Joe Mantegna has a power that few high school basketball coaches across the country possess. When he talks, even the most elite college coaches and recruiters listen. He’s earned that right.
The Coach for Blair Academy – a New Jersey boarding school just west of New York City – has put nearly 100 players on Division I rosters over the last two decades: a list that includes Duke’s Luol Deng, UConn’s Charlie Villanueva and Texas’ Royal Ivey. He’s won four state titles since 2009 and 418 games.
So, when Mantegna called Jon Scheyer in 2019 to discuss Jaylen Blakes, a four-star junior combo guard that had led the Bucs to a state title that season, Duke’s future head Coach did the only thing he could – he listened.
“Hey man, I’ve got a special kid here,” Mantegna told Scheyer. “I know you’re going to have a bunch of one-and-done guys, but you may want to look at him as a future Duke basketball captain. He’s a four-year-old guy. A culture carrier.”
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The new culture of Blue Devils basketball is still being defined under Scheyer in his first year after replacing Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski and Blakes’ emergence as a valuable rotation player this season has proven Mantegna’s words, if not prophetic, at least trustworthy. For a program so invested in the one-and-done machine and transfer Portal quick fixes, Blakes is a relic of the Duke of old; the Duke that won five national titles under Coach K by developing Talent over time.
“What got me excited when we started recruiting Jaylen is he’s a guy you want to go through battles with and you can grow with,” Scheyer said. “You didn’t get to see him all the time getting better, but he worked his butt off every day, and now here he is making a big impact. And I only see that continuing and progressing in his time here.”
The improvement on the court this season is in full view: a faster motor on defense, fearlessness on drives to the basket, fast break dunks, smart passing and a more reliable three-point shot that has led to him scoring at least eight points in three of Duke’s first five games.
But how did he make such a significant jump?
“They went to Duke with eyes wide open,” Mantegna told the USA TODAY Network. “And honestly, I think it was even tougher for him than he ever imagined. But he has an incredible growth mindset. He has this self-belief that has made him great.”
‘They let it fuel him’
There were times last season when frustration would bubble over for Blakes.
Yes, he understood that the three freshmen in front of him – Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels – were future NBA draft picks and that his role would be minimal, at best, during Duke’s eventual run to the Final Four. That didn’t stop him from wanting to play.
After home games, Blakes would often go back to Cameron Indoor as late as 1 am and put himself through shooting drills and workouts. He played through game situations in his mind, preparing himself to be ready at any moment.
“He didn’t let it discourage him,” Monroe Blakes, Jaylen’s father, told the USA TODAY Network. “They let it fuel him.”
The end of the 2021-2022 season was merely the beginning for Blakes. He and his father, a Division II Half of Fame inductee at Saint Michael’s College, started the training back home in New Jersey; first working out at Blair Academy with his former Coach before jet-setting across the country.
The first stop was Atlanta where Blakes worked out with a trainer associated with Overtime Elite Atlanta, a new pro league for young players looking for an unconventional path to the NBA. Then it was off to Phoenix for training with New Jersey native and current Denver Nuggets guard Davon Reed.
In August, Blakes was encouraged by Duke to join the USA East Coast Basketball team for an overseas tour. They traveled to Barcelona where they played against professionals from the Spanish Liga ACB.
He rejoined his Duke team after his international trip with a renewed sense of confidence and an eye on taking a larger leadership role on the team. The Blue Devils returned only one significant player – Jeremy Roach – from last year’s team. Blakes would have a chance to contribute.
After averaging 4.5 minutes in 21 games as a freshman, Blakes set career highs in minutes (21) and points (8) in the season-opener. He played significant minutes (18) against Defending NCAA Champions Kansas, getting to the free-throw line twice and adding three defensive rebounds.
“It helped me a lot,” Blakes said. “Going to different places and getting comfortable in uncomfortable spots was good for me. I learned a lot about myself and where I could get better. I can’t say I’ve surprised myself because I’ve put a lot of work in to get to this point. I think I’m just excited with what the results are showing.”
His play has garnered high praise from Roach, Duke’s captain, a position Blakes’ former Coach believes he will hold one day.
“He came in as a freshman, and obviously there are some ups and downs, but he learned so much from me, Wendell, Trevor, AJ, Paolo, and that gave him the confidence to do what is expected out there and what he knows they can do,” Roach said. “He’s seen us in the Final Four, he’s seen us in the ACC championship, so he’s seen everything. He knows what’s at stake.”