The best thing about sophomores is that they eventually become juniors.
If you’re old enough to remember that ancient piece of basketball wisdom, then you’re old enough to remember a time when freshmen played on freshmen teams and even the best juniors became even better seniors.
In other words, a long time ago.
In today’s world maybe we can modify that to the best thing about freshmen is that they eventually become sophomores.
That is unless they become pros.
In a seven-year period between the high-school class of 2013 and the high-school class of 2019 Duke recruited an astonishing 21 players ranked in the consensus top-25 by RSCI - the Recruiting Services Consensus Index.
RSCI is hardly infallible. Even a casual check will find future Marquette All-American Markus Howard ranked 71st in the class of 2016 and whatever-happened-to Cliff Alexander ranked number four in the class of 2014.
But the rankings are accurate a fair amount of the time and it’s the best we can come up with.
Back to Duke and those 21 top-five players. Only five of them came back to Duke for a second year; Grayson Allen, Chase Jeter, Luke Kennard, Marques Bolden and Tre Jones. Only Allen stayed four years at Duke. We have to go back to Kyle Singler to find a top-10 recruit who came back to Duke for his second year.
Jeter and Kennard were freshmen in 2016 and came back for 2017. Before that you have to go back to Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson in 2013-’14 to find another example of two highly-ranked freshmen from the same Duke team coming back for their sophomore seasons.
So, it’s potentially a big deal that Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore opted to return for their sophomore seasons at Duke.
But only if they prove true another adage, the one that states that college basketball players typically improve the most between their freshmen and sophomore seasons.
It makes sense. Sophomores have had a year to grown, both physically and emotionally, a year to adjust to the pace and physicality of the college game, a year to figure out what works and what doesn’t, a year to benefit from college coaching.
Not everyone makes that dramatic improvement. Jeter and Bolden got better but not enough to validate their lofty prep rankings. Sulaimon actually got a little worse as a sophomore.
But there are recent success stories. Quinn Cook averaged 12 minutes per game as a freshman on a 2012 team that desperately needed better point-guard play. A balky knee held him back but so did immaturity and lack of focus.
As a sophomore Cook was third-team All-ACC for an Elite Eight team, leading Duke in assists, steals and foul-shooting percentage.
Cook was 31st in the consensus rankings.
Then there’s Matt Jones, the nation’s 34th-ranked recruit in the class of 2013. A McDonald’s All-American, Jones came to Duke with a reputation as an elite long-range shooter.
Instead he shot 29 percent as a freshman, 3-21 on 3s, with 56 percent foul shooting thrown in. He averaged 1.6 points per game, playing a miserly 235 minutes.
Jones reinvented himself as a defensive stopper and started as a sophomore on a team that won 35 games and an NCAA title.
He also improved his shooting, hitting 41 percent from the field, 38 percent on 3s and 71 percent from the lines. Jones improved from one assist every 47 minutes as a freshman to one assist every 22 minutes as a sophomore.
Those are promising examples.
Then there are three recent examples that are way more than promising.