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Measuring Recruiting Classes

Kentucky had a lock on recruiting, but lately Duke has changed that.

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Coach K and Jeff Capel have completely changed Duke recruiting.
Coach K and Jeff Capel have completely changed Duke recruiting.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

When Harry Giles committed to Duke last Friday, ESPN noted that it marked the first time since the sports network has been doing prep rankings that one school has landed the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 prospects.

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No. 1 Harry Giles (6-9, Winston-Salem, N.C.).will join No. 2 Jayson Tatum (6-9, St. Louis), No. 14 Frank Jackson (6-4, Alpine, Ut.) and No. 44 Javin DeLaurier (6-9, Shipman, Va.) in what is likely to be ESPN’s No. 1 rated class – whether or not No. 20 Marques Bolden (6-10, Dallas, Tex.) joins the party.

Of course, different services boast different rankings. That’s why I prefer the RSCI (the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, which averages the top recruiting rankings). The summer RSCI rankings were:

No. 1 Harry Giles

No. 3 Jayson Tatum

No. 13 Frank Jackson

No. 36 Javin DeLaurier

Note: Marques Bolden is No. 21 in the RSCI.

The final rankings are likely to change – for instance, Giles may drop as he sits out the season to heal his injured knee. But the precise numerical ranking of the players in a class is not that significant.

What is certain is that Duke has landed two of the clearcut top three prospects in the class – Giles, Tatum and 6-7 Josh Jackson, a gifted wing from California, who is playing this prep season in Michigan, are ranked 1-2-3 in various orders by almost all the major recruiting services. Dick "Hoops" Weiss, the veteran national basketball guru, told me last week that there was little difference between the three … after that, there was a dropoff.

For what it’s worth, Michigan State is regarded as a slight favorite to land Jackson, although Kansas and Arizona seem to be right there.

If the Spartans add Jackson to No. 9 Miles Bridges, No. 18 Josh Langford, No. 25 Cassius Winston and No. 37 Nick Ward, Tom Izzo’s class – with five top 40 prospects to Duke’s four – could challenge the Devils for the No. 1 ranking (assuming Duke doesn’t add Bolden). Kansas and Arizona are positioned to have strong classes, although neither is likely to put together a challenge to Duke. N.C. State, which already has No. 5 Dennis Smith (who, like Giles, is out this season with a knee injury) and is considered a frontrunner for No. 8 Bam Adebayo and for No. 14 Rawle Alkins, should end up with a strong class too.

Then there is Kentucky.

I see by reading their message boards that the Wildcat fans expect to end up with the No. 1 class. John Calipari already has commitments from No. 18 Wenyen Gabriel and No. 25 Sacha Killeya-Jones, plus unrated 7-footer Tai Wynyard from New Zealand. The ‘Cats are considered frontrunners for No. 4 Malik Monk and No. 5 De-Aaron Fox. Calipari is still pursuing Adebayo and Alkins and could steal them from N.C. State. The ‘Cats are also in the picture for Josh Jackson and for big man Thon Maker.

Kentucky is going to end up with a good class, but good enough top Duke’s four-man haul?


And I’m not talking barbeque.

The recruiting rivalry between Duke and Kentucky has been around for a long time. Vic Bubas stunned Adolph Rupp when he stole Jeff Mullins out from under his nose in Lexington. Bill Foster did the same to Joe B. Hall, beating him to Lexington’s Vince Taylor. Rick Pitino certainly wanted Grant Hill badly and Tubby Smith pushed hard for Chris Duhon. Billy Gillispie beat Duke for Patrick Patterson.

But the real heat has come since the arrival of John Calipari to Lexington after the 2009 season.

The new Wildcat coach immediately landed the nation’s number one class. Calipari repeated as No. 1 the next season … and the next. The Wildcats were "only" No. 2 in 2012 (to UCLA), but returned to the No. 1 spot in 2013.

However, the last two years, Duke has edged out the Wildcats for the top spot (although the 2015 rankings are in dispute). And, as noted, Duke is positioned to have the No. 1 class again in 2016.

Mike Krzyzewski’s emergence as a recruiting challenger to Calipari has caused consternation in the Wildcat nation. The prevailing theory in Blue Grass Country is that Coach K has parlayed his position as the U.S. national team coach into a recruiting advantage. That’s the story Calipari himself has been whispering to his media mouthpiece – Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

There’s a problem with this explanation for Coach K’s recent recruiting success.

Krzyzewski was named the national team coach in 2005. At the time, he was coming off his fourth No. 1 rated recruiting class in the previous nine years. Duke was already a recruiting juggernaut before Jerry Colangelo tapped Coach K to coach the pros in the Olympics.

