Ghost of Robert O’Kelley Haunts Joel

One problem with living through half your sixth decade is that you start swearing you’ve already seen everything, whether you have or not.

Watching Duke extend Wake’s misery to six straight setbacks with last night’s 84-70 cuffing at Joel Coliseum, I could have sworn I saw Robert O’Kelley on the court wearing black and gold.

But once my rheumy eyes regained focus, I realized that it was only Bryant Crawford.

To compare Crawford to Robert O’Kelley, who played for Wake at the turn of the 21st century, is no great slam. O’Kelley scored 1,885 points over his four seasons, ranking ninth all-time in school history. He also played in post-season all four years.

The knock on O’Kelley is not as much what he did as how he did it. If O’Kelley, like, say, a Josh Howard or a Muggsy Bogues, had spent the early years of his career sewing seeds of promise that bloomed as a junior and senior, he would be remembered far more fondly today.

O’Kelley’s great transgression, so to speak, was that he promised what he failed to deliver. His career didn’t just stall, it regressed.

O’Kelley was ACC Rookie of the Year in 1997-98 when he broke in with 16.6 points a game. He was second-team All-ACC in 1998-99, when he averaged 17.5. The leader that season, Terrell McIntrye of Clemson, averaged 17.9.

Through two seasons O’Kelley had scored 1,041 points. The Great Randolph Childress, through his first two seasons on the court, scored 997. The Great Skip Brown, through his first two seasons, scored 933.

So if O’Kelley’s career had progressed in the way everyone expected, his jersey would be hanging today in Joel Coliseum.

Instead, his road to glory took a hair-pin curve he couldn’t negotiate and he never really got back on track. I can remember the exact time and place his career hit the ditch. It was March 5, 1999 in a 66-52 ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to N.C. State in Charlotte’s second of three coliseums. That’s where O’Kelley, all of a sudden, forgot how to dribble a basketball.

It was hard enough to see him miss eight of the 10 shots he took that afternoon, but those things happen. But what I’ll never forget is the 11 turnovers he made that game, tying Jerry Schellenberg for a school record no one would ever want.

Whether his junior season was a hangover from that game may never be known. But what was obvious was that the O’Kelley of 1999-2000 was a shell of the player we had seen his first two seasons.

His scoring average plummeted 4.5 points, to 13 points a game. Worse, his field-goal accuracy slipped from 40.3 percent to 35.5 percent. And even worse than that, his 3-point accuracy cratered from 37.6 percent to 29.9 percent.

By then, Coach Dave Odom’s great asset had become a liability. And although O’Kelley recovered a bit as a senior, when he shot 41.8 percent from the floor and 35.1 percent from 3-point range while cutting his turnovers down to 1.4 a game, he still averaged a career-low 12 points a game.

The ACC Media Guide provides vote totals for only those players who make All-ACC, but I think it’s a safe bet that O’Kelley, after making second-team as a sophomore, never got another vote the rest of his career.

Crawford, through his first two seasons at Wake, scored 947 points, averaging 13.8 as a freshman and 16.2 as a sophomore. To watch him down the stretch of last season, when he scored 26 with five rebounds against Virginia Tech before averaging 20.5 and 4.5 assists against BC and the Hokies in the ACC Tournament, one could also see his jersey No. 13 hanging one day in the Joel Coliseum rafters.

And seeings how he’s only halfway through his junior season, one day it might.

But for him to deliver the promise of his first two seasons – and for Wake to salvage anything whatsoever from yet another lost season – he’s going to have to play far better than he’s played this season.

His scoring average is down only slightly, to 15.7 points a game, but that has more to do with the volume of shots he’s taking. Through 20 games, Crawford has attempted 250 shots from the floor. No teammate has taken more than 167.

Doral Moore, who has made 10 straight shots and who is shooting 73 percent, has taken 124.

If Crawford were making a decent percentage, his constant barrage at the basket might be understandable. But we all know that’s not the case. With last night’s 2-for-8 performance, Crawford is now shooting .388 from the floor – down from .438 last season. By making only one of five 3-point attempts (which came late, long after the issue had been settled) Crawford is shooting .330 from long-range – down from .346.

Meanwhile his turnovers keep piling up. He has 69 through 20 games, 28 more than anyone else on the team. Among the ACC leaders in assist/turnover ratio, only Frank Howard of Syracuse has more – with 80.

Every day is a new day, and Wake is guaranteed 11 more games. So there’s still time for Crawford to get it together, to have the kind of stretch run he had a season ago.

For the sake of his career, and the sake of the team, he needs to do so fast.

All I know is that in watching last night’s loss through my rheumy eyes, the game Bryant Crawford was playing – the two field goals on eight attempts, the eight turnovers, the Matador defense on Blue Devils whipping past him for layups – was a carbon copy of what I saw from Robert O’Kelley on March 5, 1999 in Charlotte.

Talk about your painful memories.

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