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A Reader's Take On The ACC Next Season -First Up, Duke

Jim Gober has written some extensive previews of each ACC team and offered them to DBR. This is the first, of Duke, with the others to come soon

The defending ACC Tournament Champion Duke Blue Devils (+13 ppg, +1.6 rpg, +2.9 apg, 6.7 bpg, 44.5% fg, 38% 3-fg, 8.8 3-fg made/g, 71.3% ft, +178 ft attempts, +88 blocks, +2.7 b/g, +40 steals, +1.2 s/g, +1.7 to/g, 0.9 a/t, opponents: 39% fg, 30.6% 3-fg, 3.9 3-fg made/g, 0.6 a/t) will be the team to beat in the talent-depleted ACC in 2005-2006.

Duke was a top-10 team nationally last season, and the Blue Devils should be improved at almost every position this season and a top-5 team nationally. The other three teams in the top four of the ACC last season were either decimated by key losses to graduation and the NBA
Draft (UNC and GA Tech), or weakened significantly (Wake Forest).

Duke suffered the expected losses of talented 6-3 2G Daniel Ewing (15.3 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.3 a/t, 42.7% fg, 34.7% 3-fg, 69.2% ft, 3rd Team All-ACC, NBA Draft Pick # 32) and 6-4 graduate student football player walk-on PF Reggie Love (1.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 215 min.), and the unexpected loss of enigmatic 6-10 senior PF Shavlik Randolph (4.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 39.3% fg, 23.1% 3-fg, 53.3% ft, 6.16 min/foul) to hoop dreams of the NBA.

Ewing was a very solid and dependable player for Duke, but Duke is especially loaded with talent at both guard positions. Consequently, the impact of Ewing’s departure on Duke will almost certainly be more than offset by the addition of five national top-50 ranked freshmen who comprise the #1 recruiting class in the country and the return of seven players who have had one more year to develop and gain experience.

Arguably, the loss of Randolph amounts to addition by subtraction given Randolph’s shooting and foul woes last season, but the prospect of having a healthy Randolph backing up Duke’s frontcourt starters might have made Duke a bit stronger.

Love did an admirable job in a role Duke will not need to fill with a walk-on this coming season.

For the 2005-2006 season, Duke will have exceptional depth and talent. The Devils’ only weaknesses, which are minor, will be a lack of experienced depth in the frontcourt and the lack of a tall All-ACC caliber wing forward to match up against exceptional players at that position.

Despite losing Daniel Ewing, who led the team in assists last season and had the fourth best 3-point percentage, the Blue Devils should be stronger at PG and deeper at both guard positions in 2005-2006.

6-4 senior JJ Redick (21.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.0 spg, 40.8% fg, 40.3% 3-fg, 93.8% ft, Consensus 1st Team All-American (AP, NABC, USBWA and Sporting News), National POY (Rupp Trophy), ACC POY, 1st Team All-ACC, 1st Team All-ACC Tournament, and ACC Tournament MVP, 2005 U21 National Select Team Invitation) is the leader of Duke’s guards.

Arguably, Redick will be as good as any guard playing college basketball during the 2005-2006 season, and certainly he was among the best guards playing in the NCAA last season.

Though Redick always has been recognized foremost for his free throw and 3-point shooting accuracy, he has developed into an exceptional 2G in every respect. It is only when Duke plays its 3-guard offense and Redick is called upon to guard a talented opposing WF who has a size advantage that Redick sometimes meets his match.

6-3 soph DeMarcus Nelson (6.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 40% fg, 31.9% 3-fg, 53.2% ft, All-ACC Freshman Team), holder of the California high school career scoring record and the third highest ranked player from the high school class of 2004 (according to Prep Stars) still playing college ball, and 6-4 freshman Martynus Pocius (Prep Stars #45) from Vilnius, Lithuania, a starter on Lithuania’s Junior National Team, will fill the 2G position well when Redick plays on the wing or is not in the game.

