DURHAM, N.C. — Bent over at his locker after the game, untying his Kevin Durant basketball shoes, Kyle Filipowski appeared to be something he hasn’t been lately: Happy.
He joked about not having smelly feet. He smiled. Normal 20-year-old things. But also, things we haven’t seen or heard in some time.
Why? Because frankly, the past few weeks haven’t been fun for Filipowski. You don’t even need to ask him to know so. Just watch how he has played — how he has reacted, really — in any of Duke’s past five games: scowling, sulking, or shouting out at some stinking mistake. “Sometimes,” Filipowski recently told reporters, “my face can still show a different expression than I’m trying to show.”
It’s understandable why. The past few weeks haven’t gone according to plan for Duke’s sophomore star, the 7-footer who spurned the NBA — and a likely lottery landing spot — to return to college for a second season. It all started well enough. After offseason hip surgery, “Two Hip Flip” began the year on a tear, looking every bit like the ACC preseason player of the year he was expected to be.
But over the Blue Devils’ past five games, as questions arose about the team’s toughness, Filipowski has struggled. His per-game numbers over that stretch — 13.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game — were still fine, but just that. Fine.
Not exceptional. Not necessarily conducive to winning. Not anywhere near his All-America ceiling.
“When he’s in a funk like that, I always know he’s gonna come out of it, so I’m not the one to be on him,” fellow sophomore Mark Mitchell said, “because I know what he can do. I know it’s just a matter of time.”
And apparently, that time was Monday. Filipowski drained a corner 3-pointer 13 seconds into Duke’s eventual 77-69 win over Wake Forest, then never looked back. His 21 points were the most he’s had in a Blue Devils win in a month. Combine that with his team-high 11 rebounds and Monday represented Filipowski’s first double-double in seven games. He drew eight fouls, notched two blocks and two steals, and played every minute of the second half.
Those toughness questions?
Yeah, coach Jon Scheyer heard them.
“Anybody who doubts (his) toughness, what (he’s) about,” Scheyer said, “they don’t know Kyle Filipowski.”
Maybe that’s the secret right there, though. Not that people didn’t know Filipowski, but that Filipowski needed to learn more about himself.
“It’s just being more patient with myself,” Filipowski said Monday. “I’m a really hard guy on myself, and I always expect the best from me. And sometimes I’ve just got to tell myself to chill out.”
That would explain the not-great body language of late, right? A college sophomore, feeling like he’s carrying the weight of the world? It’s reasonable that a former top-five recruit leading a top-10 team — a blue blood like Duke — in scoring and rebounding would struggle to accept things going poorly.
Some of that’s personal. But some of it is also that Filipowski knows what he means to the Blue Devils.
“He’s a different guy. Kyle’s very thoughtful,” Scheyer said. “He takes the pressure, the responsibility that he has for our team, and when he’s not playing as well, he takes that on his shoulders. And basketball is not a sport that you’re supposed to be perfect in. So for him, it’s just embracing that.”
And Monday, Filipowski did. Good as he was, he wasn’t perfect. He missed his next five 3-pointers after that initial make, not to mention turning the ball over four times, including once inexplicably with less than a minute remaining. But he never dropped his head, never pouted. He just kept running the floor, jockeying for position and scraping himself back up off the hardwood.
Like a man, as Scheyer put it.
Plus, if anything, Filipowski got better as the game went on. He’s making almost 35 percent of his 3s this season, but after those five misses, he finally wised up and went at Wake Forest inside. He almost single-handedly got Wake Forest big man Efton Reid III in trouble in the process, limiting the Demon Deacons’ best interior player. And once Reid subbed out, Filipowski thrived on his mismatches down low against Wake’s backup bigs.
It was fitting, then, that he had the last real basket of consequence: a two-handed toss of a layup that put Duke up 7 with under a minute to play. Nothing sexy. Just a game-sealing shot.
“Even when things may not be falling — my 3-pointer or a stupid turnover — not letting that get me out of my own head, and still doing what I can to help this team win,” Filipowski said. “Because I know that they need me just as much as I need them.”
To get where Duke wants to go, he’s right. Scheyer’s second squad still has a lofty ceiling, but only if Filipowski plays every night like he did versus Wake Forest. There will be bad matchups for him in the foreseeable future — the rest of conference play, the ACC tournament and however Duke survives thereafter — but Filipowski showed Monday he’s still capable of being one of the best forwards in the country.
And maybe more importantly, that he’s tough enough to grow and recognize his shortcomings.
Plenty of individual honors are surely coming Filipowski’s way, based on his gaudy stats, but those accolades aren’t why he came back. It was to win at the highest level, the level Duke tasted last season but couldn’t sustain.
Could this funk — or, really, Filipowski’s ability to break out of it — be what helps the Blue Devils maintain that level?
“It’s not supposed to be smooth sailing all the time. Even when you come back as a sophomore, you think it’s supposed to be better,” Scheyer said. “Well, it’s only better if you make it better — and he’s made it better, especially tonight.”
(Top photo of Kyle Filipowski with Mark Mitchell: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)