Jon Scheyer is a rarity among college head coaches.
Only three of the 68 head coaches who made the NCAA men’s basketball tournament last season were McDonald’s All-Americans as players.
A 2006 McDonald’s All-American and four-year player at Duke, Scheyer’s ability to relate to the players he recruits and coaches helps him on the job.
The 35-year-old is about to begin his first season as Duke’s head coach, succeeding Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski, who held the position for 42 years. Scheyer is able to have competitive shooting competitions with his players and is also adept at playing video games, sometimes beating his players.
“Me and his relationship is like this,” Duke guard Jeremy Roach said, demonstrating their close relationship by crossing his long fingers.
As the interim head coach for two games and part of a third due to the 75-year-old Krzyzewski’s health issues over the past two seasons, Scheyer has led the Blue Devils to three victories. But he has yet to record an official win.
“I feel like he’s also still figuring some things out, for sure,” Duke freshman forward Dariq Whitehead said this summer. “But he’s been doing a great job of, you know, not letting us see that, making it seem as if he’s been here and done that before. That makes us players confident to go out there and do whatever he asks.”
Expectations are high for such a young, first-time head coach, yet Scheyer has experienced a lot.
Because he was a highly-touted recruit himself, the Northbrook, Illinois, native understands the rigors of balancing playing basketball in the ACC while taking classes at Duke. And Scheyer spent more than a decade — as a player and then a coach — learning from one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.
As part of Krzyzewski’s coaching staff from 2014-2022, Scheyer played a key role in landing some of the biggest recruits in the country — including Zion Williamson, Paolo Banchero and Cam Reddish (for whom he was the primary recruiter, according to 247Sports.com). With professional avenues like Overtime Elite and the G-League Ignite now available to athletes, Scheyer’s ability to continue to attract the top recruits in the nation is notable.
‘A real opportunity’
Scheyer’s first team as Duke’s head coach is loaded with freshmen who made up the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, topped by three of the top-10 players in the 2022 group — Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski and Dariq Whitehead.
“They’ve believed in it,” Scheyer said. “I think they see the opportunity, which is the combination of being a part of a program like Duke with the stage, the history, with being the first to do something. They’re the first in making sure that we continue to go up. I think that’s a real opportunity for these guys.”
Duke’s 2023 class is also off to an impressive start. With five five-star recruits — all among the top-25 players — committed to that class, it’s also currently rated as No. 1 in the nation.
“I think he’s doing just fine,” Duke athletics director Nina King told The News & Observer. “Number one recruiting class this year and next. Right? I think you can take him off your prayer list. It’s been great.”
‘One of the best recruiters of all time’
Scheyer’s recruiting prowess started long before he was selected as Krzyzewski’s successor.
Former Duke guard D.J. Steward met Scheyer during his sophomore year of high school in 2017 through his head coach at Chicago’s Fenwick High School, Rick Malnati. Their meeting was during the infancy of Steward’s recruiting process, before he ascended to the national ranks.
“I just noticed off the rip, how he’s such a positive and great guy,” Steward said.
Scheyer’s positive nature adds to his ability to connect with players. A consensus second-team All-American for Duke during the 2009-10 season and Illinois’ Mr. Basketball in 2006, he assumed a more active role in recruiting after former Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel left to become Pittsburgh’s head coach.
Stepping into the associate head coach role on Krzyzewski’s staff ahead of the 2018-19 season, Scheyer raised his profile within the coaching ranks on the recruiting trail. Since 2018, he has ranked in the top five in 247Sports.com’s top recruiter rankings — with first-place finishes in 2020 and 2021.
As a recruiter, Steward said Scheyer is “super hands-on.”
“I believe he’s one of the best recruiters of all time,” Steward added. “You can just see in the people that he brings to Duke every single year.
“Some coaches may go about it in different ways; they want to be hands-on with the player, but for him to be hands-on with the player and my parents and everything, that was pretty big.”
Relationships are everything when it comes to coaching. Roach appreciated the interest Scheyer had in him and his family, beyond what he could add to the Duke basketball program, during the recruiting process.
“He just asked a lot of questions,” Roach said. “If I say something about my family, he’s just going to want to know, ‘What about them? Who is this?’ That right there kind of makes me feel more special than some of the coaches that recruited me.”
Steward experienced that same level of authenticity not only during his recruiting process, but also when he entered his name in the 2021 NBA draft. Scheyer gave his former player insight into the seriousness of NBA workouts and what it takes to compete at that level, while also checking in with his family.
When Jacob Grandison visited Duke to speak with Scheyer and the other coaches after putting his name in the transfer portal last spring, that authenticity stood out to him and he chose the Blue Devils.
He said he was encouraged to “lay it all out there. Don’t leave any questions unasked, all the raw, awkward questions.”
“So it was really wholesome and kosher,” Grandison said. “I knew that this was the group of people I wanted to be with.”
Scheyer’s competitive nature
Amid the compassion with which Scheyer approaches his job — and the attention to detail, which also makes him a great recruiter — he’s still the competitor he was when he helped the Blue Devils win the 2010 national championship.
Steward recalled competing in shooting competitions against Scheyer, and playing the popular video game NBA 2K with him.
“He beat me in 2K,” Steward said. “He’s actually good at 2K, and he doesn’t even play the game. … I don’t know how.”
Scheyer showed that same fire as a player. He’s forever an Illinois legend for scoring 21 points in 75 seconds at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, a tournament that the likes of Evan Turner, Kevin Garnett and Isiah Thomas competed in. Scheyer also continued to play professional basketball despite suffering a retinal tear and nerve damage in his right eye.
“He’s super competitive. Like no matter what, like, if he’s losing, he’s going to be mad,” Steward said. “But if he’s winning, oh man, he’s going to be talking, like, he’s going to talk smack. He’s going to bring it up for the next few days. Scheyer is a great person. He’s a competitive person, for sure.”
That competitive nature, his real-world experience and his knack for finding talent have positioned Scheyer well as he prepares to navigate the college basketball landscape in the shadow of a legend.
But, already, Scheyer said his recruiting pitch is different now than when, as coach-in-waiting, he attracted the No. 1-rated 2022 recruiting class.
“I think it has to change,” Scheyer said. “For one, I’m not Coach K, so I can’t say the experiences that he’s had and that’s why you should come here. I think there’s a different perspective that I have to offer. But what’s similar is the fact that it’s Duke University, it’s Duke basketball. I mean, that’s a huge selling point.”