Season preview: CHD interviews Duke assistant coach Nate James

To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with Duke assistant coach Nate James about winning titles as both a player and coach under Coach K.


In the 1999 NCAA tourney title game you played six minutes in a three point loss to UConn: where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career and how did it help motivate you going forward? As a player you believe that you are just supposed to win. I think we had the talent and we were loaded at every position that year: it was arguably one of the best teams ever. When we did not get it done it just made me think back to all the little things that I now know as a coach that prevented us from getting there: staying together, believing, and keeping the team-first aspect above all. I think we had so many guys (without even knowing it) who were starting to think about going pro, which distracted us from our goal of winning it all. We faced a UConn team that was extremely tough, played together, and obviously well-coached: they were the better team that day. I think if we played them 10 times in a row we would win 9 of 10, but that is not the way the tournament works. They came together on that day and we were not at our best, so that is what happened.

When you become a coach you realize all those things and you try to keep your team from making the same mistakes. I talk to them about my experiences and how important it is to keep your eyes on the prize, stay together, not allow distractions to come into your team, and make sure you are playing for the right reason.

You won the 2001 NCAA title as co-captain under Coach K at Duke: how on earth were you able to overcome a 22-point deficit to Maryland in the Final 4, and what did it mean to you to win a title? We faced Maryland four times that year. Each game was a war and each game we were able to overcome large deficits, the first being at Maryland. We overcame, we believed in each other, and guys obviously stepped up and made huge plays. After that first game we pretty much knew that we could come back if we stayed together. We played them at home and it was a tough game. We ended up losing on senior night (which was awful!) but we faced them again in the ACC tournament.

We were down in that game as well, but we were able to come back. Going into the Final 4 there were no surprises: they knew us and we knew them. They came out and were hitting shots and everyone was rolling on their end. We just said, “Look, let’s buckle down and chip away at it.” We believed we could do it because of our prior success, and we were able to get back into the game. They were a tough team: the following year they won a national championship with basically the same group of guys. That was one of the all-time best games and teams that I have been a part of, and obviously winning a national championship and going through Maryland meant a great deal to me because I am from the area. It is something that I will always have with me going back home.

Due to having to take a medical redshirt as a sophomore you became the first player in ACC history to win five regular-season conference titles: how were your teams able to play at such a high level for such a long period of time? I think we were all very hungry. When I arrived at Duke the program had experienced some down years for various reasons. My freshman year I remember talking to Chris Carrawell/Mike Chappell and we said that we wanted to be part of a team that got the program back on track. We had some outstanding players who had gone through “down years,” but we were all very hungry and played with a chip on our shoulders. We wanted to get back and be champions, so we really got after it each and every day. When you start to have success, more talent starts coming into your program. All of a sudden you build it up and have all the pieces: the leadership, the experience, and a coach who is amazingly driven and has a knack for getting the best out of each and every player. Each and every year of that five-year span we had the pieces to win a national championship, especially during my last four years.

In 2010 you won an NCAA title as an assistant under Coach K at Duke, becoming the first person at Duke to win titles as both a player and coach: what was it like to play for him, and what is it like to coach for him? Obviously he is a players’ coach. He believes in what you can do, and sometimes he believes in you more than you may believe in yourself. He always has the knack of getting the best out of you. I wanted to play for someone who could get the best out of what I had to offer. I think that is why we all wanted to play for him: we wanted to learn how to be champions, and I think he is the best at teaching guys how to get there.

You learn what it means to make the sacrifices needed and to be good. You learn how to work with others because we were all talented high school players. Most of the guys I played with were McDonald’s All-Americans. You kind of learn how to play as a fist, which is one of Coach’s models: five guys playing together as one. That is one of the things I really enjoyed about playing for Coach: he had the ability to get the best out of not just myself but all of my teammates, and taught us how to work together. As a coach you see everything that goes into the game, but as a player you just see one side of it on the court in terms of practices and games. That is all you really know, but as a coach you see the day-in/day-out decision-making that goes into what we are trying to accomplish. During the countless hours of preparation and working for Coach you get a better sense of who he is and how dedicated and passionate he is for the game. I did not know that at first, but at my very first staff meeting I realized that this is a totally different level than it was as a player. Guys do not understand why we get so upset and so frustrated when they are not doing the things that we worked on because there is so much that goes into it. It is an adjustment: as a former player you cannot look at Coach like a fellow player. You work for him and want to work as hard and learn to work in other ways than you did when you were a player, but you have to change your mindset. He is still larger than life and is still the man, but you have to learn to get past that in some ways and be prepared to do what he wants you to do. You also have to share your insight: he really wants your opinions on things that you might see. There is a reason you are here: he values what you have to bring to the table. Once you get past looking at him as your former coach and saying, “This is my guy and he believes in me, so I have to believe in myself and do all the little things I did as a player the same way as a coach.” It is an adjustment, but I think we all go through it. Everyone who has transitioned from player to coach has to go through that adjustment, but it’s all good. It is hard to explain, but it’s all great: great times as a player, great times as a coach, and I am just enjoying taking advantage of him for as long as we have him!

