Quinn Cook (Getty Images)
At the end of a frustrating freshman season in which he fell out of Duke's rotation and didn't perform the way he expected, guard Quinn Cook called close friend and mentor Nolan Smith and asked for his advice.
Cook was accustomed to basketball success after starring for famed DeMatha High School and prestigious Oak Hill Academy and serving as team captain on the gold medal-winning USA U-17 World Championship team. As a result, logging only a few minutes per game in ACC play and enduring endless cheap shots from fans on Twitter was an unfamiliar and unsettling experience for the onetime top 50 recruit.
"Sometimes I'd call Nolan and be like, 'I don't know what I'm doing wrong. What am I going to do next?'" Cook recalled. "He definitely knew what I was going through and he stayed on me. He told me, 'Stay there.' He's been through what I've been through and he reassured me it would all work out."
Cook's decision to remain at Duke and channel his disappointment into his offseason workouts could turn out to be critical for the Blue Devils' 2012-13 season. Since Duke has no other pass-first point guard besides Cook on its roster for the second straight season, the Blue Devils desperately need Cook to flourish with the ball in his hands and allow fellow guards Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton to play off ball, where they're most comfortable.
"He's the one guy on our team that's a true point guard," Duke assistant Chris Collins said. "All our other guards are good players but that's truly not the strength of their games. Last year, we had Austin [Rivers] and Seth taking turns in the ball-handling role but it got them away from what they did best when they were in that role. Ideally, having Quinn, who has been a point guard his whole life and has run teams at a high level, that's what we want."
It's too soon to evaluate whether Cook is now ready to assume that role, but early signs have been promising during summer workouts and in practice.
The lingering knee injury that sidelined Cook last summer and limited his quickness during the season has fully healed, enabling him to put maximum effort into weightlifting, conditioning and improving his all-around game during the offseason. By the time the Duke staff returned from the London Olympics in August, Cook was quicker than they remembered, more confident and a more consistent shooter.
"You could see he was just a different guy, and it was great to see," Collins said. "When you go through that period where you're a little down and you're feeling sorry for yourself, you have to make a decision, 'Am I going to give up or am I going to fight back?' Once he had that little period of being frustrated and down about how the season went, he decided he was going to fight his way out of this."
Ted Cook, Cook's father and biggest fan and supporter, died of cardiac arrest at age 48 during an operation in March 2008. Cook still honors his father in a variety of ways, whether it's keeping a framed photo of him and his dad in his gym bag or ending every one of his tweets with the phrase "RIP DAD!"
"I had to become a man quick," Cook said. "I had to take care of my sister and my mom. Being the man of the house, you don't want to show any weakness. I had to grow up fast in the area that I'm from. Nothing I go through will be tougher than that. That definitely helps me on the court."
One of the people Cook leaned on most immediately after his father's death was Nolan Smith, whom he'd first met because they both played for the same AAU program, albeit in different age groups. Smith went from friend and mentor to Cook to more of an older brother figure, helping him cope with his grief and channel it into his studies and into basketball.
The similarities between the basketball careers of Cook and Smith draw a chuckle out of both their moms. They both are from the D.C. area, they both played for the D.C. Assault AAU program and they both finished their high school careers at Oak Hill Academy. They both also played sparingly as freshmen at Duke, with Smith going on to win a national championship as a junior, become an All-American as a senior and make the NBA with the Portland Trailblazers.
If Cook hopes to follow that same path, then this season could be the start of his rise.
Last season, Cook showed flashes of promise, even briefly cracking the starting lineup in December before falling out of the rotation again in January. Now his knee is finally fully healthy, he's stronger and faster and he has regained the confidence he lost.
Duke's roster this season isn't loaded with future NBA lottery picks, but there's still enough talent for the Blue Devils to contend in the ACC and make a run in March.
Seniors Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly form perhaps the ACC's premier frontcourt duo. Seth Curry's shooting, Rasheed Sulaimon's athleticism, Tyler Thornton's defense and Alex Murphy's size and length give Duke some variety at the wing. And then there's Cook, the point guard the Blue Devils so badly need to bounce back from last year's struggles and make everyone around him better with his deft passing and ability to get in the lane.
"The toughest part last year was not being able to contribute because coach didn't think I was ready," Cook said. "It was definitely disappointing just because I'm a competitor, I wanted to win and some games we lost, I felt like I could have helped the team out. But you have to go through things like that sometimes. I learned from it and it definitely has made me better today."
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