Is this the year Lucy lets Charlie Brown kick the football?
In Duke basketball terms is this the year when Mike Krzyzewski channels his inner Nolan Richardson, plays his entire roster, runs and presses exhausted opponents into rubble?
We hear some variation of this every pre-season. Duke is going to play lots of people, play up tempo, run-and-gun-and fun.
Then February arrives and Duke is playing a half-court game with seven, maybe eight players in the rotation.
And what’s wrong with that? Duke has won national championships with seven-player rotations. Duke has had at least one AP All-American every year since 2013. Duke is a star-centric program and it’s a winning star-centric program.
Does Duke want to change it up?
Well, maybe. Ten Duke players averaged at least 12 minutes per game last season and Duke still had two All-Americans, guard Tre Jones and center Vernon Carey, both off to NBA pastures.
The 2020-’21 team appears to have the depth to go deep. Duke has 11 recruited players and based on what we’ve heard from the coaches and players, based on footage we’ve seen from practices and a single scrimmage, none of them has played their way out of the rotation.
But does Duke have a burgeoning All-American in its midst?
Assistant coach Nate James addressed the media Thursday morning and made it clear that Duke hoped to have both star power and depth.
“We started toying around with different ideas of how to play 10, 11 guys, pressing, playing more uptempo style, which we’ve always wanted to do . . . .all of you know Duke basketball, you know our rotations, how many guys coach actually likes to play because you do want separation. You want to find out who are the best players . . . . and have them on the floor.”
Threading the needle.
James said that Duke has started to get some separation in the last couple of weeks. If the season started today Jeremy Roach, Jordan Goldwire, Wendell Moore, Jalen Johnson and Matt Hurt likely would comprise the starting lineup. Joey Baker, D.J. Steward, Mark Williams and Henry Coleman would be in the rotation.
That’s nine. But James also said that Jaemyn Brakefield is “playing at a high level” and that Patrick Tapé is “trying to impose his wills on all the guys. . . . He does a great job on the ball screen, moves his feet, calls out the switches. . . . He’s probably our best rebounder.”
James added that the grad-student transfer would be essential against big teams.
Which brings us back to 11.
James did give updates on several of his players, especially the freshmen.
He said that point guard Jeremy Roach is “the dynamic guard we’ve always had that makes the team go.”
Roach is benefiting from the tutelage of senior combo guard Jordan Goldwire. Goldwire could have resented Roach but instead has embraced the attitude that “my goal is to win a national championship and in order to do that I’m going to help you, to teach you all the lessons the coaches taught me over the years.”
James called Goldwire a “pit bull” and added that Goldwire was recruited to lead the reserves in practice and “maybe eventually be a solid player in our program.” But the light-bulb went off for Goldwire during his junior season and here he is, a presumptive starter on a pre-season top-10 team.
“No one would ever have expected this.”
The secret of Goldwire’s success? Hard-work, to be sure. But equally important was Goldwire’s belief in himself.
Jalen Johnson and Mark Williams both missed parts of last season with injuries and are still catching up.
Johnson is a prodigious talent who was voted pre-season All-ACC.
James said it took some time for Johnson to learn how hard you have to work at this level but he’s now hitting his stride.
“With his natural talent and ability . . . . especially in the open floor, he can really get out in transition. He’s a big-time athlete, his passing ability, he can really, really find his teammates, he’s really a pass-first player.”
James adds that Johnson needs to shoot more, especially when the defense plays off him.
Williams has a chance to be an elite rebounder and rim protector but “is still trying to figure out how to use all of his tools.”
Then there’s Henry Coleman, who seems poised to become a fan favorite. James was asked if this year’s team had a “bad-ass” and Coleman was the first name out of James’ mouth.
James used descriptors like “plays with energy, power, strength, athleticism, and energizer bunny.”
James added that Duke has worked Coleman at the center, power forward, even small forward spots and “he’s adjusted to whatever we’ve thrown at him.”
Matt Hurt and Wendell Moore have improved their games but they’ve also improved their leadership skills, becoming vocal and proactive in ways that would have been unthinkable in their freshman season. Moore especially has benefited from his leadership in social justice issues in his hometown of Concord.
“He’s a different kid. . . . he’s becoming a man. You can hear his voice . . . . this kid is starting to get it. His game has taken off.”
James suggested that 3-point shooting will be a strength of this year’s team. Hurt, Baker and Steward all shoot well from beyond the arc. We know that. But James says that Roach is a much better shooter than advertised, while Goldwire and Moore have stepped up in that area.
James says Duke consistently knocks down 40 percent of its 3s in practice.
“We will be “a really good shooting team. We just have to get the balance. We think we can get after teams. That’s where the depth comes in. You better be ready when your number’s called.”