Boise State's Nick Duncan has been something of a revelation for the Broncos this season. Averaging 13 points and shooting 41 percent from 3-point-range, the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Australian center has been a matchup nightmare for opponents with his ability to defend inside and knock down shots from outside.
Still, when Duncan picked up his fourth foul with 11 minutes to go in the second half of the Broncos' 68-59 loss to Arizona on Sunday in Anaheim, a Boise State fan behind the team's bench broke into a chant the big man has heard throughout his time in Idaho.
"Duncan Doughnuts! Duncan Doughnuts!" the fan screamed at the top of his lungs so that everyone could hear him in the half-filled Honda Center. It's an insult Duncan hears all too often, but the Australian had a typically mellow response to it when asked about it
"You heard one guy screaming 'Duncan Doughnuts,'" Duncan told CBS Sports after the game. "At Utah State, I had about 10,000 people screaming that."
Such is life for Nick Duncan, Boise State's center with the smooth 3-point stroke, brilliant mind, terrific motor, and heavier-than-normal frame.
It's a bit miraculous that Duncan even ever ended up at Boise State. It's not as dramatic as when Leon Rice joked during a press conference in Duncan's freshman year that he was "an accountant on his lunch break" when they grabbed him out of Australia. However, the story does involve a little white lie from an assistant before Rice had gotten a chance to really sit down and scout him.
Duncan started his athletic career as a swimmer on Manly Beach, a little town on the edge of the Pacific Ocean that's about a 30-minute ferry ride from the center of Sydney. It's a town where even in the winter, it's 70 degrees and sunny, and it's there that his easy-going mentality came to fruition. He outgrew swimming and began really focusing on basketball when he was 11. He eventually ended up making his regional team, and was so skilled that he was able to attend the Australian Institute for Sport -- the leader in youth sports development in the country.
By the time he finished his development at AIS, Duncan knew he wanted to go to college in the United States due to the lack of strong developmental system in Australia for those aged 19-to-22. However, Duncan was still flying under the radar, receiving little interest from American colleges. That is, until John Rillie took over as an assistant at Boise.
Rillie was a player for Gonzaga in the early 1990s and then went on to play for the Australian national team. He knew about Duncan from his time playing professionally in Australia, and when it came time to coach, he knew he was the type of player that would be perfect at Boise State.
"His teams every time just won," Rillie said. "That's what stands out in my mind. I don't want to seem like I'm hurting this kid, but he and Dante Exum come from the same era, and Nick Duncan's teams always won. At home, when they regionally competed against each other, his teams always walked away with a gold medal. I think that says a lot about Nick."
Still, that wasn't quite enough to sell the Bronco staff, who obviously gave a strange look when Rillie said that they needed to take Duncan given his body type. That's when Rillie's harmless little lie happened.
"Many head coaches look at their assistant and go 'who else is recruiting the guy?," Rillie said. "So I had to make up some other schools that were recruiting him mysteriously at the time."
What schools did he say were trying to get Duncan to commit?
"I used some of the other schools that had Australians on their staff," Rillie said with a smile on his face. "Because that was pretty believable. I just always had super high faith in that he was going to find a way to contribute and make a team better."
Rillie has ended up being proven right on Duncan, as he has made his collegiate career out of making the winning plays.
"With us, trying to build our program, heading in the right direction," Rillie continued. "Having some guys around that know what it takes to win is pretty important. So looks can be deceiving there."
There seems to be something of a disconnect between how Duncan's game is perceived versus how it is in reality. Most people look at his body and just see him as a pick-and-pop, floor-spacing, spot-up shooter who doesn't move well. He's gritty, but just not athletic enough, they say. That couldn't be further from the truth.
Duncan is not only a great shooter, but he's also a terrific passer who acts as something of a point forward for the Broncos occasionally. That helps the Boise offense become a nightmare for opposing defenses, with a five-out look where everyone can shoot, take care of the ball, and also has enough size to defend. And the defensive side of the ball is where the biggest difference between perception and reality shows itself. Duncan is a terrific defender who can show on pick-and-rolls and slow down the opposition as well as move a post player off the block with his great lower body strength. He's also the first guy on the floor for every loose ball.
Basically, he's responsible for all of those little winning plays that Rillie enumerated above.
"From an early age, I wasn't always the most athletic-looking guy," Duncan said. "But I always thought it's not about the tangibles that are given but the intangibles that matter. And every team I've been on, I [tell them] that it's not about [athleticism] but what wins games and championships are the small things on the floor like diving on loose balls and taking charges. So coming over, I've tried to portray that all the little things like team, sportsmanship, and camaraderie because that's what will get us to where we want to be by the end of the season."
Beyond general leadership and effort, there's another part of Duncan that makes him so effective.
He might be a genius.
"That's probably my best story about Nick," Rillie said. "His spring semester of his freshman year, he called me apologizing because he got an A-. He wanted to go through as a 4.0, A student. You know you've got someone pretty special when he's upset about getting an A-."
Duncan's majoring in finance and is particularly interested in wealth management off the floor. But on the floor, he utilizes that intelligence to terrific efficiency in the way he studies game film and the way he moves. During our interview, Duncan was able to -- as if it was on command or an exam -- highlight for a minute-plus each of the tendencies of Arizona players, both big and small. He knows exactly when he has to just give a quick one step show on a pick-and-roll, and knows exactly over which shoulder each big man wants to turn to finish. As he says, it's all in the preparation when you're not the most athletic guy out there.
"I watch a lot of basketball at home of the teams we play," Duncan said. "In the film room, I definitely look at tendencies and our coaching staff does a great job of showing us what they want to do. I also have a kind of photographic memory about those kind of things, and when we get into the game I know exactly what to do. It also helps my teammates with me knowing all the little things about my opponents. It helps them coming when they come into the game that they know I know what I'm doing."
A terrific shooter and scorer. A good defender. And a leader.
That doesn't seem like someone worth ridiculing, does it?
Duncan knew upon coming to America that he'd eventually get some of the heckling that's been thrown his way. After all, someone with his intelligence level is self-aware enough to understand that he simply looks different than most basketball players. But if there's a more well-adjusted college athlete in the country, I haven't run across him yet. He doesn't let any of the noise get to him.
"You kinda just block it out," Duncan said. "I kind of just view it as 'they're fans for a reason, they're not a coach, they don't have any skill in coaching or playing and probably are just a fan and have no idea about basketball.' So you just put it in the back of your head and use it as motivation. And it's always good to go out there and play Michigan State and score 19 and play Arizona and have 21."
But that doesn't stop him and some of his friends from searching out some of the creative insults people come with for him.
"Lately we've been sharing this funny moment where we go on Twitter and search his name and laugh at some of the stuff people say," his teammate and roommate Anthony Drmic said. "We found one where someone posted a photo from Despicable Me with the 'It's so fluffy!" thing. That was pretty funny."
That's what the big man is all about. He's intelligent and confident, but also easy-going enough to take a joke even at his own expense. Still though, that doesn't stop him from wanting to go into every venue and making those who ridicule him look silly.
"I just like surprising people," Duncan said. "Going into every arena, I know everyone's going to look at me and say 'why is this guy starting in the five? Why is this guy even playing?' But when I walk off the court after 40 minutes I want to make sure the whole crowd knows that I can play basketball and it's not all about the physical appearance. It's about the small things that I do. Doing my job right. Getting a win. And just playing basketball."
It seems like Boise will continue to win a lot of basketball games as long as Duncan is around.
And in the end, that's all that matters to him.