I’ve looked at Duke’s 2020-’21 men’s basketball team over the last few weeks from several viewpoints; positions, classes, strengths, weaknesses.
Is there any way to tie it all up into a pretty little bow?
Well, I’m not much of anything can be tied up in a pretty little bow right now.
But there are some clear themes. Like many of Mike Krzyzewski’s recent teams this one is high on potential, low on experience.
About that potential. Duke has 11 recruited players. All but two were consensus top-50 high-school players. Seven of those appear with frequency on assorted 2021 and/or 2022 NBA draft projections.
Some caution is in order. Remember it was only a few years ago that some of these same experts were comparing Trevon Duval to Kyrie Irving and we all know how that turned out.
Still, we’ve seen enough of Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore to get some idea of how good they can be if they continue to work and mature. And I’ll be stunned if incoming freshman Jalen Johnson isn’t ready for prime time. Forget his slight drop in the rankings. He didn’t play himself out of the top five as much as he sat himself out of the top five, a victim of some injuries, a transfer that didn’t work out and a shortened season.
Johnson, Hurt and Moore are the three players most likely to become stars. They have some high standards to uphold. Duke has had at least one first-team All-ACC player each of the last 13 seasons, 23 of the last 24, missing only 2007. Duke has had an AP All-America selection each of the last eight seasons, 11 of the last 12, missing only 2012.
Duke has a star-driven system and Hurt and Johnson at the very least were recruited to be stars.
But next season will be the third straight in which Duke will not return a single double-figure scorer. Hurt did average 9.7 points per game last season and that’s the highest since Grayson Allen brought a 14.5 average to the 2018 team.
Duke’s roster of recruited players will include six freshmen, two sophomores, one junior, one senior and one grad-student. The two upperclassmen who have played at Duke have combined for 345 career points, 203 for senior Jordan Goldwire, 142 for junior Joey Baker. For very different reasons Johnson and grad-student transfer Patrick Tape missed almost all of last season.
Some rust will need to be shaken off.
Which brings us to COVID-19. I’m not an epidemiologist, I’m not a fortune teller and I haven’t stayed in a Holiday Inn in a long time.
So, I don’t pretend to know if the next season will start on time, if it will end on time—or at all-if it will be played with fans. I don’t even know if I’ll be court-side.
But for the purposes of these articles I’m assuming there will be something approaching a normal 2020-’21 college basketball season.
And yes, I realize, to borrow one of Hollywood’s greatest lines, college basketball doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the context of a global pandemic.
Certainly, there are cautious signs of optimism. Assorted entities like the NCAA and the State of North Carolina are gradually returning to normalcy. But the devil is in the details and a lot of things can go wrong.
Which brings us back to the Duke basketball team. Mike Krzyzewski is no stranger to young teams. Duke started three freshmen in 2015, four in 2018, four in 2019, four at least parts of last season. Every recent season has become a race to bring the freshmen up to speed before the end of the season. Previous benchmarks like early-season tournaments and the ACC regular-season have become training grounds for March Madness.
Those teams begin gelling during summer school before the formal beginning of practice in October, supervised conditioning to be sure but also countless pickup games, the arduous process of learning the abilities and preferences of their teammates, learning what worked in high school might not work in college, at least not without some tweaking.
It’s easy to dismiss these encounters but young players and young teams need these hours and it’s not clear if Duke is going to get as many as they need.
It’s actually possible for Duke to field a credible starting lineup that includes no freshmen. Grad student Patrick Tape would be the center. Sophomore Matthew Hurt would be the power forward, junior Joey Baker the wing forward. Sophomore Wendell Moore and senior Jordan Goldwire would be the guards.
That’s not going to happen. Freshman forward Jalen Johnson is a lock to start and point guard Jeremy Roach is close to a lock. Center Mark Williams is going to play a lot, whether as a starter or off the bench.
Assuming Krzyzewski has enough time to get this team to mesh, what will a fully-meshed Duke team look like? Hurt, Baker and freshman guard D.J. Steward can hit the three. If Goldwire can continue his development in that area and some combination of Roach, Moore, Johnson, perhaps freshman forward Jaemyn Brakefield can add some proficiency from long range, then Duke could be deadly from outside.
Johnson, Roach and Steward all come in with the reputation of being great in transition. We know Moore loves to get out and go. There’s every reason to expect Duke to run and run well. Moore and Goldwire are top-level defenders. Can the freshmen defend the pick-and-roll? Rebounding should be acceptable and Duke is rarely much better than that on the boards. I’m not sure if Duke has a back-to-the-basket, low-post option. Hurt has the skill but needs more strength. Williams is developing. Tape isn’t playing in the Ivy League anymore.
Not a perfect team, by any measure. But no one else figures to be. The pieces appear to be there for Duke. But some assembly is required and it’s not clear under what conditions that assembly will have to take place.