Nelson, who is quick, fast and Duke’s most physical guard, was second on the team in rebounds per game last season and is a candidate to start at 2G for Duke or on the wing in a 3-guard lineup despite his low shooting percentages last season. Nelson had a thumb injury and surgery early last season that affected his shooting and ball-handling, but he should be fully recovered this season.

Pocius, a superb shooter, athlete and leaper, may be that rare sleeper recruit for Duke. As a starter on the World Select Team that played at the Nike Hoops Summit in March 2005, Pocius led his team in scoring with 20 points against the USA Team of players selected as the best in America in the class of 2005. If Pocius can play Duke’s brand of defense, he certainly provides the Blue Devils with another solid option at the 2G and WF positions and should get playing time as a freshman.

The usual starter at PG for the Devils last season was 6-2 senior Sean Dockery (6.2 ppg, 2.3 apg, 47.7% fg, 42.9% 3-fg, 76.9% ft, 1.5 a/to), though Daniel Ewing was the primary ball-handler and point guard. Following the early departures of point guards Raymond Felton (UNC), Jarrett Jack (GA Tech), Chris Paul (Wake), and John Gilchrist (Maryland) to the NBA, Dockery will be one of the most experienced and talented players in the ACC at the PG position next season.

Dockery improved significantly as a shooter from the field and at the line last season, leading the team in 3-point field goal accuracy and finishing second in accuracy from the field and at the free-throw line. Dockery also improved his ball-handling and decision-making last season, leading Duke in assists-to-turnovers ratio.

Even so, Dockery, who finished third in assists per game behind Ewing and Redick, is likely to share at least half of the playing time at PG during 2005-2006 with 6-1 freshman Greg Paulus (Prep Stars #18, 2005 USA Junior National Select Team, McD All-American, 2005 New York Gatorade POY, 2005 Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year, 2nd Team Parade All-American).

Paulus, the 2004 Gatorade National POY in football, brings the toughness of fellow premier high school football quarterback DeMarcus Nelson to the Devils’ backcourt.

Paulus is a superb passer and playmaker who could be the optimal fit at PG for Duke to get the most out of the Devils’ many offensive weapons.

Having Dockery around to share the PG responsibilities with Paulus is a major plus for Duke regardless of how they split the PG minutes, since the best point guards to enter the ACC usually struggle at times as freshmen playing against experienced ACC defenders.

At times, Paulus and Dockery may play in tandem to give Duke extra ball-handling when needed, with Paulus likely focusing on running the offense and Dockery attacking the point on defense and increasing his contributions as a scorer if his improved shooting continues.

By a significant margin, Duke’s weakest position is wing forward. Duke simply has no one at WF with All-ACC caliber talent. At every other position, Duke has one or more such players. 6-6 senior sparkplug Lee Melchionni (7.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 40.6% fg, 39.6% 3-fg, 64.3% ft) is the best WF Duke has, and he has displayed his ability to play a key role for Duke and make Duke a better team. By giving opponents a third dangerous 3-point shooter to guard, Melchionni created better opportunities for JJ Redick and Daniel Ewing, the only Duke players who made more 3-pointers last season than

Against most teams, Melchionni can fill the WF position quite well and serve as a solid complementary player. Against the very best wing forwards, however, Melchionni may lack the athleticism to succeed at either end of the court without solid team support.

The only other true WF for Duke is 6-6 soph David McClure (1.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 43.6% fg, 33.3% 3-fg, 53.3% ft, 184 min.), who may redshirt next season depending upon his progress in recovering from surgery on his left knee in both February and May 2005. Since McClure cannot train hard until September 2005 at the earliest, he probably will not be in physical condition to make a significant contribution until the season is well underway in any event.

Once McClure recovers fully from the knee injury that limited his development during his freshman season, he could be similar to Melchionni as a WF role player, though McClure is more of an inside player.

