Duke doesn’t have positions.
You’ve probably heard that one a few hundred times.
It’s not exactly untrue. But it’s not exactly true, either.
Sure, Mike Krzyzewski has said something along those lines countless times. But he’s just as likely to follow up by praising a player’s ability to guard four positions or noting that another player is a pure point guard, or whatever.
A foolish consistency, hobgoblins and all that.
Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke teams have more positional flexibility that many teams.
How’s that for a compromise?
Duke is almost certainly going to have at least one point guard, a ball-handler and play-maker on the court. They might have two. But always one.
Well, except for the 2012 team, the exception that proves the rule, I suppose. Duke hoped Seth Curry could make a Jon Scheyer-like transition from shooting guard to point guard.
Didn’t happen. Curry did lead Duke in assists but with only 2.4 per game, the lowest total to lead Duke since assists became an official statistic.
I’m still not sure how that team won 27 games. Well, I suppose those eight future NBA players helped, although not all of them played much that season.
On the other end, Duke always has a big man. Sometimes more than one. But at least one.
It’s those other three spots where the alchemist does his work, where the magic happens.
I’ve long thought that Mike Krzyzewski’s adaptability is one of his most underrated assets. He has always had an ability to change in ways that play to his team’s strengths, while minimizing its weaknesses, even changing style and rotations in mid-season.
Duke won an NCAA title in 2001 with a 6-9 small forward. Duke won an NCAA title in 2010 with a starting front court that went 7-1, 6-8 and 6-8 and won an NCAA tile five years later with a starting front court that went 6-11, 6-6 and 6-5. Duke made the 2004 Final Four with a starting lineup that had only two players taller than 6-4. Duke went to the 1988 Final Four with only one starter taller than 6-6. Duke has won NCAA titles with one point guard monopolizing the play-making and it has won them with tandem point guards sharing the duties.
You can do that sort of thing when you recruit talented, versatile players and turn them loose to wreak havoc anywhere on the floor. Danny Ferry is 6-10 and did big man stuff. He averaged around eight rebounds per game in the three seasons he started. But he also averaged over four assists per game in those three seasons. One day Grant Hill was Duke’s nominal starting power forward. Then Bobby Hurley broke a foot and the next day Hill was Duke’s starting point guard. Mark Alarie and Kyle Singler both started at center, power forward and small forward at different times in their Duke careers. Technically Ferry, Hill, Shane Battier, Dahntay Jones, Luol Deng, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum all started at power forward for Duke but defining them as such only begins to hint at the things they could do on the court.
Which brings us to the 2020-’21 Duke basketball team. Assuming Jeremy Roach and Jordan Goldwire spend most of their time at the point and Mark Williams and Patrick Tape spend most of their time at the post, Duke has seven recruited players to split time at those other three positions.
Which gives Mike Krzyzewski tons of options.
I’ve already discussed sophomores Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore, either or both of whom could be in for a big jump in productivity. Hurt figures to spend most of his time as a stretch-4, with occasional forays into the post. His NBA future might be at the 3 but Duke has little if any need for him to play on the perimeter with a roster loaded with wings.
But they have a big need for his offensive prowess. Expect Hurt to become a go-to guy on offense.
Speaking of wings, let’s start with Moore. His freshman statistics were pretty pedestrian, 7.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, while shooting 41.6 from the field. Moore seems to be one of these players who might be more valuable than his stat line suggests. But it’s fair to say that he underachieved relative to his prep reputation. Maybe it was his youth—he didn’t turn 18 until September—or his mid-season hand injury or maybe it just going to take some time.
So, there’s a lot of room for improvement. But if he can get it together, he has a chance to contribute all over the floor, both as a defensive stopper and offensive slasher, the kind of move-anywhere-on-the-chessboard kind of player who thrives under Mike Krzyzewski.
Moore could easily become a Billy-King level defender. But King never made 15-of-16 foul shots on the road in an ACC game. Moore has.
