Posted on May 15, 2024

Meet Cooper Flagg, the Next ‘White Duke Villain’ and a Potential No. 1 Pick

Ben Golliver, Washington Post, May 11, 2024

Cooper Flagg, America’s most coveted teenage basketball player, faced the biggest decision of his decade-long ascent from central Maine to the top of NBA draft boards.

The 17-year-old prodigy proved to be exceptionally ambitious in rising from rural Newport, which is closer to Canada going northwest or northeast, than it is to Boston, which is 200 miles south. After winning a state championship as a freshman, Flagg transferred to Montverde Academy, a basketball powerhouse near Orlando. Even before he led Montverde to a 33-0 record and a national championship this past season, the polished 6-foot-9 forward reclassified so he could graduate in three years and fast track his NBA journey. Now, he needed to pick a college.

Bryant University in Rhode Island was the first school to offer him a scholarship, making a pitch by telephone while he was riding home from an eighth-grade AAU tournament in Massachusetts. All the major schools were interested, including the reigning national champion Connecticut Huskies, who were conveniently located in New England.

But Duke was the school Flagg’s mother, Kelly, had followed so closely as a high school basketball player that she wore No. 32 as a tribute to Christian Laettner. Blue Devils Coach Jon Scheyer built a strong bond with Flagg on the recruiting trail, and the school’s recent track record of No. 1 picks, such as Zion Williamson and Paolo Banchero, was a big draw. What’s more, Jayson Tatum’s season in Durham was a formative viewing experience for Flagg, a third-generation Boston Celtics fan.

There was one catch: Duke is Duke, for better and worse.

“We definitely had that conversation with Cooper and explained the gravity of the situation,” Kelly Flagg said. “If you choose this school, you’re about to be the greatest, hated White Duke villain.”

Thanks to his highflying offense, hard-nosed defense and competitive drive, Flagg is the top prospect in the 2025 NBA draft class and has overshadowed this year’s relatively weak crop, which will be in the spotlight when the annual draft lottery is held Sunday afternoon to determine which team will get the top pick next month. If Flagg is selected first next year as expected, he will become the first White American No. 1 pick since Indiana’s Kent Benson in 1977.

“That’s a surreal feeling, knowing that’s history in a way,” Flagg said. “I definitely take pride in that, but I take even more pride in coming from Maine. [Going first] is something every kid dreams of. I’m definitely working toward that.”

Duke, he concluded, would best prepare him for the challenges of NBA life. Playing on that stage was worth the stereotypes and the heckling.

“Bring it,” Kelly Flagg remembered her son saying at the family meeting. “He’s always been fueled by negativity from the opposition. Every gym he went to his freshman year, he heard the ‘overrated’ chants. Then he would do something spectacular, and the chant would end abruptly. That’s just his personality. If you’re a basketball player, the color of your skin shouldn’t make a difference. If he can play, he can play.”

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As his time at Duke approaches, Flagg appears to have more in common with recent one-and-done stars such as Tatum, Williamson and Banchero than he does with Laettner, JJ Redick and other Blue Devils villains from a bygone era.

His athleticism is extraordinary: He bounces high off the court for powerful dunks, moves quickly side-to-side while guarding smaller players, flies into traffic for contested rebounds and loves to push the pace in transition. Though he plays with intensity, Flagg’s goal is to help lead Duke to its first national championship since 2015, not antagonize rival fans.

His multifaceted game has been compared to those of Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Garnett and Paul George; Flagg, who said he feels comfortable playing anywhere from two guard to small-ball center, has studied Tatum’s smooth perimeter scoring and Magic forward Jonathan Isaac’s wrecking-ball defense. At Montverde, Flagg examined shot chart data and refined his outside shooting mechanics, knowing he will spend most of his time on the perimeter in the space-obsessed NBA.

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