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ACC Basketball Preview #15 - Duke

Duke might be on the verge of a tremendous season.

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 04: Marshall Plumlee #40 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball with Eric Mayo #32 and Demarco Sanders #2 of the Livingstone College Blue Bears
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 04: Marshall Plumlee #40 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball with Eric Mayo #32 and Demarco Sanders #2 of the Livingstone College Blue Bears
Grant Halverson

When people talk about Duke's prospects this season, everyone starts with the freshmen. And that's logical because it's already clear that this could be one of Duke's best classes ever.

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Compare it to, say, the classes of 1986 and 2001. That's pretty good company.

The best big man from the K era, barring Christian Laettner, who was more of a forward, is Elton Brand.

What set Brand apart was his ferocity. So far, Okafor hasn't shown that. In fact, he reminds us more of a young Mike Gminski than Brand. He's big, agile and has beautiful fundamentals.

Gminski never fouled out of a game at Duke, largely because he was such a smart player. It won't surprise us to see Okafor be as smart, but he's also more talented, and it's not like G-man was a stiff. Our only question about Okafor is his temperament.

Tyus Jones got the second biggest amount of hype coming in, and in the exhibition games anyway, it seems justified.

He hasn't shot well so far - no big surprise two appearances in - but that'll come.

If you look down the long list of great Duke point guards, you can draw on some of them to start to get a sense of Jones.

He's a bit like Tommy Amaker but Amaker was always pretty quiet, never flamboyant. He's not as wildly gifted as was Jason Williams. He's closer to Chris Duhon and Bobby Hurley, although it's still early. He hasn't overshadowed or dominated; he's just making good decisions and running the team - and disrupting the other side.

Where things get really interesting is with Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen.

If you haven't seen Winslow, he's something else. He's physically well beyond his years - he looks 25, not like a teenager.

He plays like it too.

Winslow is a Swiss Army Knife of a player. Listed at 6-6 and 225, he can handle the ball as well as the guards, he can get to the basket without much trouble, he can shoot deep, though not as well as some of the other players but well enough, and most impressively, he's an outstanding passer.

There are different kinds of passers. Some dazzle and find things that most people don't see. Think Magic Johnson or Pete Maravich, masters of the unexpected.

Then there are guys who just see the logical, smart thing to do to advance the ball or to get it to someone to score. That's Winslow.

We've already seen him kick-start a break and thread a needle in the lane.

He also has the potential to be a superb defender and gives Duke someone to go up against the Montrezl Harrells of the world.

Then there's Grayson Allen. The theory on Allen was that he was Duke's least talented recruit and might be pushed down the rotation.

It's possible, but having watched him a couple of times, we can tell you this: the kid can play. He can shoot with range, he's athletic, and he likes to defend.  He's only going to get better.

The remarkable thing about this class is, as Coach K said earlier, it's maturity. It's a cliche to say this, but they really aren't playing like freshmen. If you haven't seen, you'll see it soon enough.

So much for the vaunted freshman class. There is a lot of talent back as well.

Start with Amile Jefferson, who has emerged as the team's best communicator. He's coming off of a summer injury and appears to be fully recovered.

His role is somewhat similar to what Lance Thomas did in his last two years. Finally able to play to his strengths after two years of filling in where needed, Jefferson will likely focus on rebounding and defense.

Like Winslow, he's a very intelligent player and gives Duke another solid passer in the frontcourt, which will work primarily to Okafor's benefit.

Matt Jones started both exhibition games, giving Duke a Jones & Jones backcourt. Last season, Coach K lauded his defense and said that he never had a bad day of practice.

Jones came to college with a reputation as a three point shooter. He didn't do it that well last year but is showing signs early that this year will be different.

Duke will not lose much when Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon come in the game (or Allen), and Duke's perimeter defense should be as good as it's been in a really long time.

The game against Central Missouri turned on a dime when they came in and applied upperclass pressure on the Mules.

Duke's perimeter defense has the potential to be extraordinary, and when they force turnovers, then there are multiple options on the break.

Vroom, vroom.

Sulaimon and Cook also offer a lot offensively. Both players can drive and both can fill it up from outside.

Marshall Plumlee, who has spent his Duke career either injured or recovering from injury, is as healthy as he's been. He's also 7-0 tall and 255 pounds of rough stuff.

He's very different from brothers Miles and Mason. Miles is highly gifted but not always focused. Mason has ridiculous basketball savvy but it took him a couple of years to assert himself inside. He would balk and then put up an awkward shot.

Marshall's not like that. His offense is still a bit herky jerky but where his brothers were either unfocused or uncertain, the youngest Plumlee fairly burns with intensity: he's coming after you.

It's going to be interesting to see him healthy (we hope) for a season, and to see how battling Okafor daily helps. It's not like playing against 6-11 guys is a novelty to him; he's been battling his brothers for years, and the snarl in his game is probably from being pushed around in the driveway.

Last year, Semi Ojeleye didn't play a lot, largely because of his defense. No one doubted his talent.

A huge dunk in practice last season caused a bit of a viral sensation when it zipped around via YouTube.

Since high school, Ojeleye has grown two inches and is built somewhat like Winslow. If his progress continues, Duke is going to be unusually deep. He's as talented as anyone on the roster.

So what does Duke do with all this talent?

In a word: attack.

Think about the template Coach K has used with the U.S. national team.

Defense drives the car and puts pressure on the opponent. When the U.S. is on offense, there are plenty of outside shooters and penetrators. It hasn't been the biggest team in the world, but big enough.

Consider the non-post defenders: Jones, Jones, Sulaimon, Cook, Winslow, Jefferson, Allen and Ojeleye.

There's no need to hold back or to mask defensive weakness, because there should be none.

And behind those guys, Okafor and Plumlee should be able to challenge any prospective drives. The big men should also get a lot of support on the boards from Jefferson and Winslow, among others.

If you want to pick a word for this team, a theme if you like, it might be pressure. The defense will impose pressure. The offense will put a certain pressure on the defense. When Duke runs, that's another kind of pressure.

We're not suggesting that this team is going to go undefeated or anything; it's too young for something that grandiose. It is a deep team, though, and one which will be able to impose its will on most opponents. It's also a team which may improve significantly as the season goes on.