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Dependable Duhonis Duke’s backbone

WashPost: Guard doesn’t score, just leads by example
Duke's Chris Duhon drives to the basket past North Carolina State's Julius Hodge in the Blue Devils' win on Saturday. Duhon has been Duke's backbone this season.Ellen Ozier / Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Cameron Indoor Stadium already was shaking six minutes into the second half Saturday, Duke ahead of Wake Forest by nine points and 9,314 fans delivering their usual dose of chants and hexes. But when Blue Devils guard Chris Duhon stood alone at midcourt, knees bent, slapping the floor repeatedly, it inspired the crowd to an even higher degree of delirium.

Duhon's role has changed dramatically from when he enrolled in the fall of 2000 as a highly regarded recruit. He is not expected to be the team's best three-point shooter. Nor is he the team's most hyped player. He is, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, unquestionably the program's best and most important player — but more for his leadership than his statistics.

Duhon has no aspirations about being the next Jay Williams or Shane Battier, both of whom played alongside Duhon during Duke's 2000-01 national title season and were top 10 NBA draft picks. Instead, Duhon is playing relaxed and tapping the talents of teammates, mostly freshmen and sophomores who have helped the Blue Devils (14-1, 4-0 ACC) become the nation's top-ranked team.

This year "he knows the people with him can help," said Krzyzewski, whose team will play at Maryland on Wednesday. "He doesn't have to do everything; he has to use everything."

Yet both Duke coaches and opposing coaches feel compelled to defend the career of a player who has amassed a 106-16 college record. Such criticism follows the hype Duhon received as a high school player in Slidell, La., when he appeared on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and earned the Morgan Wootten national player of the year award over DeShawn Stevenson and Darius Miles, both of whom leaped from high school to the NBA.

Duhon spent his first two years at Duke finding a niche in a lineup that included standouts Battier his first year and Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer both years. Last season, when he was expected to flourish, his shooting percentage slumped to 38.6, as he led a freshman-laden squad.

"I know I had a disappointing year," Duhon said. "I totally take full responsibility for that. I haven't heard that [my career has been disappointing] and I'm not worried about it. ACC tournament championships, number one in the country — so I haven't hurt this program too much."

After Duke beat Wake Forest, 84-72, Saturday, Duhon sat in front of his locker, which had one of Krzyzewski's truisms attached to it. "Progress is impossible," it read, "if you only do the things you have always done." Leadership now is Duhon's task. Toward the end of Duhon's career-high 14-assist game Saturday, teammate Sean Dockery put his arm around Duhon when the senior had fouled out.

Dockery, a sophomore guard, considers Duhon a big brother. "He had 14 assists, one of his best games," Dockery said. "But he plays one of his best games every day because of the things he does off the court."

On the court, Duhon is noticeably stronger than he was as a freshman and more versatile. No longer does he rely on a three-point shot that, once smooth, faltered last season because "I put the weight of the world on my shoulders every shot." As Duke associate head coach Johnny Dawkins noted, "He has a bigger menu to choose from." Evidence came Saturday in Duhon's matchup with Wake Forest freshman Chris Paul. Instead of settling for jump shots, Duhon twice beat Paul for layups.

The game wasn't without Duhon miscues, however. Double-teamed in the second half, Duhon threw an ill-advised pass over the top, which was intercepted and run back for a layup. Minutes later, Duhon threw a similar pass, which resulted in another Wake Forest layup, prompting Krzyzewski to nearly kick his chair.

On the next play, though, Duhon drove hard to the basket, making a shot and drawing a foul on Paul.

"I think people that didn't think he played well last year are tragically, tragically [misinformed]," Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser said. "People that don't understand the nuances of the game. They are good at reading stat sheets, they realize he didn't shoot well from three. But he runs their team."

Duhon is the team's fifth-leading scorer (9.9 points per game) but plays the most minutes (34.3 per game). He isn't putting pressure on himself to be someone he is not.

"This year these other kids around him are older," Krzyzewski said. "He knows more how to use them, what to say to them. Last year, sometimes he was trying to motivate them or get them out of being whatever a freshman is and as a result he didn't get a chance to focus on his game. It was too much. . . . He's been really tough on them at times [this year] and they respond right away because they respect the heck out of him."

Twice Saturday, Duhon penetrated the lane and appeared to have an open look at the basket. Instead, he passed to center Shelden Williams, who finished with dunks each time.

On another occasion, Duhon passed to J.J. Redick, who curled, caught the ball and sank a three-pointer. Afterward, Redick was asked what could derail the team's consistent effort. He and Duhon looked at each other and smiled. "If Chris stops passing me the ball," he joked, "it's going to be a problem."

Unlikely. Duhon remains a favorite son in Durham. His No. 21 jersey hangs in the window displays of stores on Ninth Street. His younger brother, Thomas, draws chants of "Little Duhon!" when he stands on the press table before games.

"This has been a great place," Duhon said. "I've been through a lot of good times and bad. It's going to help me mature as a man, and it has. I'm going to savor these last couple of months because they've definitely been the best four years of my life."