How Michael Gbinije Left Duke to Save His Hoops Career

Greg CouchNational ColumnistApril 1, 2016

Syracuse's Michael Gbinije (0) shoots during college basketball practice, Thursday, March 24, 2016, in Chicago. Syracuse plays against Gonzaga in a regional semifinal game in the NCAA Tournament on Friday. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Michael Gbinije was so close to being a one-and-done player. No, not the kind people talk about now, where players go to college for just one year before jumping to the NBA. Gbinije was close to one-and-done as in one year and he disappears. He's gone. It's over. He's done.

Gbinije was a highly recruited state champ out of high school in Virginia and chose to go to Duke for the obvious reasons: great basketball, great education. And then he barely played his freshman year. He wasn't ready, he said. He was losing interest in basketball, unsure where he wanted to go with it. So he decided to leave Duke.

His former AAU coach, Adrian Autry, had become an assistant at Syracuse. Autry pushed head coach Jim Boeheim to bring in Gbinije (pronounced Ben-uh-jay). It wasn't an easy sell, though.

"I didn't like him at all," Boeheim said. "He went to Duke, and I really didn't think that he was that good to be honest with you. He couldn't shoot, and he was not really a guard."

How close was Gbinije to being lost right there? To fading out of basketball?

GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 16:  Michael Gbinije #13 of the Duke Blue Devils walks off the court after losing to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks 75-70 during the second round of the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on March 16, 2012 in Gr
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It's startling to think about that, because now Gbinije is a senior at Syracuse, the star player on a team that will play in the Final Four. He already has his degree, is taking classes toward a master's, will play in the Olympics on the Nigerian team and will get a shot at an NBA career (NBADraft.net has him going 31st in its latest mock draft).

"Now things are nice weather, sunny days. That's how I see things," Gbinije said. "What's the quote? 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.'"

Yes, that is the quote. But I'm not sure how true it is. Most players hit a ceiling somewhere. Or they hit something. And when they do, it's over. Gbinije seemed to be at that point and nearly fell through the cracks, but something about him made his story end differently from other prospects'. The question is whether it was just randomness that helped lead to his success or if there is something for other struggling players on the cusp of their own disappearance to take from his story.

"I think everyone always knew Mike had the potential. But he wasn't fulfilling it," said Kevin Tiller, Gbinije's close friend and former high school teammate. Tiller, now a graduate assistant on the Virginia Commonwealth team, says he and Gbinije still talk every week. "He was just young and immature when he went to Duke, and it wasn't the transition he thought it would be.

"Syracuse was a fit for him. He's very, very smart and knows himself very well. He writes stuff on his phone, writes little notes. He's so disciplined. He's disciplined about what he eats, when he sleeps, what he buys. He knew what he needed to do in order to get better: make this many free throws, make this many jump shots, layups. While we're talking, he'll just say 'Do you mind if we go outside so I can work on my dribbling?'

"I'll say 'Mike, let's go to the mall.' And he'll say 'We can go to the mall at 3:30, but from 2:30 to 3:30 I have to work on this…'"

Nick Lisi/Associated Press

Gbinije said he just wasn't fully prepared for Duke. Part of it, he said, was that he needed to work on his stamina and fitness level. When he transferred to Syracuse, he said, he made that his priority. He took up jogging and boxing drills.

It was his new routine.

His dad, Frank, wasn't so sure that that was ever a problem. He said that in talking with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Michael was lacking confidence and was too quiet. He felt that his son just needed to play to get his confidence and come out of his shell.

"He'd always been well-conditioned, but there was an adjustment he needed to make coming from high school in pace and stamina to compete at the highest level," Frank Gbinije said. "He was losing his passion for the game, and it's hard to grow when you don't play. He needed to play to help his confidence. It's amazing how much better these players get when they have the opportunity."

Michael's confidence was shot, and he was making the move to Syracuse, where the head coach didn't believe in him. And if you don't know Boeheim, he's the type of coach who has no problem telling you all the negative things he can think of about you.

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 13:  Head coach Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange talks with Michael Gbinije #0 during the second half against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at the Carrier Dome on January 13, 2015 in Syracuse, New York.  Syracuse defeated Wake For
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Last week at the Midwest Regional final in Chicago, Boeheim explained to me at length his philosophy of pushing players and being so hard on them: "Mostly it's just verbal stuff—yelling and screaming and not necessarily negative, not…I don't try verbal abuse…

"But our job is to push players. It's your job [as a coach] to get the most out of your players. We all push. There's nobody that doesn't push. Some do it a little easier and a little nicer maybe, but we all push. That's the way players get better, and at the end of the day, they want that. Derrick Coleman told me I was pushing him too much and he'd never come back to see me again. And he's back more than my sons are."

So imagine the situation Gbinije was walking into: confidence shot, interest waning and, as he put it, "You've got an old man yelling at you, and you're not feeling too good about yourself. At the beginning, you see it as just beating you down."

But like Coleman, and presumably others from Boeheim's highly successful and lengthy stint as Syracuse coach/curmudgeon, Gbinije said he learned to appreciate that Boeheim was just trying to help him. He said Boeheim wouldn't be yelling if he didn't think it could accomplish something.

Eventually, Boeheim moved Gbinije, who's 6'7", to point guard from small forward. That was trial by error, error and more error at first. But through hard work and Gbinije's excessive routines, he got it down. Boeheim also peppered him to become more vocal, more of a leader. It's the same issue Gbinije had with Krzyzewski at Duke.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Michael Gbinije college stats
11-12 (Duke)
13-14 (Syracuse)
14-15 (Syracuse)
15-16 (Syracuse)

"Boeheim coached him a lot differently than any other coaches who coached him," Tiller said. "He challenged him and said, 'Accept the challenge or never reach your potential.' Mike was not going to run away from this challenge.

"Everyone knows Mike as this tall guy who doesn't speak. Mike is reserved and does his own thing. Boeheim challenged him to get out of his comfort zone. Even a year ago, he wasn't the player he is now. Now he brings everyone along with him."

He scored in double digits in every game this year on a team in need of offense. Boeheim, after 40 years as Syracuse's head coach, said he has never seen a player improve and prove as much as Gbinije.

Meanwhile, more open now, Gbinije said he made incredible friends on the Nigerian team that qualified for the Olympics. He has never been to Nigeria and doesn't even know much about it. He was eligible because his dad is from there.

His hope for the Rio Games is for Nigeria to play Team USA so he can face Boeheim, who is an assistant coach. It's a hope not for revenge but just for a fun opportunity. As he said, it's all nice days and sunny weather now.

Or, as he joked about Boeheim: "I survived the beating."

Greg Couch covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @gregcouch.


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