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Notre Dame’s Juwan Durham getting back to dominant form

Former Tampa Prep star returns from a lengthy layoff to become a shot blocking specialist with the Fighting Irish.
Pittsburgh's Malik Ellison (3) shoots as Notre Dame's Juwan Durham (11) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

CORAL GABLES — Juwan Durham is not so much a hulking presence in the middle. The lanky 6-foot-11 forward is more of a sleek, out-of-nowhere ball hawk. He plays deep underneath the basket, emerging just when an opponent thinks he has open look.

Then — swat! — the Notre Dame junior does his thing, greeting foes with long arms that usually reject would-be buckets.

Durham, a former standout at Tampa Prep, is averaging 3.2 blocked shots per game in his debut season with the Fighting Irish (13-18, 3-15 in ACC play), who play Georgia Tech in the opening round of the conference tournament today at 2.

The shot block stat is even more impressive when you consider Durham is averaging just 14.4 minutes of playing time each game, eighth-most on his team.

Those appearances, albeit brief, are fine with Durham.

“It’s been kind of a roller coaster, honestly just being up-and-down trying to getting back into the groove of things and getting back to the way I want to play,” Durham said.

Durham has spent two of the past three seasons in his own basketball exile, dealing with surgical detours stemming from ACL tears in each knee and having to sit out last season after transferring from Connecticut.

Four years ago, Durham was a four-star recruit and a top-25 prospect by nearly every major recruiting service. He was one of the rare bay area basketball stars who committed to a national title contender in the past decade, joining an elite group that includes former Gibbs/Admiral Farragut star Marreese Speights (Florida 2006-08), former Plant standout Michael Frazier (Florida 2012-15), former Sickles star John Henson (North Carolina 2009-12) and Tampa Catholic’s Kevin Knox (Kentucky).

Durham picked the Huskies over offers from more than a dozen major schools, including Indiana, Florida, Florida State, Miami and Louisville. The Huskies were four-time national champions, the last title coming in 2014.

Days after announcing his commitment, Durham tore the ACL in one of his knees for the second time in a seven-month span. The injury ended his senior season before it started.

His freshman season with UConn in 2016-17 was the first time he returned to the court. Durham played in all 28 games, averaging 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds.

But Durham left the Huskies after his freshman season. Tampa Prep coach Joe Fenlon said his former star player needed a fresh start.

After transferring to Notre Dame, Durham had to sit out a season.

“It was one of the toughest things I had to go through in my life,” Durham said of missing last season. “I had to regain my conditioning and my confidence overall. I felt like a lot of guys were able to put in a lot more time and more effort than I was able to because I had to sit out.

“But I didn’t want to use that as an excuse. Every obstacle in life is made for you to overcome. I just knew I had to get back to where I used to be.”

Last season, Durham was unable to even travel with the Fighting Irish. He watched away games on a television in the team’s locker room. Then he would to the gym to shoot as many shots as he could, in part so he clear his mind.

Durham also came home last summer to work out at Tampa Prep and former Florida star Teddy Dupay.

“Teddy was a scorer so he would tell me ways to score,” Durham said. “He would tell me secrets about getting to the middle of the court and just raising up over the defender because I’m tall. It’s helped out a lot.”

Those workouts paid off. Durham made an immediate impact, finishing with 10 points, five blocked shots and four rebounds to help the Fighting Irish beat Illinois 76-74 four months ago.

“I got in and made a big difference in that game,” Durham said. “My confidence was at an all-time high.”

He’s even showed off some of his offensive skills, scoring on four straight second-half possessions in a loss to Miami last month. This season, Durham is averaging 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds to go along with his impressive shot block total.

Better still, he is doing it on two healthy knees.

“My knees are a distant memory to me,” Durham said. “I’m not even worried about it. For me, it was just getting the confidence and strength back that I used to have.”