Jefferson, new set of freshmen look to lead Duke to another title
By riding a group of star freshmen to the school’s fifth national title, Duke finally seems to have found a winning formula in the age of one-and-dones. With another crop of highly touted newcomers coming in to play alongside a group of solid-but-unspectacular veterans, the question becomes whether Duke can sustain it.
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This time, the challenge might be steeper. While the Blue Devils’ recruiting class comes with the usual amount of accolades, it doesn’t appear to have the same kind of NBA-ready talent as the last one. And the foundation of established players isn’t quite as substantial as it was a year ago.
And much like last year, the window of time this Duke team has in which to figure itself out is a small one.
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The heart of senior big men Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee has never been in doubt. If the situation called for someone to dive on a loose ball, get fiery in a huddle or follow a big play with a vein-bulging scream, they have always been eager to rise to the occasion. But the ability to be consistently effective ACC big men is something neither has yet demonstrated.
Jefferson’s exit from the starting lineup, clearing out the power forward spot for the smaller but more versatile Justise Winslow, was a major factor in last season’s title run. Meanwhile, despite having the same imposing body of his older brothers, Plumlee has yet to start a game at Duke.
That means freshman Chase Jeter will get as many minutes as he can handle. A spirited rebounder who’s comfortable with his back to the basket, Jeter will be Duke’s best option down low. After sitting out last season, transfer Sean Obi should figure into the equation as well.
No. 2 Duke Facts & Figures
Last season: 35-4, 15-3 ACC
Postseason: National champion
Consecutive NCAAs: 20
ACC Projection: First
Postseason projection: National runner-up
When Las Vegas point guard Derryck Thornton decided to reclassify and enroll at Duke a year early, the entire Blue Devils program likely breathed a sigh of relief. With the graduation of Quinn Cook and the early exit of NBA first-round pick and Final Four hero Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils simply had no other option at point guard. It’ll help that Thornton will have a daunting array of perimeter threats at his disposal.
As a freshman, whenever Grayson Allen had an opportunity to get on the floor he always seemed to make the most of it. That came in handy when his timely shooting and aggressive edge ignited a Duke charge in the title game that lifted the Devils past Wisconsin. Thanks to that performance, Allen will enter this season as the face of the program. A solid shooter with a fearless style and freakish athleticism, he will likely play that role well.
Opposing teams will have trouble figuring out how to deal with freshman wings Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram. Kennard was a high-volume scorer in high school and will stretch defenses with his silky lefty jumper. Ingram, a four-time state champ in high school, is a wiry 6'8" small forward who has shown the ability to knock down outside shots. Ingram will likely need to get stronger in order to reach his immense potential. But his rare mix of size and perimeter savvy will make him hard to keep off of the floor.
Of course, all of these wing players will have to contend with junior Matt Jones for playing time. With his defense and hustle, Jones clawed his way into the starting lineup and became an indispensable part of the Blue Devils’ title run.
Key Losses: G Quinn Cook, G Tyus Jones, C Jahlil Okafor, F Justise Winslow
Top Players: G Derryck Thornton, G Grayson Allen, G Matt Jones, G/F Brandon Ingram, F/C Chase Jeter
Duke’s recruiting class isn’t merely good; it also fills areas of desperate need. Chase Jeter will be the Blue Devils’ most polished post player. Brandon Ingram, whose mix of length and athleticism will be trouble for opposing wings, likely will start. Luke Kennard will fit nicely into the guard rotation, while Derryck Thornton will be Duke’s only true point guard
When Winslow, Tyus Jones and star center Jahlil Okafor bolted for the NBA after Duke’s NCAA Tournament triumph, the conventional wisdom was that Duke was headed toward a rebuilding year. There would simply be too many mismatched parts and too many unanswered questions for the Blue Devils to stay among the elite.
But when Ingram gave the Blue Devils’ recruiting class some star power by choosing Duke over North Carolina and Thornton’s reclassification solved the point guard problem, those doubts began to disappear. While they’re thin at spots — in the post and at point guard — the Blue Devils should have impact players everywhere. If they can create the uncommon chemistry of last year’s bunch, the Blue Devils’ ceiling should again be high.
Where before there were reasons why Duke wouldn’t contend in a loaded ACC, now it’s fair to ask: Why not Duke?