Inside the College Game

Thu, 02/03/2011 - 2:03am

Kyle Singler was open. So, he made the layup.

Kyle SinglerKyle SinglerWith his team leading by 14 and less than 1:30 remaining in an eventual 80-62 drubbing of Maryland in College Park, Md., the Duke star received a no-look pass from Nolan Smith on the block and put in an easy 2-pointer. Smith made the play happen. There can be no doubt of this. He dribbled around for nearly the entirety of the shot clock, toying with the Terrapins' defenders, before slashing to the rim with supreme quickness, beating three men off the dribble and finding Singler on the left block for an open shot just before the buzzer sounded.

The play could be used to describe Smith's surprising assertiveness as a point guard after three seasons as anything but. Duke's chances in defending its national title undoubtedly hinge on Smith, as well as a young frontcourt and the return of Kyrie Irving. Duke's chances do not hinge on Kyle Singler. They didn't last year. They didn't the year before. They never have.

To suggest that the Blue Devils need Singler to play well is to suggest the Clippers need Blake Griffin to dunk. It will happen. There is no question; these are reliable facts proven time and time again.

Singler is now in his fourth season in Durham, N.C., where he has developed a precarious legacy. Name another player to be his team's No. 2 player for four years, always second fiddle to a different player each year. First it was DeMarcus Nelson, then Gerald Henderson, then Jon Scheyer and now Smith. Making the matter even more unique, each was a teammate of Singler's his freshman year, when Smith was an afterthought and Scheyer and Henderson were role players. But while each of those teammates ascended into greater roles and became a legitimate ACC player of the year candidate, Singler hasn't bothered. He hasn't been asked to. He hasn't needed to. He hasn't wanted to. Or maybe, he just isn't that type of player.

Whatever the cliche, Singler's career at Duke will be marked by one -- and possibly, if everything falls right again this year, two -- national championships. It will be marked by remarkable consistency. It will be marked by being the type of player who makes sure to finish plays, even as the shot clock nears expiry.

All of which makes for one interesting glimpse into Singler's NBA prospects. My colleague Jonathan Wasserman writes in Singler's player profile that the 6-foot-9, 237-pound senior "defines the term 'tweener,' " an evaluation difficult to dismiss. Singler has filled in admirably over the years as an undersized power forward for a Duke team looking to stretch defenses, with last season's title team a notable departure from the role. He thrives in pinning smaller players in the post with his quick arsenal of scoring moves and drawing larger, stronger opponents out to the perimeter, where he can take advantage of his lofted jumper and ability to shoot off the dribble.

There is an abject stereotype that all white American basketball players lack elite athleticism but make up for it in smarts. Ask Joe Alexander -- or, more precisely, the Milwaukee Bucks, who drafted him -- how true that holds. Still, it's difficult to deny either side when discussing Singler. We've seen him dunked on, plowed over by post players and dribbled past by wings the last four years. We've also rarely caught him out of position or watched him make a careless pass.

As his career has gone on, he's learned to avoid those embarrassing situations. He's improved his athleticism by leaps and bounds, in terms of both strength and quickness, in his time at Duke. He won't be mistaken for LeBron James, but he's a far superior physical product than Gordon Hayward, whom Singler was compared to when the pair of swingmen met in the 2010 title game.

Singler can handle, pass, shoot with range, rebound in position, defend on the wing and in a zone and hit big shots. He's a winner whose teams have gone 113-12 in three-and-a-half seasons at Duke. He rarely requires rest -- his 34.1 minutes per game would be substantially higher if Duke didn't blow out so many teams to start the season -- and has been able to adjust to playing alongside three completely different stars.

It's the resume of a role player, perhaps a good one. Which makes perfect sense: Singler's been an overused role player for four years now. When a top-10 recruit signs on to play at Duke, particularly after a 22-11 season which ended with a first-round loss to Virginia Commonwealth, the expectations are that of a star. Singler's never shied away from carrying the team when it needs him to. But he's at his most comfortable executing his own game within the flow of others.

Before this season, many predicted Singler would be national player of the year. That was never going to happen. It's not in his blood. Sure, had he been saddled with a poor group of teammates and asked to score a ton of points, he could probably put up the numbers to compete with Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette. But it's not in his blood.

Kyle Singler is now fifth on Duke's career scoring list. He's never led the Blue Devils in scoring for a season. He'll never lead an NBA team in scoring, and he'll never be asked to, either.

Singler is not, to be clear, Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough played harder than anyone imagineable but clearly lacked the skill, size and athleticism to maintain a regular role as an NBA starter. He's a fine piece on the bench for the Indiana Pacers, but that's about it. Singler can be a starter, and a good one.

Still, like Hansbrough, he generates no NBA Draft excitement at this point. People want to talk about the newest player to burst onto the scouting world's radar, such as Fredette, or the hot freshman, like Terrence Jones. Singler's improvements have been gradual. He looks a lot like the kid that came to Durham four years ago, until you notice the added form on his biceps or his reduced foul rate despite playing more minutes in general and more often playing those minutes at power forward.

There's a clear upside to this, when it comes to his NBA prospects. It's become rather clear Singler is not the second coming of Larry Bird, a "Great White Hope," the same projected fate that doomed Adam Morrison, Wally Szczerbiak and Mike Dunleavy. He was never pegged as a top-five pick, helped, in part, by entering college basketball with a remarkable freshman class including Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Evan Turner, O.J. Mayo and Eric Gordon, to name a few.

They were shooting stars. Singler is the moon. He's there every night; some days in spectacular, smiling glory, others covered by clouds. But he's there every night. The NBA can expect the same.

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