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ACC Preview #15 - Duke, Part I

After a tough year, things are looking up in Durham. Possibly way up.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Duke Boston College
Mar 9, 2021; Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Wendell Moore Jr. (0) pushes the ball upcourt ahead of Boston College Eagles guard Jay Heath (5) in the first round of the 2021 ACC men’s basketball tournament at Greensboro Coliseum. 
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Other than 1994-95, when his health forced him to take a leave of absence, last season was the most challenging since Mike Krzyzewski put the foundation of his legendary Duke program in place in the early 1980’s.

It wasn’t just Covid although that was behind most of it. It made normal summer preparations impossible and that really hurt.

Practice officially started this week, on September 28th, but for Duke, things really start in summer school.

That’s when the freshmen arrive and start becoming part of Duke Basketball culture. Expectations are set, training routines start, and so much more begins, not least of all communication. Coach K has always said he coaches three systems: offense, defense and communication. Well communication was severely limited by the pandemic.

That’s a big deal.

Duke missed all of that last year and with so many freshmen, it hurt a lot.

Duke had to incorporate newcomers Jeremy Roach, Mark Williams, DJ Steward, Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman, Jalen Johnson and also transfer Patrick Tapé and had to do so, keep in mind, while the team was living in isolation at the Washington B. Duke Inn.

There were no parties, no socializing, no girlfriends, no fans, nothing, really, other than remote classes and basketball.

It can’t have been easy, particularly for such a young team.

So perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that so many opted to leave:


  • Matthew Hurt
  • DJ Steward
  • Jalen Johnson
  • Jaemyn Brakefield
  • Patrick Tapé
  • Jordan Goldwire
  • Henry Coleman
  • Mike Buckmire

Hurt, Steward and Johnson all decided to try their hand at the NBA and for different reasons, it was a questionable decision for all three.

Steward could conceivably be an NBA player but only as a point guard. He’s far too small to be a shooting guard. His lack of point guard skill turned up rather quickly and although he has a training camp deal with the Sacramento Kings, he’s a long way from being in the league. We loved him at Duke but he grossly overestimated his ability when he declared for the NBA Draft.

Hurt had a tremendous sophomore year and improved in many ways but his relative lack of athleticism will mean he has to work really hard to find a spot.

And while Johnson has the talent to compete at the NBA level, nothing so far suggests that he has the character to do so. He left Duke after his minutes had been cut way back - and this despite his being the most talented player on the team.

What does it say about you when you are the most talented player on a struggling team and your coaches cut your minutes to the bone?

Nothing very good. Although Coach K said all the right things about supporting Johnson’s decision to quit, this is the same guy who has shown an immense competitive desire for more than four decades in Cameron. This is a coach who can't stand soft play or weak players. This is a coach who demands that his players fight on every play.

What do you think he thought when Johnson proved to be so soft? Do you think he was happy with that? Do you think that this man, who went through the crucible of West Point, with Bob freaking Knight as his coach, passively accepted that lack of effort?

Here’s what we think.

We think that Johnson’s minutes were cut to the point where it imperiled his NBA prospects and that when push came to shove, Krzyzewski probably decided it was better to just see him off with some kind words and to focus on the players who were willing to give their best in a very difficult season.

He’s far more diplomatic than was his mentor, but we’ll leave it to you to decide what Knight would have said about Johnson because we’re pretty sure that Coach K wouldn’t have felt much differently. They are very different men but neither will tolerate much foolishness.

Whatever happened, Johnson’s character will soon become clear one way or the other.

We were sorry things didn’t work out better for Tapé, but on the bright side, he’s gotten to play for Columbia, get an Ivy League education, live in New York City for four years, to learn from the GOAT during his one year in Durham, and he’ll take his bonus year in San Francisco. It sounds like a great journey for a kid from Charlotte.

We really miss Brakefield and Coleman. Those guys showed a lot of heart and would have carved out roles had they stayed. Brakefield is now at Ole Miss while Coleman will play for Buzz Williams at Texas A&M, meaning they’ll see each other in the SEC wars.

And Goldwire is off to Oklahoma as a grad student transfer. He built an amazing role at Duke. As you’ll remember, he was brought in as essentially insurance and became one of the better defenders Duke has seen in some time. He’ll have a chance to do different things with the Sooners and we wish him nothing but the best. He’s been wonderful for Duke.

With all that said, who’s returning? We’ll get to that in Part II.