You bring back a lot of talent in Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee: which of them will be most crucial to your team’s success? Every great team that has gone on to do big things like win championships has had amazing leadership. No matter the collection of talent, if you do not have the on-court leadership (obviously you are going to have the off-court leadership with Coach and the rest of the staff) with upperclassmen leading the way and spearheading this thing, then you will not maximize who you can be as a team. No matter what sport, it all comes back to leadership and captains doing what we need them to do, so Rasheed, Quinn, Amile, and Marshall are all vital to our success.

You also bring in a lot of blue-chip freshman including Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor: do you think any of them can come in and fill the big shoes of number two overall draft pick Jabari Parker all by themselves? We have some terrific players coming in. If you can say one guy is ready-made it would be Jahlil. He is a physical specimen who is big, strong, and agile: you rarely see players like that. I believe he is going to have an impact right away. Tyus is an amazing floor leader who really thinks the game. Every position is important but the point guard is basically the coach on the floor for us. I think he is the guy that we believe can handle that responsibility as a freshman. Watching him in high school, his decision-making and timing was second to none, so we really look forward to him being that guy. Two guys that are tough as nails are Justise and Grayson, who probably will not get as much preseason publicity but will get noticed once the season gets started. Both are extremely tough and versatile. Justise is a guy who I can see playing four different positions if needed. He can handle it, shoot it, and can guard. He is extremely athletic and strong and is a cut above. I think those guys will obviously be a huge part of us being successful.

You already had some legendary coaches in the ACC like Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams: how awesome is the conference going to be after adding two more legends in Danny Manning and Rick Pitino? In my opinion, the ACC is by far the top conference in the nation due to Hall-of-Fame coaches, big-time players, and our style of play. I think we play an exciting brand of basketball because the coaches like to get up-and-down. We have some of the most versatile players in the country in this conference. When I was a young player I loved watching ACC basketball. The Big East was always a really tough conference, but now with the emergence of Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse joining the likes of Duke and North Carolina, it is a powerhouse conference with outstanding coaches. It is an honor to have been a part of it as a player and an honor to now be a part of it as a coach and watch the greats go at it. I get to see the chess matches with the likes of Coach K, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim. I am just honored and grateful to have a chance to be a part of it.

Your team had a seven point upset loss to #14-seed Mercer last March: do you put the loss behind you and forget about it or use it as motivation for the season ahead? What I try to do is let the guys know that if you forget your past, then you are destined to repeat it. As a staff we do not beat them over the head with it, but we also make them aware of things that may have occurred that led us to losing. You don’t necessarily need to say, “We lost to Mercer because ______.” Instead you might focus on leadership and make sure that we are staying true to our standards, or make sure that we are working hard every day, because those things lead to the outcome we want. We have to really pinpoint those things when we see them right away. I think that is better than constantly bringing up a particular game because that is not what we are about: we are about trying to achieve excellence every day. I think if you do that, then wins and everything else will take care of themselves.

What are your goals for the upcoming season, and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? I believe that we have all the pieces. Each year we play for championships, but as I stated before I believe we can win every day with this group. We have a complete buy-in and everyone understands what can happen if you do not have high standards. I think we have a group that has some pretty good leadership, older guys who experienced some of the good and also some of the bad. Winning every day means our players exemplifying what it means to be a Duke basketball player: conducting ourselves on and off the court the way a Duke basketball player should. It is exciting to be around them and it is a joy to coach them. If we keep having those wins every day, then when it is time to hang a banner or put yourself in position to hang a banner, we will be worthy of doing so.