After game-winning free throws, here comes Tyrese Proctor — and maybe Duke

DURHAM, N.C. — Down one to Clemson with 7.4 seconds to play, Duke coach Jon Scheyer knew what he wanted to do: Put the ball in Tyrese Proctor’s hands.

“You just want to attack the basket,” Scheyer said. “It’s enough time.”

So Scheyer called a play Duke likes in that situation, one it even practiced at shootaround two days ago. Then he watched it unfold almost in slow motion: Jeremy Roach inbounded the ball to Proctor as the Aussie guard cut across the court before bursting down the floor; two Clemson defenders met Proctor at the 3-point arc, slowing his momentum and almost derailing the play; Proctor drove through contact anyway — and finally, with one second left, tossed up a shot through traffic in the lane.


Free throws.

Game on the line. (Literally.)

“Like LeBron (James) would say,” Jared McCain joked, “I knew he’d make those free throws.”

Proctor said postgame he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in that sort of situation — if ever: “Nothing like this, I don’t think.” So before he stepped to the line, he grabbed a towel from Duke’s bench and wiped his hands. Took a deep breath. Then calmly took his traditional two dribbles, and sank the first shot.

Tied score. Teammates reached out to high-five him, and Proctor somehow had the wherewithal — in the crucial moment in Cameron Indoor Stadium — to intentionally use the back of his hand to hit theirs. Can’t take any chances, right?

He took a step backward off the line and exhaled while he closed his eyes. “I was just talking to myself,” Proctor explained, “knowing that I was going to make both of them.”

Then he did just that, despite the pressure and, probably, some still-sweaty palms.

Clemson’s subsequent full-court heave fell incomplete.

Ballgame: Duke 72, Clemson 71.

“I mean, it’s a relief,” Proctor said with a grin, of his emotions seeing the second one drop. “Happy we came out on top.”

But without Proctor, Duke wouldn’t have — and that goes beyond just his clutch free throws. The 6-foot-5 sophomore finished with 18 points — including four made 3s — in addition to five rebounds, two assists and two steals. His 42 points in the last two games are the most he’s ever had in consecutive games, not to mention the first time he’s made four 3s in two straight games.

And entering Saturday, over Duke’s previous three contests? Proctor was averaging 17.3 points per game while making 40.9 percent of his triples.

Offensively, he hasn’t just been on a heater; he’s finally starting to look like the potential lottery pick many expected he would be.

Like the player Duke needs, quite frankly, to hit its ceiling this season.

“When he’s playing like that and we’re all clicking,” Mark Mitchell said, “it’s gonna be a scary sight.”

After his strong end to last season, the expectation entering Proctor’s sophomore campaign was that he would continue improving and become one of the best point guards in America. The Athletic even named Proctor to its preseason All-America team. And it made sense — with his size, point-of-attack defense and pick-and-roll savvy.

Only that breakout never really materialized. Before he sprained his ankle in the first minute at Georgia Tech — a game Duke ultimately lost to fall to 5-3 — Proctor was only averaging 11.7 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting, and just 32.4 percent from 3. Then that injury cost him the bulk of four games, and it was a slow return thereafter. He averaged 6.5 points in his first four games back — coming off the bench in all four — and looked little like the difference-maker he was late last season when Duke won 10 straight (including the ACC championship).

But since then? He’s slowly rounded into form, in every sense. He chases over screens more quickly and vigorously. He’s been decisive with his shots, rather than overdribbling or waiting for the perfect pass to materialize. And the results for Duke have followed; after Saturday, the Blue Devils sit alone in second place in the ACC.

“Being hurt and stuff, that’s past me now,” Proctor said. “I’m back to 100 percent, and just playing my basketball.”

All of which makes those final free throws that much more significant. Scheyer said in Duke’s last huddle after the players knew their assignments, he didn’t have any grandiose inspiration for his sophomore point guard. “Me talking to him too much,” Scheyer joked, “I can only screw him up.” Instead, he got the sense Proctor was confident. He patted him on the back, and simply told Proctor he had it.

Proctor’s response was just as plain, just as irrefutable: “I got you, Coach.”

Now this moment, especially with Roach still on the mend, can be a springboard of sorts for Proctor — and accordingly, for Duke, too. When Scheyer moved Proctor to full-time point guard midway through last season, it changed the trajectory of the Blue Devils’ season. Could his handling of Proctor this time around be similarly influential?

Why not?

At a minimum, Proctor helped Duke win a pivotal game Saturday against one of the ACC’s few NCAA Tournament-worthy teams. (The Blue Devils, after all, were just 1-4 this season in two-possession games before the Clemson win.) But it’s not inconceivable that Proctor hitting those shots — the culmination of his recent ascent — could push Duke to a gear it hasn’t hit regularly this season.

As Proctor himself said: “It’s a huge boost of confidence.”

(Photo of Tyrese Proctor driving to the basket against Clemson: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

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