Redick, Nelson and Pocius are guards who might see significant playing time matching up with the opposing WF in Duke’s 3-guard offense.

Though Duke is extremely deep and talented at the guard positions, the Blue Devils’ will have even more talented starters in the frontcourt. Just as JJ Redick may be as good as any guard playing college basketball next season, 6-9 senior Shelden Williams (15.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.7 bpg, 58.2% fg, 66.2% ft, 3rd Team AP All-American, National Defensive POY (NABC), 1st Team All-ACC, ACC Defensive POY, 1st Team All-ACC Tournament and All-ACC Defensive Team, 2005 USA World University Games Team Invitation) ranks high among the best frontcourt players still in college.

With minimal frontcourt help from teammates in 2004-2005, Williams dominated opposing teams with his defense and provided the Devils with low post offense and an accurate mid-range shot on the rare occasions on which he moved away from the basket. Though Redick received more recognition than Williams nationally and in the ACC last season, Williams is every bit as important to Duke as Redick if the Blue Devils are to mount a serious challenge for the 2006 NCAA Championship.

The perfect complement to Williams as the starter at PF is 6-10 freshman Josh McRoberts (Prep Stars #3, McD All-American National HS POY (Morgan Wooten Award), McD All-American, McD HS All-American Game MVP, 1st Team Parade All-American). McRoberts is exceptionally skilled for a big man, and he will provide inside passing, scoring, rebounding and ball-handling that will set Shelden Williams free to do more inside and outside on offense next season. McRoberts also can shoot outside when Williams draws the defense inside.

With the addition of 6-10 freshman C Eric Boateng (Prep Stars #27, McD All-American, 4th Team Parade All-American) from London, England, and 6-7 freshman PF Jamaal Boykin (Prep Stars #25, California POY, 3rd Team Parade All-American), Duke will have adequate depth in the frontcourt in terms of talent, numbers, and height. Losing Shavlik Randolph, however, leaves Duke with no experienced inside reserves.

Boateng is an extremely athletic raw talent who may not be ready to contribute right away at the ACC level, especially on offense. Boateng’s understanding of the game, rebounding and offensive skills need work, but he could provide immediate help on defense as a shot-blocker.

Boykin lacks experience and size, but he has a reputation as a smart player and overall contributor and winner in the Shane Battier mold.

Besides Boykin and Boateng, Duke will have 6-9 grad student and fourth year walk-on Patrick Johnson (0.4 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 60% fg (3 for 5), 100% ft (2 for 2)) to provide frontcourt depth.

At the end of last season, Duke was among the top eight teams in the country and capable of beating anyone, including eventual national champion UNC. The Blue Devils’ main weakness was depth, especially at PF, where Shavlik Randolph struggled to make a positive contribution, WF, where Duke frequently played guards DeMarcus Nelson and JJ Redick and where they and WF Melchionni were sometimes overmatched, and, to a lesser extent PG, where 2G Daniel Ewing and PG Sean Dockery shared the playmaker duties.

With a nucleus of four returning seniors and DeMarcus Nelson and the arrival of an exceptional five-player recruiting class, including especially McRoberts and Paulus, Duke will be significantly better in 2005-2006 than it was in 2004-2005 at the PF and PG positions and significantly deeper in talent, numbers and experience. Any weakness Duke may have at WF may not be significant.

Jim Gober has written some fairly extensive previews of each ACC team and has offered them to DBR. So here is his preview of Duke, with the others to follow in the coming days.

Combined with the exodus of the most talented players on many other ACC teams, Duke’s retention of all but one of its most talented players and its addition of outstanding talent and depth for next season should put Duke solidly ahead of its ACC competitors in first place in the ACC standings and in the national rankings. As one of the preseason favorites to win the 2006 NCAA Championship, the Blue Devils will be seeking their 4th NCAA title and their 15th trip to the Final Four, 11 of which will have come in the past 21 years with Coach K on the bench if Duke makes it.