If that was going to be such a huge recruiting advantage, why would it be another eight years before K landed a No. 1 class? Why did Cal hammer K on the recruiting trail in 2009 (after K’s Olympic triumph in Beijing), 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013?

What changed in 2014 to give K the edge? Did prospects suddenly realize that Coach K was the guy leading LeBron, Kobe and company to all those gold medals and championships?

The timing is simply wrong.

Here’s what I think actually happened.

Calipari seized the high ground in recruiting by being the first coach to embrace the one-and-done prospect. You couldn’t do that at UMass or even Memphis – it had to be at a traditional powerhouse like UCLA, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke … or Kentucky.

Once established at the historically great university, Coach Cal sold kids on the idea that they could come and star for one year at a school that’s always in the national spotlight, then move on to the NBA. We all laughed back in 2010 when Calipari said that getting six players drafted in the first round was the greatest moment in Kentucky basketball history – but his message resonated with prospects.

Of course, Kentucky was not the only program to have one-and-done players. Duke’s first one-and-done was Cory Maggette, who was in the 1999 draft. Freshman Luol Deng followed in 2004.

But the truth is, Coach K wasn’t selling the one-and-done dream. It’s not that he stood in the way of kids who were ready to make the jump, but he didn’t encourage his first two one-and-done kids to leave early. Before 1999, he never had a player leave early for the NBA draft. Even after Brand, Avery and Maggette changed that in ’99, for the most part, his players stayed three or four years – even such studs as Jason Williams and J.J. Redick.

That started to change with Kyrie Irving.

I’m not sure that Krzyzewski thought about Irving as a one-and-done prospect when he committed in the fall of 2009. But as Irving exploded the next spring, then dazzled in his first months at Duke, the veteran coach saw that it was a possibility … then a likelihood. Even the toe injury that cost Irving most of his one season at Duke did not slow his one-and-done plans.

Irving was followed by Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker, whose success at Duke and support from K as they took the one-and-done route suggested that Krzyzewski was finally embracing the one-and-done model.

I think that helped him land the amazing 2014 recruiting class – a class that would include three one-and-dones. Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow all started on a national championship team, then made the smooth transition to the NBA.

I don’t know for sure, but I believe that when that four-man class arrived on campus in the summer of 2014, Krzyzewski was sure of just one one-and-done – Okafor. However, as Jones and Winslow demonstrated their talent and maturity, the Duke coach supported their one-and-done ambitions and his dependence on their talents certainly helped make their dreams come true.

That will play out again this season. Coach K has made it clear that he views freshman Brandon Ingram as a one-and-done prospect and he’s going to try and help Ingram achieve that goal. I doubt he thinks Derryck Thornton, Chase Jeter and/or Luke Kennard are one-and-done guys, but if any or all of them exhibit that kind of freshman prowess, I’m sure he’ll encourage and help them as he did Jones and Winslow.

To me, that’s the reason for Krzyzewski’s recent recruiting dominance – his belated embrace of the one-and-done player. He first resisted the idea, then tried to blend a rare one-and-done with longer term players. Now, he’s gone whole hog – next year both Giles and Tatum are likely one-and-dones … Jackson is possible.

Oh, there are a few other factors that have helped K’s recent recruiting surge.

One has to be the decline of UNC’s recruiting magic.

Over the years, Duke and Kentucky have battled for a number of prospects, but Duke and UNC go head-to-head for far more prospects. And over the years, Roy Williams has won his share of head-to-head battles with Coach K – most famously Harrison Barnes.

But Roy has not been beating K in the last few years – not even for in-state kids that he should have had in his back pocket, such as Ingram and Giles.

It would be easy to ascribe UNC’s recruiting slump to the looming NCAA investigation, although that doesn’t seem to have impacted Larry Fedora’s football recruiting that much. I think far more damaging to UNC’s image on the recruiting trail is the widespread perception that Williams doesn’t embrace one-and-done talent – that, in fact, he actively inhibits their one-and-done opportunities by playing them out of position (as he did to John Henson as a freshman) or by refusing to start them as freshman (Marvin Williams, Ed Davis, James Michael McAdoo).

Roy may or may not contend for a national title this year, but if he does, it’s with a team very much like Duke’s 2010 national champs – a veteran team without one-and-done talent.

My point is that in the previous basketball universe, UNC would have been a major player for many of the kids that Duke has landed in the last 2-3 years – based on UNC’s historical in-state dominance, the Heels should have been the favorite for Ingram and Giles (and N.C. State bound Dennis Smith – the perfect point guard for Roy’s offensive system).

UNC’s recruiting slump has opened a window of opportunity that K has raced through.

There’s also the Jeff Capel factor.

