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The 2020 Outlook For Duke Basketball, Part 1

Buoyed by the return of Tre Jones, Duke should remain a contender next season

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Michigan State vs Duke
Mar 31, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Cassius Winston (5) drives to the basket against Duke Blue Devils guard Tre Jones (3) during the first half in the championship game of the east regional of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Capital One Arena.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason dominos have finally fallen, and it’s business as usual for Duke.

With Zion Williamson’s declaration for the NBA Draft last week, the Blue Devils now know for certain that they’ll lose their top three scorers from this year’s team in Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Those losses have been expected long before the trio ever step foot onto campus. But with Tre Jones’ decision to return to Durham for a second year, there’s enough reason to be optimistic that Duke’s sixth National Championship could come in 2020 to get Blue Devil fans through the long offseason.

Before we take a look at next season’s outlook, both for the Blue Devils and for the entire college basketball landscape (the later of which I’ll do in “Part 2” and “Part 3” of this preview to come), some caveats must be established. First, there is always the possibility that something unusual throws a wrench into these plans, be it an unexpected transfer or an unexpected recruit. And most importantly, it must be made abundantly clear that the 2019-2020 edition of Duke Basketball won’t have as much talent as this season’s version. It’s entirely possible that no Duke team, or no college basketball team anywhere, will ever have that much pure talent on its roster again (a fact that makes the Blue Devils’ early exit in March sting all the more).

But this season showed that the “best”, most talented team doesn’t always win a given basketball game, especially under the pressure of the NCAA Tournament. And, especially with Jones’ return, there is reason to believe next year’s squad will be particularly well suited to address some of the flaws that doomed this year’s Blue Devils.

Let’s start with Jones, because that’s where everything will start for Duke next year. His defensive prowess is well-established, and his return alone makes it very unlikely that Duke will run into some of the defensive flaws that have plagued them in the one-and-done era. The ability for Jones to pressure the ball and affect the opponents’ offensive flow entirely by his own volition can and will help cover for many liabilities, including some common ones for one-and-done led teams. For instance, for all the hype surrounding this season’s most hyped recruit, Vernon Carey, his defensive ability as a true center is an unknown. Jones’ stalwart defense has the potential to clog the vision and passing lanes for the opposition’s point guard, making post entry passes significantly more difficult, regardless of Carey’s defensive abilities.

It’s also extremely likely that Jones’ offensive game takes a large step forward, as is typical for players between their freshmen and sophomore campaigns. Jones showed the capacity to penetrate and get to the basket this year, even though with talented scorers surrounding him he used this ability primarily to create for others rather than himself. There’s every reason to believe that, as the focal point of the offense, Jones scoring numbers will rise as a sophomore on that alone. Away from the basket, Jones’ lack of a three-point shot was a storyline all season (and probably was a key factor in his decision to forego the draft). But, unlike other players who struggle with their shot, Jones shot as a whole isn’t broken. He shot a respectable 76% from the free throw line this season, while also showing off a consistent mid-range game. Those data points imply it’s reasonable to expect Jones’ three-point shot to improve, with even a humble increase from 26 to 30% likely meaning a big bump in his scoring output.

Finally, what about Jones’ ability to create for others? It’s here that I think his return, and the makeup of this Duke team, is especially promising. The fact that Jones averaged more than five assists per game as a freshman is especially impressive considering the team’s primary scorers, Barrett and Williamson, created most of their own scoring opportunities off the dribble. Next year’s team may not have a transcendent talent like those two, but it will likely have more shooters on the floor and a true back-to-the-basket big in Carey. Both of those mean more assist opportunities for Jones.

Indeed, the return of Jones is most enticing because an experienced point guard was likely necessary to bring the various pieces of the 2020 puzzle together into a cohesive whole. At this stage, the closest things there are to “sure things” with regards to Duke’s starting lineup are Jones at the point and Carey in the paint. Carey has the potential to have a Jahlil Okafor-like impact on Duke’s offense, but big men always rely on their point guards to get them the ball in the right positions. Jones can do that, and will likely make Carey a much more effective offensive threat with his presence.

