Sam Donnellon: Zoubek seizes NBA opportunity

Posted: June 23, 2010

EVERY NOW and then we would run into each other, Paul Zoubek and I, two fathers whose kids had shared some moments as classmates at Haddonfield Memorial High School.

A chance meeting at a store, a sporting event, a party. Each time it seemed, we would discuss the impending future of his 7-1 son, Brian. Always, it seemed, there was much uncertainty. Foot surgery. Transfer rumors. More foot surgery. More rumors.

He was staying at Duke. That was what you always got from Paul. Sure he would get more playing time somewhere else, and sometimes, you thought you saw in the father's frustrated eyes that he wished the rumors were true. But the kid had bucked conventional thinking becoming a Blue Devil in the first place, and maybe the only thing worse than retreating with your tail between your legs is when that tail is a lot longer than that of your parents and peers.

And so the last time we ran into each other, back in January, it was about the next step. A senior, Brian was still coming off the bench at Duke, still sharing playing time despite Duke's new slowed-down style of play. His dad said he was looking to play in Europe next year, maybe. Or maybe just go to grad school.

"It's an amazing thing," Brian Zoubek said the other day. "The last couple of months have been a whirlwind."

He said this from a hotel room in Portland, Ore., after working out in front of Trail Blazers officials. He said this amid a 12-team NBA tryout tour, plopping his 7-1 frame on planes almost daily. Sacramento on Saturday. Golden State on Sunday. Denver on Monday, Dallas on Tuesday, Oklahoma City this morning.

"Right up to the draft," he said.

There is still uncertainty, of course.

But only about where the next step begins, not what it is.

"I know I'm going to be on an NBA roster somewhere," he said.

Which, as he so aptly put it, is an amazing thing. Because for most of his college career, up until a February game against Maryland and an authenticating one against Miami, Zoubek was a painful fit.

Some thought that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gave up on him too quickly. Some thought he had been doomed due to successive injuries to his left foot, which cost him valuable time both in and out of season. Some believed he simply was too slow, too one-dimensional, a square peg in Duke's system, even after Krzyzewski altered his usual up-tempo style to a more physical, halfcourt style.

Zoubek's change in fortune began when Krzyzewski started him for the first time all season against Maryland in mid-February. Playing 22 minutes, he pulled 17 rebounds - eight offensive - and scored 16 points in a 77-56 rout. He played with confidence, he made the Terps pay for challenging Duke's outside shooters and he stayed away from fouls.

Afterward, Krzyzewski pulled him aside.

"He told me, 'Don't be a one-hit wonder,' " Zoubek said.

Inserted again as a starter the following game against Miami, Zoubek played 29 minutes, scored 10 points, had five steals. Down by 12 at the half, his plays fueled a second-half comeback by the Blue Devils in an 81-74 win.

Even more than the one against Maryland, that game, he believes, laid the groundwork for what followed.

"He told me I was becoming reliable," Zoubek said of his coach.

By the time the ACC Tournament rolled around, he was part of the starting five, often directing Duke's defensive coverage from underneath the basket like a quarterback standing over center. The beard he grew to make himself look tougher permeated the personality of his team, right down to the final seconds of the NCAA championship game, when Zoubek guarded the inbound, leaned out to force Butler star Gordon Hayward to alter his shot, then spun to corral the rebound and draw a foul.

In a game decided by moments, he was the difference. The great reward for 4 trying years was not just an NCAA championship, but the altered perceptions of NBA scouts, who suddenly weighed his capabilities over his perceived limitations.

Zoubek has been projected as a mid-to-late second-round pick, but he's not sweating it. As he said, "I have a job opportunity and it's to play in the NBA." He's eager to prove that this spring, amazing as it was, was as much a new beginning as it was a great finish.

"They knew I could play defense and that I will work my butt off," he said of the pro teams he's tried out for. "What I am able to show is my offensive capabilities. I can shoot better than they thought, and maybe my touch around the basket is better than they thought, too."

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