Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made it a point to speak with Washington freshman Tony Wroten Jr., after the Blue Devils survived a Huskies comeback sparked by Wroten.
After Tony Wroten Jr. nearly carried the Huskies to an improbable comeback victory over Duke, Mike Krzyzewski made a point to share a few words with the Washington freshman.
“You played a great game today, son,” the Blue Devils coach said.
Other than UW’s 86-80 loss, Wroten couldn’t have scripted a better breakout scenario — national television and in front of a crowd of 17,046, including executives and scouts from a dozen NBA teams at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
While the other Huskies were in awe of the Duke players and shooting air balls, Wroten came off the bench, scored UW’s first six points and played with a tenacity that belied his youth.
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“He’s fearless,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “I’d be surprised if he went out there with his tail between his legs. That would surprise me.
“He believes he can beat anybody.”
Despite Wroten’s early heroics, Washington trailed the entire game and fell behind by 19 with 7:11 left.
He took over once again, darting to the rim with dribble drives at every opportunity. Duke’s touted freshman, Austin Rivers, and junior guard Seth Curry collected their fifth fouls trying to keep him out of the lane.
Wroten continued to attack and scored 10 of his game-high 23 points during an 18-6 run that cut Duke’s lead to seven before fouling out with 1:06 remaining.
He converted 8 of 12 shots from the field, 6 of 8 free throws and collected five rebounds in 24 minutes to offset five turnovers.
“I’ve watched most of their games and I thought that was Wroten’s best performance,” Krzyzewski said. “He was terrific. I even told him.
“He’s a big-time talent.”
The compliment didn’t fall on deaf ears. Surprised the Duke coach singled him out during postgame handshakes, Wroten said it was a highlight in his young college career.
“It’s just a blessing first of all because we all know Coach K, who he is and what he’s accomplished,” Wroten said. “For it to come out of his mouth, it’s just crazy because he’s one of the best coaches to ever do it, and for him to say something like that it’s a great accomplishment.”
The Huskies lost two games in New York last week, including a 79-77 defeat to No. 11 Marquette, but they might have discovered a star on their bench.
Romar said Monday he’s considering promoting Wroten into a four-guard starting lineup Friday against UC Santa Barbara to replace center Aziz N’Diaye, who is recovering from a sprained knee that could sideline him the next three games.
“He’s certainly shown that he can play in the game,” Romar said. “He was not intimidated in New York. If he can play in those games, he can play in any games.”
Wroten starred three years at Garfield High, averaging 25 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.4 steals as a senior. He admitted it has been difficult for him to adjust to coming off the bench.
“At first it was tough because in high school I rarely came out of the game,” he said. “I started. It was tough. But high school to college, you’ve got to grow up fast. So I had to adjust. And I’m adjusting to it now.
“Of course I want to start. What player doesn’t want to start? It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. But that’s something I can’t change. That’s up to the coach. But I can control what I do when I get in the game.”
Wroten’s 14 steals ties C.J. Wilcox for most among the Huskies. He’s second in assists (26), third in scoring (14.3 points) and fourth in rebounds (4.5) and minutes (24).
While shooting just 51.9 percent at the line (27 of 52), he has made more free throws than anyone else on the team has attempted. He’s also the only freshman ranked among the Pac-12’s top 10 in scoring and top 15 in assists.
Wroten also has 35 turnovers and is on pace to finish with 132 if he plays 30 games this season. Last season, Isaiah Thomas committed 104 turnovers, which was the most in the Romar era at Washington.
There are moments when Wroten is reckless and at times he’s spectacular. The Huskies understand he’s a high-risk, high-reward guard with great potential.
“As long as he’s not trying to make the fancy play every time and is just being a solid point guard, he’s going to be really good,” Wilcox said. “He’s getting better game by game. … Doing different things and working his way up.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @percyallen