Duke: Alex Murphy Adjusting to a New Role
It hasn’t been easy for Alex Murphy to adjust to life on the bench. His limited playing time has been somewhat of a surprise, because the redshirt freshman was a preseason starter and someone who Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski compared favorably to former Duke star Kyle Singler.
He has been a healthy scratch twice this year, including in the season-opener against Georgia Southern. He had played a total of 14 minutes all season in five games, and never more than six minutes. His first game action was against Kentucky. The most noteworthy event of his two minutes in that game was Kentucky’s Alex Poythress dunking on him.
The short stints started to wear on him. “For me, it was just a mental thing, just going out there and playing as hard as I can as soon as I get out there,” Murphy said. “It’s not coming in the game worrying about, all right, I have to hit a three or I have to get a shot off. The little things like deflecting a ball, taking a charge grabbing an offensive or defensive rebound: focusing on those things has helped me sort of play looser and not worry about having to hit a shot or something like that.”
But he saw 21 minutes of action against Delaware on Saturday, scoring a career-high ten points to go with seven rebounds, a steal and an emphatic block. At first, every moment seemed to be a make-or-break for him. In the first half, he played eight minutes, missed two three-pointers and got one rebound. On his first touch of the second half, he was whistled for a travel. He looked at his feet and back at the referee in disbelief, crestfallen.
The crowd was on edge waiting for him to make a play. Some of the Cameron Crazies screamed out spontaneously, “Hit Murph!” or “Get Murph a shot!” Whenever a shot would miss, or he’d turn it over, one would yell, “It’s all right, Murph! Keep your head up!” But he scored his first points as a Blue Devil with 11:21 remaining to give Duke a 38-point lead, and the roof over Cameron Indoor Stadium nearly ripped clean off.
And the Crazies aren’t his only advocates. Point guard Quinn Cook has never been reluctant to talk on or off the court, and he’s been in Murphy’s ear constantly, along with junior guard Tyler Thornton. “You always want to let him know that he’s big for us. We need him,” Cook said. “When we’re not telling him that, his confidence could go down or anything could happen, or he could probably doubt himself.
“Me and Tyler especially have been on him: just keep working, we really need you. We’ve been his biggest cheerleaders. It’s good for him to really get his confidence up this game. … Just to get him out there and get him showing a glimpse of what he can do every day is a big thing. He’s leaving this game better.”
It’s still worth pointing out that Krzyzewski is not going to manufacture depth. He has about seven guys that he feels are ready to play – his normal starters, Josh Hairston and Thornton – and that’s about it. Murphy and Amile Jefferson, a freshman who also saw 21 minutes (and had 12 points), both had nice games against Delaware. But for Krzyzewski it doesn’t mean anything beyond that at this point.
Duke’s remaining non-conference schedule will have some games like this Delaware game where those two could, in theory, see some playing time. But that’s not necessarily going to be the case. “For me, the main guys to develop are Mason (Plumlee), Ryan (Kelly), Seth (Curry). This is not like an AAU team or whatever. You have to make sure your group understands its role,” Krzyzewski said.
“Mason’s role this year is different than last year. He has to get a lot of minutes. To see Alex and Amile and Josh (Hairston) play so well today, that’s great. But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to get this wave of substitutions and stuff like that.”
Krzyzewski said that all of his players follow a different developmental path, but that he is always honest with all of them about where they are. “They all have development to go through, and they have to develop under people that they trust. And if you tell them the truth all the time, they have a better chance of trusting you,” Krzyzewski said.
“Each guy is on his own race of becoming better. They’re running their individual races while we’re collectively running a race. The collective race is much more important than your individual race, and you can’t compare your race with another guy.
“Ryan Kelly hardly played his freshman year. Ryan Kelly is a heck of a player right now, and has been. So the example of doing it that way, making sure that they know that we believe in them and we do believe in the kid.”
His approach seems to be working. Jefferson, who has never shown the visible uncertainty of Murphy during his minutes, said that neither player has let it affect them. Both knew that because Seth Curry missed the game with an ankle injury, they might see more time. And both were ready.
“We’re both two confident guys. I don’t think we’ve lost confidence,” Jefferson said. “We might have been a little frustrated at times, but we kept our heads and we know that when our number’s called, we can get out there and make things happen. We’ve just got to keep working and keep knowing that one day, your number will be called and you’ve got to be ready.”
It’s difficult to properly capture the biting, acerbic wit of Krzyzewski because it’s impossible to transcribe the dryness of his humor. (The background needed for some of this exchange was this question asked earlier by a reporter: “How hard is it, even for a legendary coach, to get players that have been told since they probably were in junior high that they’re destined for greatness to become role players and to respond?”)
Reporter: How would you assess your team’s defense?
Krzyzewski: Good, real good. How would you do it?
Reporter: I think real good.
Krzyzewski: Yeah, me too. So we’re in agreement. You have no conflict with a legendary coach. Was it easy for you accept that from me?
Krzyzewski: Then it was easy for me to have this talk like this in front of everybody. I’m just trying to show you, that’s how I would do it. I go in and say, ‘Do you realize you’re playing for a legendary coach?’ (Laughter.) No, I don’t do that.
And Krzyzewski, now feeling it, kept rolling.
Reporter: You were talking about Alex Murphy.
Krzyzewski: You were talking about him.
Reporter: (Runs through Murphy’s numbers.) If you could maybe describe a little bit about how you feel about his play.
Krzyzewski: No, I feel good about everybody’s play. Everybody played well today. Everybody. Everybody. Not one guy played less well than another guy. They were terrific together.
The good times continued to roll, one after the other.
Reporter: Touching on the subject of Mason Plumlee and his development into his senior season, over the past couple of years, there’s been some criticism on (big man coach Steve Wojciechowski) Wojo. Do you feel like getting his due of credit for his development?
Krzyzewski: (Laughs.) Well, Wojo’s one of the best coaches in the world. You can ask – for the seven years that we’e worked with all the best players in the world, ask any of those guys if they wouldn’t want Wojo to coach them.
Reporter: Oh, and I’m not criticizing.
Krzyzewski: No, I’m just saying. So when somebody doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about and says something, why would you pay attention to it? Why would I pay attention to it?
Reporter: Do you feel like he’s getting his due credit?
Krzyzewski: He’s getting credit from me. I don’t know how if his wife feels good about him, what their relationship – I don’t know about that. He’s getting great credit from me. We’re a program that is scrutinized closely, and we’re okay. We’re big boys.