Two seasons ago, Duke won an NCAA crown with a nucleus of one-and-done talent and experienced complementary parts. Built on nearly the same blueprint, this year’s Blue Devils look poised to do something similar.
Three key members of Duke’s 2015 title team and a pair of contributors from last season’s Sweet 16 squad are still around. They’ll play alongside the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, a group widely considered to the best the program has ever seen.
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike Krzyzewski
2015-16 RECORD (ACC): 25–11 (11–7)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Oregon 82–68 in the Sweet 16
2016-17 PREDICTION: First in the ACC
G/F Brandon Ingram (17.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
C Marshall Plumlee (8.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg)
G Derryck Thornton (7.1 ppg, 2.6 apg)
Twice in the last three seasons, Duke has found itself, for various reasons, with a crippling dearth of options in the post. That shouldn’t be a problem this season.
Harry Giles, a 6'10" power forward who has the potential to wow on both ends of the floor, was ranked as one of the top players in the class of 2016 and is likely to be Duke’s next one-and-done big man. However, a torn ACL in his right knee last fall and a similar injury to his left knee two years earlier raise questions about whether he’ll be ready to contribute right away.
Through nine games of what was supposed to be his senior season, team co-captain Amile Jefferson, a hard-working 6'9" forward, was averaging a double-double. But a broken bone in his right foot in December ended his season, leading to a medical redshirt.
Like Giles, indications are that Jefferson should be at full speed when the season begins. If either one isn’t, the Blue Devils still have options as Chase Jeter is back after playing a reserve role last season, and Marques Bolden, one of the top centers in the class of 2016, chose Duke over Kentucky late in the recruiting cycle.
When asked recently about the challenge of getting a team loaded with high-level individual talents to shelve egos and work toward a collective goal, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski expressed a positive outlook.
“There’s chemistry danger on any team, but there’s also chemistry opportunity,” he says. “I’d rather have a lot of good players rather than a limited number of good players.”
That’s precisely the situation Duke has along the perimeter, where an abundance of high-level performers will have to compete for minutes and touches.
The headliners are junior guard Grayson Allen and 6'8" freshman swingman Jayson Tatum. Allen, who etched his name into Duke lore with a clutch 16-point performance in the 2015 title game, made his way onto several All-America teams last season after averaging a team-best 21.6 points. He also became a magnet for controversy after a series of much-discussed tripping incidents.
Allen’s status as one of the faces of college basketball means Tatum will enter with a relatively small amount of fanfare. Projected by many to join Giles near the top of the 2017 NBA Draft, Tatum possesses size, athleticism and a mid-range game that will spell trouble for Duke foes.
In addition to being elite scorers, both Allen and Tatum can bring the ball up if needed, which will come in handy since Frank Jackson, the co-MVP of last spring’s McDonald’s All-American Game, is the team’s lone true point guard.
What makes the guard situation potentially complicated — or uncommonly rosy — is that the other two players in the mix don’t fit the profile of reserves.
A solid defender and team leader, Matt Jones was a starter during Duke’s 2015 title run and a co-captain last season. On a team filled with players who will demand touches, Jones’ selfless attitude and versatile game will make him hard to keep off the floor. Likewise, sophomore shooting guard Luke Kennard flashed enough of his explosive scoring ability last season — he averaged 12.4 points in league play — to earn a meaningful spot in the rotation.
As longtime USA Basketball teammates, power forward Harry Giles and swingman Jayson Tatum should be comfortable playing together. Point guard Frank Jackson combines solid court vision with sublime athleticism. At 6'11", 245 pounds, center Marques Bolden gives the Blue Devils needed muscle. Given Duke’s loaded roster, power forward Javin DeLaurier, a two-time all-state selection from Virginia, and Australian small forward Jack White will likely make their contributions in future seasons.
The stars are aligned for Duke to once again do something special. The Blue Devils have size, shooting and experience. They’re deep enough to weather injuries and have enough high-end talent to match up well with any team in the country.
It’s a long way until the first Monday night in April. But it’s hard to envision the Blue Devils not getting there.