Mike Krzyzewski has been in the news in recent weeks, but none of it has been about the Duke Blue Devils. His current role with Team USA has him preoccupied, but his return to Durham, whenever that may be, will be a joyous one.
What They Have
Rarely is it the case that, after losing arguably your two best players, you come into the season better. After a disappointing loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament, freshman Jabari Parker and sophomore Rodney Hood declared for the draft, leaving some very large holes in the starting lineup.
Luckily for Duke and Coach K, one very large incoming freshman will likely fill the voids. At 6’11″ and 270 pounds, Jahlil Okafor enters Durham as the #1 recruit in the 2014 class. With him comes Tyus Jones, ESPN’s #4 prospect and #1 PG, Justice Winslow, a 5-star small forward, and Grayson Allen, a pure scorer. Mixed with the incumbents, this recruiting class could be the one that puts it over the top.
From the get-go, senior Quinn Cook will push and be pushed by Jones. Cook is a pure point guard in a sense that he looks to set up other more than himself. However, he may need to take on more of the scoring load this season with the Blue Devils relying on him. Fellow returnee Rasheed Sulaimon has shown flashes of what made him the #12 recruit in his class, but his consistency has been lacking. Like Cook, Sulaimon will be leaned on by the rest of his team considering his experience and ability to score.
Amile Jefferson, though, may be the glue that can hold this starting lineup together. Championship winning teams, especially ones from Durham, always have a glue guy. Lance Thomas did it in 2010. Shane Battier did it in 2001. Jefferson could be that guy in 2015. Likely the starter at power forward, Jefferson will be looked upon to do the extra stuff: hustle for loose balls, draw charges, whatever the team may need.
Why It Will Work
The Blue Devils have a perfect mixture this season. They have leadership at important positions, shooting, size, and a great coach. I predict the depth chart to look something like:
PG – Cook/Jones
SG – Sulaimon/Allen
SF – Winslow/Ojeyele
PF – JeffersonC – Okafor/Plumlee
Not many teams are blessed with the size Duke has, with the 7’0″, 255 pound Marshall Plumlee likely being the smaller center. If you look at what Duke has lacked in recent years – and what made them so great when they won titles – it has been size and rebounding.
The 2010 Duke team won their title in large part because center Brian Zoubek matured into the player Coach K and staff had hoped he would, while Thomas and the Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles) helped hold down the middle. In recent years, Duke has lacked that size. This season, they’ll have two true centers with plenty of size to throw around. Okafor’s ability to dominate the interior will allow Duke to possibly play smaller, with Winslow and others possibly playing a stretch four role.
Think about it this way: Duke has the #1 point guard and #6 shooting guard (both according to ESPN) coming in and neither of them may start. In fact, no matter how you slice it, at least one of Jones, Allen, and Winslow won’t be starting, and they were all top 25 recruits. It’s hard to say Winslow won’t start due to his great defensive ability, leaving either the top point guard or one of the shooting guards left out, or possibly both.
Why It May Not Work
It’s hard to find weaknesses in this Duke squad, but there are a few. First, they could very well lack perimeter scoring. If Sulaimon continues to be hot and cold and Allen doesn’t make an instant impact as a freshman, the Blue Devils will be relying on a couple point guards as their primary scorers. Cook may make a leap as a go-to scorer this year, but this squad will have to surround Okafor with shooters.
Furthermore, the Blue Devils will lack depth on the inside. As is, they only have five players on the roster next season that stand 6’8″ or above, but one of them is a transfer who will have to sit out this season (Sean Obi from Rice) and the other – Semi Ojeleye – saw just 80 minutes of action total last season. When the Blue Devils get into foul trouble down low, which will happen, they will very quickly find themselves in trouble.
The best solution for that will be lots of small ball, with one big and four guards, which can be done with Okafor and even with Plumlee. But after those two, you have Jefferson and little else in terms of big men. What happens when Okafor and Plumlee have off nights and find themselves in foul trouble on the bench?
What To Expect
In the end, this Blue Devil squad is well-rounded. Their flaws have to be nitpicked at, and their strengths are big (figuratively and literally). Okafor, Winslow, Allen, and Jones are going to make a big impact this year, it’s simply a matter of how well they blend with the likes of Cook, Sulaimon, and Jefferson, among others. If the transition is seamless, we’re looking at one of the most talented, complete teams in the land next season.