.S. offense is designed to put its best players in the scoring positions they prefer and let the players figure it out from there.

College players given that kind of laissez-faire guidance would certainly falter, but the talent and basketball IQs of the NBA players allow them to find their own way on the court.

“When you’re coaching the U.S. team, less is better,” Krzyzewski said. “But you have to figure out what is the best ‘less.’ You don’t want to do too many things. And then you try to find out what especially the key scorers, where do they – you say he can score from anywhere, but there are probably two or three things he likes. That’s what I try to do with a (Kevin) Durant or a Klay Thompson or these guys. Simplify it and let them play. Don’t overcoach it.”

The terminology and language Krzyzewski uses at Duke had to be altered to fit what players and coaches use in the NBA (although there’s certainly been some cross-pollination there as well over the past decade) and while Krzyzewski has insisted his Duke teams don’t have guards or forwards, the United States has played a truly positionless style, with James often bringing the ball up the court or Anthony playing on the perimeter or those two combining to guard Spain’s Gasol brothers.

For Scheyer, who has spent most of the past decade listening to Krzyzewski as either a player or colleague, it’s the tone of his interactions with players that’s the biggest difference between Krzyzewski at Duke and Olympic K.

“It’s easier to yell at me,” Scheyer said, “than Kevin Durant.”

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock

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