PHOTO: Wendell Moore Jr.
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By TOM SHANAHAN
DURHAM — This time a year ago Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. was on a special list of college basketball players Bill Walton most admired. Walton, the Basketball Hall-of-Famer and ESPN analyst, saw more than his basketball profile.
Moore stood out among college athletes participating and organizing Black Lives Matter protests that spread across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman, He organized a BLM rally on June 15, 2020 in his hometown of Concord, N.C., near Charlotte.
“I’m all for it,” Walton said last year of such protests. “It’s fantastic — a dream come true. It’s what I grew up hoping the future would be; now it’s here.”
Walton, as older fans know, was socially outspoken at both UCLA and in the NBA. As a UCLA sophomore, he led the Bruins past Florida State on March 25, 1972 in the NCAA final. By May 10 he went from the sports page to the front page. Walton was arrested protesting the Vietnam War; he sat at the busy Westwood intersection of Wilshire and Veteran with fellow UCLA students.
UCLA coach John Wooden drove to the San Fernando Valley police station to get Walton out jail. On the drive back to campus, Wooden chastised Walton, suggesting writing letters was a better form of protest. So, Walton wrote a letter of protest to President Richard M. Nixon – on Wooden’s UCLA letterhead.
“I didn’t know that about Bill Walton,” Moore said. “It’s always encouraging (to hear support), especially from someone of his stature and his place in the world. Somebody like him encouraging us to keep sharing that message, that’s inspirational.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t need to bail Moore out of jail. He supported his players and participated in a BLM rally Duke assistant coach Nolan Smith organized on campus in August 2020.
“The main thing is to keep the message alive,” Moore said about his ongoing purpose. “I think we’re progressing. It’s a big thing, it hasn’t gone away. The more we get the message out, the more change we’re going to have for the better.”
Walton may also soon be noting Moore’s on-court play. Duke’s coaching staff discussed improvement from Moore during the recent Duke media day.
Moore, who can play three perimeter positions, hit only 30 percent of his 3-pointers (22 of 73) last year while averaging 9.7 points. The Blue Devils are counting on improved offense from their most experienced starter despite only 18 starts in 24 games last year. Krzyzeweski noted a dunk in an off-season workout that went viral as an example of his improved athleticism.
“He’s our leader,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s vocal. He’s in a great, great place. I’m really anxious to see how it will turn out this year. He’s one of the keys for our team.”
Moore, listed as a 6-foot-5, 213-pounder, said he has shed five to seven pounds to improve his quickness, endurance and athleticism.
“I’ve put on a lot more muscle,” said Moore. “I’m more lean. I’ve done a lot of running. You lose weight you stay away from getting tired.”
Moore, who has worked closely with Nolan Smith, also has dug into the Duke archives. He surprised Smith, who played two NBA seasons and professionally overseas, one day when he mentioned Smith went from 5.9 points a game as a freshman and 8.4 as a sophomore to 17.4 as a junior and 20.6 as a senior.
“We’ve had many conversations about that,” Smith said. “He looked at my sophomore to junior year jump.”
Smith also praised Moore’s attitude and work ethic in an era of transfers.
“One thing I’m most proud of it is he didn’t run,” Smith said. “We’re in climate of transfers. Guys transfer and run when it’s not going that easy. If you stick it out, it’s going to work out if you have the tools to make it work. Now, he’s back and ready for junior year leap.”
Moore is the only recruit left from the 2109 freshmen class. Vernon Carey and Cassius Stanley were one-and-dones and Matthew Hurt left for the NBA after his sophomore season.
The 2020 class has only Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams back this season, although that’s plenty for most schools. D.J. Steward was a one and done, while Jalen Johnson left the team at mid-season as a one-and-done. Jaemyne Brakefield and Henry Coleman transferred out, Brakefield to Mississippi and Coleman to Texas A&M.
“I feel like I’m ready for this, especially with the team we have,” Moore said. “We have so many guys it takes the pressure off all of us. It’s not always going to be just one person or two or three people. I think we’re going to have a good eight, nine or 10-man rotation.
“Everyone can play a huge part on the team, so I don’t really feel any pressure. I’ve got my guys behind me and I wouldn’t want to have any other team behind me. We’re just going to go out and do our thing this year.”
For Moore, that’s leading on the court and off the court.
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