The other three positions on the floor are up for grabs, but the myriad of different pieces available to Coach K, combined with Jones to glue them together, will give Duke more leeway to fit their lineup to the matchup and situation at hand in 2020. If Duke wants to space the floor with three-point shooting, it can do that. There’s every reason to believe that returnees Alex O’Connell, Joey Baker, and Jack White will be able to continue their development, and I’d place strong odds that at least one of them steps into the role of deadeye three-point shooter. For those writing any or all of those three off, consider that Kenny Goins (yes, the infamous Goins who made the dagger three against Duke in the Elite Eight) had made a total of four three point baskets in his Michigan State career before a senior season in which he shot 34% from deep. O’Connell, Baker and White likely know that there is playing time available for a three-point specialist, and all have the capability with a summer of focused practice to take that next step.

And for those still doubting that trio, the late addition of freshman Matthew Hurt allows Duke to put a true “stretch-four” onto to the floor for the first time since Ryan Kelly graduated. Put O’Connell, White, and Hurt on the floor with Jones and Carey and the paint will be open for business, as will the kick out three.

What if Duke needs to step up its defense? Another star freshman, Wendell Moore, will likely help with that: the five-star recruit is heralded primarily as a defensive stalwart. It’s likely Moore will start and see heavy minutes because of this specialty (he’s also noted as a solid “slasher” on the offensive end), and a pairing of him with Jones could give the opposition headaches. Jordan Goldwire will also return for his junior season, and his ability to impact a game defensively is now well-established; and again, like the other returnees, there is every reason to believe that the junior will improve, and the holes in his game will be addressed to some degree with a summer of practice. Finally, lest we forget, Duke will have two senior big men in Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden, both of whom have shown the ability to protect the rim and also switch on the pick-and-roll. A lineup of Jones, Goldwire, Moore, DeLaurier and Carey would have the potential to switch 1-through-4 and wreck havoc will ball-pressure.

The versatility presented by those two hypothetical lineups is something that Duke lacked this season. The transcendence of Barrett and Williamson occluded the fact that that pair, and to some degree Reddish, were all similar “wing” players (even though Williamson eventually found a home more in the post). While next season’s Blue Devils may not be able to replicate that trio’s talent, they will be able to put different pieces around Jones depending upon the matchup and the situation. At the 4 and 5 positions alone Duke will have four unique pieces, two freshmen and two seniors, for Coach K to mix and match depending on the situation, not to mention the option of going small with someone like White or Moore at the 4.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that next year’s squad may be the most experienced Duke has had in the one-and-done era. Two senior captains return in Javin DeLaurier and Jack White, alongside another senior in Marques Bolden. Two juniors, O’Connell and Goldwire, played key roles at very stages of the 2019 campaign. Meanwhile, Joey Baker has the talent of a top-25 recruit and a year of practice under his belt. Alongside Jones, that is easily the largest group of returning contributors that Duke has had since 2013 (when seniors Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly led the Blue Devils), and they all have the experience of being seconds from a Final Four (for the upperclassmen, twice!) under their belts. Besides Jones, none of them may be stars, or even starters, but they do bring experience and a knowledge of their role on the team that is difficult to replicate in this era of college basketball. Indeed, those intangibles were a key part of the success of each Final Four team this season.

The 2019-2020 Blue Devils won’t be as talented as this season’s group, and the style of play on both sides of the floor will likely be extremely different than what we saw this year. But with Jones back to bring the pieces together, there’s enough versatility and experience on this team to address some of the bugaboos that have hounded previous incarnations of one-and-done led Duke squads. That should place Duke squarely amongst the contenders once again next season, a thought that hopefully will help get The Brotherhood through the summer.

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