It’s been a busy offseason for Jeff Capel.
Working with Duke and a highly talented freshman class. Assisting Team USA in its preparation for the FIBA World Cup in Spain. Taking on a new role as the associate head coach for the Blue Devils following the departures of Chris Collins to Northwestern in 2013 and Steve Wojciechowski to Marquette this year.
But nothing has changed with how Capel works each day.
“I’ve always approached my job the same way the whole time I’ve been here, which is to do whatever I can do to help my program,” Capel said. “Perhaps there is a little more responsibility now, but my approach is still the same.”
Capel had never worked with Collins and Wojciechowski in a professional capacity before joining the Duke coaching staff. Both Collins and Wojciechowski held the associate head coach position prior to Capel, and Capel saw what they helped build with head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“They were tremendous assets for our program,” Capel said. “It was pretty obvious when you got here and watched Chris and Steve work to see why the program had such amazing success.”
Duke has not achieved the typical level of success in recent years, at least not by its standards. Early exits in two of the last three appearances in the NCAA tournament led to some serious self-evaluation.
“When you come off a season when you lose in the first round, sometimes you get smacked in the face like that, you get punched, and it forces you to look a little bit deeper,” Capel said.
In looking deeper, the Blue Devils implemented a new offseason conditioning program. Capel says there was less of an emphasis on weight bearing exercises last year.
This occurred due in large part to health concerns with players like Jabari Parker still recovering from a major injury he suffered in high school and junior center Marshall Plumlee (a sophomore in 2013) dealing with foot issues.
“We felt like it didn’t create the kind of toughness and togetherness that when you really, really work and get after it that creates,” Capel said. “There’s a different kind of closeness when you go through something together very, very difficult.
“Our guys’ bodies are different. I think they feel like they’re in better shape.”
The Freshman Class
Capel says the highly touted group of freshmen is an incredibly mature group that has followed the lead of the upperclassmen.
While there is talent across the board for the Blue Devils, freshman center Jahlil Okafor is drawing the most attention. Okafor could easily become the number one overall pick in next year’s NBA Draft, possessing pro size and natural skill to score with his back to basket.
“He understands who he is,” Capel said. “He wants to be a big guy. He’s a big guy that you can play through, and that’s pretty rare these days.”
Despite all of the superlatives you can use to describe Okafor, Capel thinks there is still room for improvement, a scary thought for Duke opponents.
“Just getting used to college basketball, I think that’s the main thing,” Capel said. “Getting him used to where he can really use his body, where he can really use his strength. Someone that’s really helped him with that has been Marshall Plumlee.”
Plumlee can be an asset down low, but only if he can remain healthy all season. He underwent foot surgery in April and is expected to return to full strength by the start of official practices.
“We need Marshall to have great energy every day,” Capel said. “We need him to provide a physicality. We need him to protect our paint, to rebound, to run, to screen, and then finish. Those are all things we think he’s capable of doing.”
Okafor and Plumlee will benefit from the challenge of battling sophomore forward Sean Obi. Obi transferred from Rice and will sit out the 2014-15 season after leading Conference USA with more than nine rebounds per game as a freshman. Capel says he must get used to the level of commitment and intensity of the Duke program.
“He has to be a really good practice player,” Capel said. “Because of his size and physicality, he should be a guy that challenges Jahlil and Marshall every day.”
The Blue Devils only became stronger in the backcourt as well, adding freshman Tyus Jones to the mix, rated as Scout’s second best point guard in the class of 2014. Jones joins the lone senior with any playing experience in fellow point guard Quinn Cook.
Cook has said he has a good relationship with Jones and does not want to make it a battle between the two for the starting position. Capel says he sees the possibility for both to be on the floor at the same time.
“Could they play together? Yeah they could,” Capel said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen there. The main thing we need from all of our guys is everyone to be committed to winning.”
The Team USA Experience
Capel has been afforded the unique opportunity to help coach Team USA this summer. Capel has seen how working with the best basketball players and coaches in the world has impacted Coach K.
“I think it’s energized him,” Capel said. “Although he has accomplished so much in his career, even at 67 years old and with all of the success, he’s still trying to learn.
“We’re able to share those experiences with the guys in our program. With recruiting, I think it’s helped because it’s kept him young. I think people, especially now, will try to say ‘well, he’s not going to be there.’ Well, he’s going to be here. He looks better now than he did when I played here.”
Working with this group has been especially challenging. After losing Indiana Pacers forward Paul George to a horrific leg injury and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant due to physical and mental fatigue, Capel repeats the words of Chicago Bulls head coach and Team USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau.
“As Coach Thib always says, ‘we have enough,’” Capel said. “Guys have a right to choose and that’s fine. Yeah, it would have been great to have him (Durant), but we don’t. We have really good players and we have guys that are still committed.”
Prior to George’s injury and Durant’s withdrawal, both players participated in one-on-one games with Houston Rockets guard James Harden following team practices. Capel showed Duke players what it’s like to see some of the NBA’s best competing at the highest level.
“I actually, this is something I never do, I took a couple of videos of it just with my phone and I sent it to our guys,” Capel said. “This is how you get better. This is what these guys do.
“We see the finished product. What you don’t see is the amount of time and the investment and the hours that these guys put in to make it look so easy.”
Overall, it has been a great experience for Capel. He was able to take a step back and remember a surreal moment flying to Las Vegas for Team USA training camp.
“I’m on a plane with Coach K and (Syracuse head) Coach (Jim) Boeheim. Just us,” Capel said. “I’m sitting there and I’m like pinching myself. I actually texted my wife like I’m sitting here with guys that are going to win a combined total of two thousand games.
“I feel incredibly lucky and blessed. I’m excited to continue to learn and to do whatever I can to help our team, our country.”
Krzyzweski and Capel will attempt to win the gold in Spain with Team USA and bring that momentum right into Duke’s 2014-15 season. The expectation for the Blue Devils is always to win the national championship.
“Even before that, it’s to try to be the best team we can be and give each other 100 percent every day,” Capel said. “No complaining. No excuses. We have to get the job done.”