Giving up on Kobe Bryant Wasn’t Mike Krzyzewski’s Worst Recruiting Mistake at Duke

With five NCAA Tournament championships to his name, Mike Krzyzewski clearly knows what he’s doing as coach of the Duke Blue Devils. So, when the discussion about how Kobe Bryant got away resurfaces periodically, we’re cutting Coach K some slack.

Mike Krzyzewski has had an amazing run at Duke

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College basketball fans have to go back to the John Wooden days at UCLA to come up with a dynasty even more impressive than what Mike Krzyzewski built with the Duke Blue Devils. Krzyzewski has taken the Blue Devils to a dozen NCAA Tournament Final Fours, winning five national championships and reaching the title contest four other times.

Throw in the dabbling he’s done at the Olympics – coaching the U.S. men to Olympic golds at Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio de Janeiro (2016) – and it’s understandable why he has earned induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

He recently wrapped up his 41st season at Duke. Although the Blue Devils missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995, Krzyzewski’s record with the program is 1,097-302.

Just imagine how much better the Blue Devils could have been had Krzyzewski recruited Kobe Bryant. (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

Duke and its Hall of Fame coach had a rough season

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Blaming Mike Krzyzewski for a few things during his tenure with the Duke Blue Devils is fair, and the 2020-21 season proved to be one of his most trying years thus far.

Krzyzewski took justifiable criticism for belittling a student reporter following a January loss to Louisville that played a role in the Blue Devils not making the NCAA Tournament. Duke finished with a lackluster 13-11 record.

Weeks after the incident, highly touted freshman forward Jalen Johnson left the team with just half a dozen games remaining. Johnson was averaging a modest 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds, but he is regarded as a potential NBA draft lottery pick. The 19-year-old player cited a desire to be sure he “100% healthy in preparation for the NBA draft,” the Associated Press reported.

Krzyzewski, who himself wondered aloud about the Blue Devils playing during the pandemic, said Johnson was “knocked back” by the degree of physical play he’d experienced. Some have construed that as a failure on Krzyzewski’s part to anticipate and address a problem in Duke’s highest-ranked recruit in the freshman class.

Truth be told, Johnson probably would have been in the NBA already had the league not changed the rule that allowed top prospects like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to go directly from high school to the pro ranks.

Giving up on Kobe Bryant wasn’t Mike Krzyzewski’s worst recruiting mistake

Kobe Bryant was an 18-time NBA All-Star in 20 pro seasons, winning five league championships with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was apparent by his senior season at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, that a potentially great career awaited.

In fact, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says it was too apparent that Bryant was on his way to a long and successful career. It’s why Krzyzewski says he barely lifted a finger in an attempt to recruit Bryant to the ACC school that was embarking on the first of 24 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament during Bryant’s senior season.

Appearing on The Dream Team Tapes: Kobe, LeBron & The Redeem Team podcast recently, Krzyzewski said he watched Bryant in high school and realized there was no chance he could pick college – even as a one-and-done – over the NBA.

“When he walked into a gym, he walked in like (Michael) Jordan at a high school level,” Krzyzewski said. “He could not only play the role during a game, he played the role before and after the game. He looked that good, he believed he was that good, and he was that good.

“But I knew he was never going to come.”

Interestingly, Bryant did not recall the recruitment process in quite the same way. In an exchange with a Twitter follower, Bryant seemed to suggest that attending college had been a possibility – and that Coach K had put some real effort into recruiting him even after North Carolina coach Dean Smith had given up.

“Coach Smith stopped recruiting me. He thought I would go pro and wished me luck. Coach K kept at it,” Bryant wrote.

If even Dean Smith gave up on luring Kobe Bryant, then it wouldn’t be fair to fault Mike Krzyzewski for not landing a future Hall of Famer.

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