Part I: A look back at 2016-17 with a focus on Grayson Allen
Aside from Allen, Duke returns 6-11 Antonio Vrankovic, 6-10 Javin DeLaurier, 6-11 Marques Bolden, 6-6 Aussie Jack White and 6-9 Justin Robinson.
Bolden is the most prominent of the returnees and a guy who had one-and-done aspirations. It didn’t quite work out that way of course.
Last year’s Duke team had a wave of injuries but none was weirder than Bolden’s with Coach K saying that it might have happened when he was sleeping.
There was never much more information about whatever happened but it was enough to derail his freshman year. Bolden showed plenty of potential against Virginia State in exhibition season, scoring 13 and grabbing 11 boards. He sure looked like an NBA candidate on that night.
Bolden fell behind after the injury and never really caught up and saw spot duty for the rest of the season.
He admitted to considering transferring - at one point there were stories published saying he was gone - but the day after those stories circulated he announced he was staying.
Like last year the frontcourt will have some serious competition, but Bolden should be better prepared. First he is healthy. Second he has worked hard on improving his conditioning. His weight hasn’t changed much but he has spent a lot of time in the weight room and is reportedly stronger and quicker. You could probably add more confident to that as well.
What we saw from him in the lone exhibition game, when he was healthy, was an agile big guy with outstanding instincts. And unlike a lot of big guys he seemed to enjoy playing in the post. The game has changed, but this will never change: get a really big guy the ball close to the basket and he’s very likely to score. And as Leonard Hamilton reminds us every year, usually in triplicate, a big guy around the basket is automatically an obstacle.
Like just about everyone else last year, DeLaurier lost ground to an injury which was a shame.
DeLaurier’s skills weren’t advanced last year but there was no missing the athleticism and the bounce in his game. He reminded us pretty much immediately of Orlando Woolridge, the former Notre Dame star and long-time NBA vet.
DeLaurier should become a rotation player this year. He doesn’t have the skill set that freshman Marvin Bagley III has, or at least he didn’t as a freshman, but he does have elite athleticism. DeLaurier has tremendous hops and he has impressed in the pre-season. We’re not comparing him to former UNC and Lakers great James Worthy, but like Worthy, he should eventually be a real force on the break. Having a guy 6-9 or 6-10 who can really get out and run is a great asset.
In the Countdown to Craziness scrimmage, against some pretty stiff competition, DeLaurier scored three, grabbed nine boards and had three assists.
Coach K said this about DeLaurier: “Javin has played real well. Javin is a key guy for us; it would be mostly right now coming off the bench, but when you come off the bench, if you’re playing well, we’re not going to take you out.”
So assuming that he stays healthy, expect to see a lot more of him this year.
Then there’s Vrankovic.
Duke has been compared to Kentucky when it comes to one-and-done recruiting, but unlike UK, Duke has also consistently recruited program guys who develop in the background. Think Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee, Matt Jones and now Vrankovic.
He’s 6-11 and when he came to Duke he had some upper body strength but his lower body held him back.
He’s spent three years in the weight room now and this season that could start to pay off. We’ve talked before about his great hands and his instinct for the game. Once his body catches up he could become pretty good.
Australian basketball is interesting. It’s not really European, it’s certainly not American, but it has a swashbuckling element to it, a gambler’s impulse to go for the (literal) long shot. The Australian passion for outlandishness is definitely reflected in the way they play the game.
We haven’t really seen that in White yet, but he didn’t get a lot of time last season either. He comes across as a tough kid, a guy who doesn’t mind a physical game. You almost fall into the stereotype of a happily toothless Aussie rugby player except that he’s not playing rugby and thankfully he has all of his teeth.
He does have some of that attitude however. Duke will not have the three point attack it’s used to, but White is a guy who could help address that. He also has the potential to be an outstanding defender.
If Duke has a weakness on this roster it’s at what most programs would call small forward and particularly on defense. Most teams are smaller by necessity - the good big players leave early for the NBA. White could carve out a role simply by being a tough defender against athletic wings.
Finally, there’s Justin Robinson, son of the Admiral. David’s kid came to Duke listed as 6-6 or 6-7 but like his dad, Robinson grew late and is now 6-9. He’s still quite slender at 198 but that’ll change over time.
He probably won’t play a lot this season - he’s a redshirt sophomore - but he’s long since proven his value as a teammate. Marshall Plumlee spoke about him in particular in his senior speech and how Robinson, then just a preferred walk-on, came to Plumlee after a tough loss in which Plumlee played poorly, and just stayed with him. Plumlee said he didn't want company but didn’t realize he needed it. Robinson did.
He’s a textbook example of being able to help without spending a ton of time on the court. But there’s still a chance he could develop into something special. His father grew seven inches in about a year and turned into a freakishly great player at the Naval Academy.
All of these guys, except for Bolden, were recruited as program guys, guys who would learn the system and expectations and most likely be around for a while to help teach younger players Duke basketball and all that entails. Robinson is the longest shot to become a key part of the rotation but any of the other guys could move up.
And all of them should benefit from having to play every day against superior competition. Recall how much Marshall Plumlee got out of playing against Jahlil Okafor every day. He was constantly challenged and forced to play at a higher level every time he took the court, and of course it really paid dividends for him (and Duke) in his final season.
We’d expect to see Bolden and DeLaurier step up quickly and the others we’ll have to wait and see as they compete for time with, among others, a highly promising freshman class.