Three times in a five-year span a Duke player went from a solid freshman year to sophomore stud. Allen, Kennard and Tre Jones all failed to make even third-team All-ACC as freshmen but became first-team All-ACC and AP All-Americans as sophomores.
Allen was ranked 24th out of high school, impressive but still the lowest ranked of Duke’s four recruits. Classmates Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow were ranked 1st, 7th and 13th respectively in the 2014 prep class and all three were out-of-the-box starters.
Allen showed promise early, scoring 18 points in Duke’s regular-season opener against Presbyterian. But his competition for playing time on the perimeter included Cook, Winslow, Sulaimon, Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye. It’s no surprise that his playing time dwindled.
Then things changed. Ojeleye transferred at mid-season, then Sulaimon was dismissed from the program. All of a sudden Duke was reduced to eight recruited players. Allen had a 27-point game late in the season against Wake Forest and played a key role off the bench in the Final Four.
Still, Allen averaged a modest 4.4 points per game. Duke lost Cook to graduation and Okafor, Winslow and Tyus Jones early to the NBA. The opportunity was there.
But Duke also returned Matt Jones and added four freshmen ranked in the top-20. Freshmen Kennard, Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton were all perimeter players. A starring role wasn’t just handed to Allen. He had to earn it.
Allen quickly established himself as the alpha on a team with two future lottery picks on the roster. He scored 62 points in two games at Madison Square Garden as Duke won the 2K Classic. He beat Virginia at the buzzer. He ended up averaging 21.6 points per game and also led Duke with 3.5 assists per game. Allen was named first-team All-ACC, second-team All-America by The Sporting News, third-team All-America by AP.
Allen improved his scoring by 17.2 points per game, still the largest single-season scoring increase in ACC history.
It’s easy to attribute this to increased opportunity. But Jones and Jefferson had that same opportunity. Despite increased attention Allen improved his shooting from 42.5 percent to 46.6 percent, his 3-point percentage from 34.6 to 41.7. Allen had one more turnover than assist as a freshman, 55 more assists than turnovers as a sophomore.
Interesting aside. Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame was named the league’s most improved player.
Luke Kennard was a freshman when Allen was a sophomore. Kennard was ranked 21st in his class, behind both Thornton and Jeter, another cautionary tale on over-reliance on the RSCI.
Kennard had plenty of available playing time in 2016 and he notched 27 minutes per game. He averaged 11.8 points per game, third on the team, behind Allen and Ingram. He added 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.
Solid stats, especially for a player perceived as a four-year player, perhaps even Duke’s next 2,000 point scorer.
But he was spectacularly inconsistent. Kennard had seven games with at least 20 points, including a 30-point performance against Notre Dame.
But he also had two scoreless games and two games with two points. In one five-game span his scoring totals were 0, 20, 22, 6 and 5.
Part of that was youth of course.
But something else was going on. Fifty-one percent of his field-goal attempts were 3-pointers and he got to the foul line 4.1 times per 40 minutes.
Kennard was an outstanding prep football player and had the ability to play through contact. He worked on his handle during the off-season and came into his sophomore campaign determined to be more aggressive attacking the basket, less reliant on his 3-pointer.
It worked. Only 41 percent of his field goal attempts were 3-pointers in 2017, while he got to the foul line almost six times per 40 minutes. Better shot selection improved his 3-point percentage from 32 percent to 44 percent. After not even making the all-freshman team in 2016 Kennard became a first-team All-ACC and second-team AP All-America selection in 2017. His 34-point performance in a come-from-behind win at Wake Forest was one of the great individual performances in recent Duke history.
Kennard ended the season with 1,147 career points, well over halfway to a run to 2,000 points that never came. Kennard was selected 12th in the 2017 NBA draft and has turned into a solid NBA player.
Tre Jones was ranked 13th in the class of 2018, the fourth-ranked of Duke’s five recruits. He started at point guard from day one and was an outstanding play maker and defender, with the best single-season assist-to-turnover ratio in Duke history.
But he also shot 26 percent on 3s, which doesn’t even cut it for guards in today’s NBA.
Jones watched classmates Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish go in the lottery while he worked on getting healthy and getting better.
Jones improved his scoring from 9.4 points per game to 16.2 and improved his 3-point shooting to a respectable 36 percent. Jones scored 31 points against Georgia State early in the season and 28 in that memorable comeback win in Chapel Hill. He did all this while averaging 6.4 assists per game and being a finalist for national defensive player of the year. Jones was voted ACC Player of the Year, the first Duke non-freshman to win that award since senior Nolan Smith in 2011. He also made numerous All-America teams, including third-team AP.
That brings us to a 2021 season with more uncertainty than the usual questions we have about this time of year. But one of the usual questions is whether either Matthew Hurt or Wendell Moore, or both, can make the kind of freshman-to-sophomore jump made recently by Allen, Kennard and Jones.