DURHAM, N.C. -- Forward Lee Melchionni certainly had the pedigree to become a star basketball player at Duke. His father, Gary, was an all-ACC selection and Duke captain, and his uncle, Bill, was a star player at Villanova and for the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. But after two seasons of playing for his father's alma mater, Lee Melchionni wasn't sure he belonged here.
"I was the last guy on the bench," Melchionni said.
Junior forward Lee Melchionni has made the most of his increased minutes this season.
(Frank Franklin Ii -- AP)
Actually, Melchionni wasn't quite at the end of the Blue Devils' list of reserves, but he wasn't far from it. Playing behind forwards Dahntay Jones and Luol Deng, respectively, in each of the past two seasons, Melchionni averaged less than 5 1/2 minutes per game. But this season, after Deng left for the NBA as a freshman and after forward Shavlik Randolph had mononucleosis diagnosed and Reggie Love broke his foot, Coach Mike Krzyzewski finally called on Melchionni.
Since making his first start against Princeton on Jan. 5, Melchionni has averaged 26 minutes in the past 18 games and started 12 of those contests. In Sunday's 75-73 loss at No. 2 North Carolina, he played a career-high 36 minutes and made five three-pointers in the second half. Melchionni has scored 12 points or more in four of the past five games, and was Duke's leading scorer with 16 in a 58-47 win at St. John's on Feb. 26.
"Just from being out there on the court and getting more comfortable, my confidence has risen a lot," Melchionni said. "It's helped our team a lot."
Melchionni's presence as a scoring threat couldn't have come at a better time for the Blue Devils. With opponents hounding standout guard J.J. Redick relentlessly, and often double-teaming all-ACC forward Shelden Williams in the lane, Melchionni and senior point guard Daniel Ewing have had to assume some of the scoring. And, because Ewing is a more proven player, opponents have often decided to leave Melchionni open while guarding Duke's other players.
"They just spread you out so much that people forget about him," Miami Coach Frank Haith said of Melchionni, who scored 12 points on four three-pointers in the Blue Devils' 83-59 win over the Hurricanes on March 3. "You've got Daniel on one wing and J.J. on the other and Shelden inside, so you tend to forget about Lee. He ends up being wide open, and he's done a great job of continuing to extend the defense and knocking down shots."
The biggest shots Melchionni has taken this season might have been two that didn't even hit the rim. At Georgia Tech on Feb. 23, the Blue Devils were struggling in the second half, and Melchionni fired two three-point attempts that were air balls. But he remained confident, kept shooting and made two three-pointers in the final 3 minutes 40 seconds to lead Duke to a 60-56 win.
"It's sometimes not the shots you hit; it's the shots you take," Krzyzewski said. "It's not like you send him to a sports psychologist and then put him back in the game. He did that on his own. That's a huge step for Lee."
Melchionni was a highly regarded recruit at Germantown Academy in Fort Washington, Pa., but he was never considered a great shooter. He had scholarship offers from schools such as Kansas, Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Villanova. But Melchionni agreed to walk on Duke's team as a freshman because the Blue Devils didn't have a scholarship to give him. Krzyzewski gave Melchionni a scholarship after his freshman season, after Jones was selected by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA draft.
"He's been around Duke all his life," Gary Melchionni said. "He couldn't help it."
Gary Melchionni, who averaged 15.8 points as a senior at Duke in 1972-73 before he was chosen in the second round of the NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns, tried to keep his son patient during his first two seasons of college.
"I was always confident that if he got a chance to get out there and stay out there, he'd be a pretty productive player," Gary Melchionni said. "He's always been a good shooter, but he's really worked on his jump shot the last couple of years. He's put in his time. He has a nice stroke now, but he's worked on it."
The Cameron Crazies, the rabid fans sitting in Duke's student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium, also have grown to appreciate the overachieving Melchionni. Whenever he scores, grabs a rebound or makes a big defensive play during a home game, the students shout, "Lee! Lee! Lee!," and perform a synchronized cheer in which they turn side to side with their arms flexed like a body builder (a North Carolina sportswriter described it as a pseudo-German beer hall salute).
"I have no idea how they came up with it, but it puts a smile on my face," Melchionni said.
Melchionni told his father about the students' cheer, but when Gary Melchionni saw it for the first time during the Blue Devils' 82-65 victory over Georgia Tech on Feb. 5, he didn't know what to think.
"He seems to be pretty popular with them," Gary Melchionni said. "I don't know if he's paying them off or what. That's all part of that Cameron Crazy mystique. It defies explanation. You just have to be there, and you have to see it. It's definitely unique."