Rodney Hood did not want to sit out last season.
No athlete ever wants to put their playing career on hold, but the frustration was two-fold for Hood. The former five-star recruit left Mississippi State after one forgettable season playing for Rick Stansbury, alongside the likes of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost.
Hood was good-but-not-great in his one year in Starkville, but the Bulldogs were a train-wreck. They missed the NCAA tournament for the second straight season while their issues off the court were more troublesome than the problems they had on it. Stansbury “retired” after the season, so Hood left.
He picked Duke over Ohio State, among others, but since transferring after the coach that recruited parts way with the program doesn’t qualify a player for a hardship waiver, Hood was forced to redshirt last season. He could practice with the team, but he wasn’t allowed to play. He wasn’t even allowed to travel, a fact that was made problematic by the lack of cable in the Duke dorm rooms. Hood was forced to watch road games in the locker room or at a Buffalo Wild Wings.
It’s not an easy process, particularly when it seems like every single relevant transfer is able to find a way to get a waiver to play immediately.
The irony, however, is that spending a year away from the game may have been the best thing that could have happened to Hood. Since he wasn’t able to play, Hood threw himself into workouts, living in the gym.
“I’d go to practice, participated, went hard, tried to help the team out as much as I can,” Hood told NBCSports.com in a phone interview last week. “Then later on that night I would come back and shoot that night. Then when the team went on the road, I would get in the gym and work out, go watch the game, and then go work out more.”
“I would lift on gamedays, just stay in the weight room every time the team was away or before a game, I had to get stronger.”
And he did.
Hood said he’s up to 212 pounds from 195 when he first got to Durham. “All good weight,” he says, the kind that hasn’t cut into his athleticism.
But the weight was only the half of it. Hood spent quite a bit of time doing skill work as well. He’s a more consistent shooter, he developed his handle, he’s gotten better at getting all the way to the rim, he better understands Duke’s defensive principles. The biggest difference in Hood’s game, however, may end up being his aggressiveness.
The only way to improve a skill is through repetition, and the ability to be aggressive and assertive on a basketball court is a skill. You can learn it. You can develop it. And that’s exactly what Hood was forced to do last season. Every single day in practice, the Duke coaching staff used Hood as an opponent’s best player, whether it be a point guard, like Virginia Tech’s Erick Green or Shane Larkin, or a big man, like Creighton’s Doug McDermott.
“I think at times he was reserved in his freshman year at Mississippi State, so when you’re put into the character of another team’s best player, you have to get into a new mindset, one that’s very aggressive and assertive,” associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “That’s what we need him to be this year for our team. Getting out of the old habits, or getting into a new character, I think can be very beneficial for a player. That’s why I think that, a lot of times, a redshirt year for a college kid is very good. I certainly feel like it was very productive for Rodney.”
Hood loved his role in practice. He embraced it. He was the focal point offensively every time he stepped on that practice. Nothing he did could ever be considered a bad shot. That’s a great way to develop confidence in a player, for him to learn how to do different things on a basketball court. You have a lot more freedom to make a move you’ve been working on individually when you’re not worried about one mistake getting you yanked off the court.
“It’s like playing with free money,” he said.
It also allowed Hood to work on his all-around game. He was forced to learn how to handle the ball against pressure. He had to figure out how to drive and score when help defense was always one dribble away. He had to practice being aggressive even when a defense was built around stopping him. “It’s hard to score when everybody is focused on you,” Hood said.
As a result, Hood not only developed as a player, he developed a confidence in his ability, a belief in himself that he’s capable of doing all of these different things on a basketball court. The coaching staff can put him in different positions on the floor and be confident that he’ll be able to be effective.
And when you consider that Hood will be the second-most versatile player on the Duke roster to freshman Jabari Parker, it creates a situation where the Blue Devils will be able to put lineups on the floor that are very difficult to matchup with.
Hood’s just happy that those matchups will come outside of practice this season.
“I’m looking forward to everything,” he said. “The rivalries, playing against other great players and the best teams in the nation. The ACC is going to be great this year, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”