I’ll be surprised if Moore doesn’t make a big jump.
The fifth starter should be freshman Jalen Johnson. A weird career arc to be sure, a transfer from the Milwaukee suburbs to IMG Academy in Florida, where he didn’t play, then back to Wisconsin, where he barely resumed his prep career before it all shut down.
Out of sight, out of mind resulted in Johnson dropping a few ticks in some recruiting rankings, from consensus top-5 to fringe top-10. But Duke absolutely expects Johnson to be a significant contributor from day one. Johnson is listed as 6-8, 220, with an almost seven-foot wingspan. At this point he’s more of a scorer than a shooter. But his dribbling, passing and basketball IQ are all exceptional. NBA draft sites consistently project him as a top-10 pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
Still, neither Moore nor Johnson has much of a reputation as a 3-point shooter.
Which brings us to Joey Baker. When I was younger we talked about players who could shoot you into a game and just as easily shoot you out of a game.
When Baker is on, he is really on. He made five-of-seven from beyond the arc against Wofford, four-of-five against Winthrop, three-of-five against both Miami and Wake Forest. But he ended the season with a five-game streak without a made 3-pointer. He finished with a 39.7 percentage on 3s, 91.7 from the foul line.
But can he do anything else? Baker plays hard, plays with an edge, sometimes too much so. Baker is 6-7 but he was the worst rebounder on last year’s team, grabbing a minuscule 2.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. He got some steals and had more assists than turnovers.
It’s unlikely that Baker will beat out Hurt, Johnson or Moore for a starting nod. But there’s playing time available off the bench and a real need for what he does best. But if he wants to be more than a one-trick pony he needs to develop his overall game so that he’s an asset even when the bombs aren’t falling.
Speaking of 3-point shooters, have you met D.J. Steward? Well, I haven’t either. But he comes with a reputation. He can shoot. He’s quick, he has a good handle. And did I mention that he can shoot?
He’s a McDonald’s All-America selection. He’s generally ranked in the mid-20s by the recruiting sites. Rivals had him at 27, ESPN has him at 23, 247/Scout has him at 24.
But there’s a rub. Several 2021 NBA draft projections have Steward as a first-round pick. ESPN has him slotted at 21. Somebody from Bleacher Report has him as the 11th pick in the 2021 draft. Others don’t rank him at all.
So darned if I know.
But Steward is 6-2, maybe 6-3 and a bit on the skinny side. It’s hard to see Roach, Goldwire and Steward on the court at the same time. Most, if not all of Steward’s minutes likely will come at the shooting guard spot, when Moore is either on the bench or playing forward.
Speaking of shooting guard, have I mentioned that Steward can really shoot?
So, we’ve come up with a nine-player rotation. That’s about the upper limit on the number of people Mike Krzyzewski will play on a regular basis.
But that doesn’t mean the rotation is set. Jaemyn Brakefield is a top-30ish recruit, the kind of player who would be linchpin of most school’s recruiting class. He checks a lot of boxes. He’s about the same size as Jalen Johnson, meaning he’s a combo forward. He might not be elite in any area but he’s above average in athleticism, shooting and ball handling and the trend lines seem to be moving up.
He also has a reputation as a high-energy guy who will do whatever his team needs.
Coaches notice that sort of thing.
He’s a Mississippi native who prepped last season at Huntington Prep, in West Virginia.
Duke already has Jackson, Hurt, Baker and Moore competing for 80 minutes at the forward spot. Barring bad stuff happening, it’s hard to see how he and Baker both get significant minutes next season. Should be an interesting battle for that final rotation spot.
Unless Henry Coleman somehow insinuates himself into the rotation discussion. If Johnson and Brakefield are 3/4s, then Coleman is more of a 4/5. But he has the reputation as a rebounder, which is a useful niche around which to make his case.
Lots of talent, lots of options, lots of questions that need to be answered.
Which is why the coaches get paid the big bucks.