From 1983 to 2012 Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Bobby Hurley, Jason Williams, Chris Duhon, Greg Paulus, and Austin Rivers all played at least 1,000 minutes as freshmen at Duke. All played point guard, or at least lead guard a good part of those 1000 minutes.
During the same span of time not one Duke freshman taller than 6-8 played 1,000 minutes.
It’s not like Duke didn’t have talented big men. Danny Ferry, Alaa Abdelnaby, Christian Laettner, Cherokee Parks, Shelden Williams, Miles Plumlee and Mason Plumlee all became first-round NBA draft picks after a four-year stint at Duke. Josh McRoberts just missed the first round after two seasons.
Except for Miles Plumlee all of these big men were prep All-Americans and consensus top-20 recruits; Ferry and McRoberts were number one in their classes. All except Miles eventually became All-ACC players. But none of them averaged double figures in scoring as freshmen. Laettner had the highest scoring average, at 9.1 points per game. Shelden Williams had the highest rebounding average, at 5.9. Only Ferry and McRoberts played more than 20 minutes per game; Ferry averaged just under 23, McRoberts just over 24.
In some cases these players played behind talented veterans. But not always. Abdelnaby played 191 minutes as a freshman in 1987 for a team whose starting center was 6-8 sophomore John Smith. Smith averaged 3.3 rebounds per game but still kept Abdelnaby on the bench. Miles Plumlee played 165 minutes in 2009 for a team whose only other center, junior Brian Zoubek averaged four points per game. Freshman Shelden Williams split time at center in 2003 with senior Casey Sanders, who would end up averaging 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game for his Duke career.
Elton Brand became Krzyzewski’s first freshman center to become a key scoring option. But he missed 13 games in 1998 due to a foot injury. Brand averaged just over 13 points and 7 rebounds per game when he did play. Carlos Boozer replaced Brand in 2000 and averaged 13 points and six rebounds per game. But he still was fourth on the team in scoring, fifth in minutes played.
It wasn’t until the last decade that freshmen big man became truly dominant at Duke. Jabari Parker was 6-8 and nominally a power forward. But he played inside enough to lead the ACC in rebounding in 2014. Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter and Vernon Carey were all top 10 recruits and all top-10 draft picks after their freshmen seasons, with Carey’s eventual draft slot to be determined.
I’m not sure what changed. The long-time narrative is that big men just take longer to develop. That’s certainly true with Abdelnaby, Shelden Williams, Miles Plumlee and others who were pretty raw as freshmen. But was Laettner really that much less refined as a freshman than Okafor? Maybe it’s the one-and-done environment that opens up playing time. Maybe former college point guard Krzyzewski has a deeper investment in his point guards. Maybe the player-development universe has improved that much.
That brings us to Duke signee Mark Williams. He’s a consensus top-35 recruit. He’s long and lean, around 7-0 tall, 225 pounds, maybe 230. He has a reputation as a rebounder and rim protector. His sister Elizabeth played for Duke and ranks ninth in NCAA career blocks for women. Hopefully, blocking shots is in his DNA.
But his offensive game is considered, well, unrefined. Getting better. But some way to go.
And not much time to get there.
Detractors will point out that he sounds more like Casey Sanders or Javin DeLaurier than Wendell Carter or Vernon Carey.
Krzyzewski certainly never planned on asking Williams to man the center spot all by himself. Duke was looking at bringing in Williams and Walker Kessler, a more offensively-minded center from Georgia. After Kessler signed with North Carolina, Duke went after Hunter Dickinson but lost him to Michigan.
The grad-student transfer portal provided the answer. Or at least an answer.
Patrick Tapé became Krzyzewski’s first grad-student transfer, coming down from Columbia. Tapé is 6-10, 235. So, he’s got center size. And he certainly looks good on those edited highlight reels that constitute pretty much all that we’ve seen of him.
The Charlotte native averaged 11.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in 2019; a toe injury sidelined him most of last season. He shot 66.7 percent from the field, 68.9 from the line and was named honorable mention All-Ivy League.
Tapé did all this for a 10-18 Columbia team. So, it’s not like his touches were limited by a preponderance of talented teammates.
How will this solid but hardly star-level Ivy-League production translate to the ACC? Darned if I know. At the very least Tapé should provide depth and shelter Williams from the burden of playing too many minutes. And he will provide a veteran presence on a team with eight recruited underclassmen.
Insurance, at the very least. Hopefully, more than that.
Are there other options? Some recruiting sites list incoming freshman Henry Coleman as 6-8, 240. Others have him a bit smaller. Coleman is the least-touted of Duke’s six incoming freshmen. But he’s still a consensus top-50 recruit. The recruiting sites all praise his toughness, energy and rebounding. He has great intangibles.
He’ll certainly have a chance to carve out a position in the rotation. But right now he looks more like a power forward then a center.
There were times last season when Matthew Hurt was the tallest Duke player on the floor and that was on a roster that included Carey and DeLaurier. That should be the case during the 2021 season and an extra 10 pounds or so would help Hurt do better on the blocks.
But this seems like more of a change of pace, a dessert rather than an entrée.
Does Duke have to have a dominant big man to have a dominant season?
Doesn’t hurt. Ferry, Laettner, Brand, and Okafor were All-Americans on Final Four teams. Parks in 1994, Boozer in 2001, and Shelden Williams in 2004 weren’t quite that good but all produced at a level any of us gladly would take from Mark Williams or Tapé.
Then again Duke won 37 games in 1986 with a center who averaged seven points and five rebounds per game. Duke won the 2010 NCAA title with a starting center who averaged 5.6 points per game. Marques Bolden and DeLaurier combined for around nine points and nine rebounds per game for a 32-6 Elite Eight team in 2019.
Duke is not likely to get much back-to-the-basket, low-post production from its centers next season. Then again, the scoring can come from elsewhere. But rebounding and defense seem like real needs, something that Williams, Tapé, and perhaps Coleman will have to provide.