He returned to Duke in the spring of 2011 and has been a major factor in Duke’s success with one-and-done players. Harry Giles recently talked about the close bond he had formed with Coach Capel. He also worked hard on Parker, Okafor and Winslow.

Don’t overrate that factor -- Coach K remains the most important recruiter for Duke, but Capel’s presence appears to have helped.

Duke has always been an attractive destination for top prospects – dating back to the summer of 1959, when Vic Bubas stole Art Heyman, the nation’s No. 1 rated recruit, from Frank McGuire at North Carolina. And Krzyzewski has always exploited that advantage to bring in as many top-rated players as anybody in college basketball.

But it has gone to another level in the last 2-3 years. No matter how you balance the factors – K’s acceptance of the one-and-done player, his status as the national team coach, the decline of UNC’s recruiting or the addition of Capel to the staff – this is a golden age for Duke recruiting.

So enjoy it while it lasts, because nothing it more certain in college basketball that things change over time.


Mike Krzyzewski has landed the nation’s top-rated recruiting class seven times:

1982 – Few formal rating systems that long ago, but the six-man class headed by Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and Jay Bilas was generally rated No. 1 nationally. Oddly, Illinois wing Weldon Williams and Nebraska stretch four Bill Jackman were rated as prime recruits, but neither panned out, while unheralded North Carolina wing David Henderson turned into a stud. Just one note about this class – not only were they the foundation of Coach K’s program, the six-man class ended up scoring a combined 7,537 career points at Duke, which is the most by any recruiting class in NCAA history.

1997 – Four players, but three of them were generally rated top five prospects nationally – Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Chris Burgess. Georgia guard Will Avery was in the top 20-25 range. Although Burgess flopped, the other three were studs. Indeed, this in the only recruiting class in NCAA history to produce TWO consensus national players of the year (Brand in 1999; Battier in 2001).

1999 – Four McDonald’s All-Americans. As it was, the class included No. 3 Jason Williams, No. 8 Carlos Boozer, No. 16 Casey Sanders, No. 26 Mike Dunleavy, Minnesota POY Nick Horvath and unranked Andre Buckner. Interesting that K turned down a commitment from No. 14 Casey Jacobsen to get the guy he wanted – the lower-ranked Dunleavy. That paid off on a March night in 2001 when Dunleavy – along with Boozer and Williams – helped shoot Duke to the 2001 national title.

2002 –Four McDonald’s All-Americans – and it would have been five if Shelden Williams had not missed his senior season of high school. The class included No. 8 Williams, No. 11 J.J. Redick, No. 14 Shav Randolph, No. 21 Sean Dockery, No. 30 Michael Thompson and borderline top 100 pick Lee Melchionni. This group formed the core of teams that won three ACC titles, played in the 2004 Final Four and finished No. 1 in the final AP poll in 2006. It’s also the only recruiting class in ACC history to produce two players that became consensus first-team All-Americans in the same year (Williams and Redick in 2006).

2005 – It started with the No. 1 prospect in the class – Josh McRoberts. No. 13 Greg Paulus was rated a top point guard. No. 39 Eric Boateng, No. 53 Marty Pocius and No. 60 Jamal Boykin completed the nation’s deepest class. I would argue that this is the only top-rated Duke class that failed to live up to its potential – Paulus is the only one who made it four years and by the end, he was so hobbled that he could barely play.

2014 – No. 1 Jahlil Okafor, No. 7 Tyus Jones, No. 13 Justise Winslow and No. 24 Grayson Allen were all McDonald’s All-Americans. Obviously, they were the core of the team that won the national title and three of them ended up in the first round of last June’s NBA draft. The fourth (Allen) is likely to end up there are well – either in June of 2016 or 2017.

2015 – The late addition of No. 4 Brandon Ingram and No. 13 Derryck Thornton to the earlier signings of No. 14 Chase Jeter and No. 21 Luke Kennard moved Duke past Kentucky in most rankings – to the fury of the Wildcat fan base. Developmental big men Antonio Vrankovic and Justin Robinson completed the deep and talented class.

This No. 1 ranking is in dispute, thanks to Kentucky’s late addition of five-star Canadian guard Jamal Murray and four-star Australian big man Isaac Humphries. Some services moved Kentucky back to No. 1 – others (such as ESPN) kept Duke atop the list. It’s really a close call – the ‘Cats have No. 2 Skal Labissiere, No. 11 Isaiah Briscoe and No. 50 Charles Matthews. But four-star juco Mychael Muldar, Murray and Humphries never made most rankings.

Either way, most of the services credit Duke with the No. 1 class. It really doesn’t matter, although maybe we could end the dispute by suggesting that the winner of the upcoming game in Chicago should be able to claim the No. 1 recruiting ranking for 2015.