On the theory that you should save the best for last, we always do our Duke preview at the end.
Most of Duke’s major talents from last year - Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones - are gone. Chase Jeter also left, transferring to Arizona just in time for scandal to taint that program.
Duke’s losses were so severe that when we looked at this year’s roster, there was only one feasible candidate for captain - senior Grayson Allen. No one else was remotely prepared for the role.
Redshirt junior Antonio Vrankovic got 7.8 mpg and sophomore Javin DeLaurier got 7.1. Big man Marques Bolden averaged 6.5 and Jack White 6.1.
But the corollary statistic is that of those guys only Bolden played in more than 13 games and he, like so many teammates last season, was slowed by injury.
Go down the list because it’s a bit freaky: Tatum injured an ankle very early. Jones had another nagging injury (we can’t remember exactly). It wasn’t major but it slowed him down. Jefferson sat out most of his senior season with a foot injury; he injured the same foot again in February (not as seriously thankfully, but it slowed down a brilliant season). Jeter had a back injury. Frank Jackson played with a foot injury for a good bit of the season. Harry Giles, now with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, is still recovering from his knee problems. Marques Bolden woke up with his injury (you know things are going badly when you injure yourself in bed and don’t at least get a good story out of it for later). Javin DeLaurier, a springy 6-10 forward, had an injury. And Grayson Allen, who was set for a breakout year, instead broke down, in more ways than one.
Even Coach K had an injury and missed several games.
What can you say? Things happen. It’s happening to UNC in football this season.
But it made it impossible to maintain continuity and getting the team to gel was next to impossible.
Fortunately for Duke the one guy who remained consistent was Kennard and he had a brilliant year, one that led him to being a lottery pick in this past summer’s draft, going to Detroit at #12).
Duke still finished 28-9 and won the ACC Championship. It’s a measure of how highly this program is regarded that that is considered a bad year.
On the bright side, Duke expects the other returning players to show significant improvement.
Allen has had an up-and-down career in some respects. He was the key to Duke’s 2015 national championship, coming off the bench to spark his team past a really tough Wisconsin bunch.
As a sophomore he started but his kicking other players became a real distraction.
Still, he was healthy and averaged 21.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg an nearly a steal and a half.
By comparison, last season must have been a big disappointment for Allen.
Hobbled by injury all season, Allen was now a captain and expected to lead his team.
That didn’t go too well either.
Allen had a third kicking incident last season, this time against Elon’s Steven Santa Anna and was suspended. Coach K said indefinitely though it was anything but - Allen was out for one game.
And then Coach K did something we can’t remember him doing before: he stripped the Florida native of his captaincy.
Allen threw a major fit on the bench which left people talking. Our thought at the time was this is a guy with a lot on his mind. Nobody reacts like this to a basketball call.
After that game, Coach K spoke to the press and said something we didn’t expect. He didn’t come down publicly on his wayward guard; rather he said “I’m a teacher and a coach, and I’m responsible for that kid, so I know him better than anybody. So to think that it’s the last thing that’s said about this to him is wrong. Obviously, we will do more. It doesn’t mean you have to see it, or anybody else has to see it.”
We took that to mean that to Krzyzewski, this wasn’t a black and white situation, that there was some things he wasn't going to address publicly but that he was “responsible” for Allen and the situation would be dealt with in confidence.
Note that he didn’t simply say that he was a rotten kid or immature or whatever. He didn’t say a lot but you could sort of get the idea that it wasn’t just a disciplinary issue. He seemed to be protecting him.
Allen came back after his brief suspension and he played under control, if perhaps somewhat subdued, for the rest of the season.
The fact that the staff is willing to make him captain again could be because there is no one else well suited.
It could also be that whatever he needed to do to regain confidence he got done.
Given his history, there will be concerns about his behavior again, but we’re pretty sure that he wouldn't be captain if Krzyzewski wasn’t completely confident in him.
It’s also worth noting that in the preseason, Allen has been healthy. Freshman point guard Trevon Duvall told someone that he didn’t realize that Allen was that good. Things are looking up for the senior guard.
He still has issues to work on. His ball handling isn’t stellar, or wasn’t last season and he’ll need to improve that to be a legitimate NBA player. Duke was forced to run him at point guard last season and it just didn’t work. For one thing, he had a habit of turning his back to protect the ball. We’d bet that if you went back and studied tape, most of his turnovers came when he was trying to run the point. It’d be interesting to see how they correlated to when he was trying to protect the ball. He won’t have to play point guard much this year - freshman Trevon Duvall will take that role from Day One.
He also needs to be less predictable. Allen is a gifted athlete and he’s great in the open court. When he’s been healthy he’s a superb perimeter sniper as well. As for the rest of his game, he needs some variety.
No one doubts Allen’s competitive nature though or his willingness to dig in and work hard. Among his other strengths, he’s an outstanding defender.
If he can improve his ballhandling, build some variety in his offensive game and be emotionally consistent, he could be a first-round draft pick next summer. Certainly the talent is there.
In part II, we’ll look at Duke’s other returnees.
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