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In Year I of the Jon Scheyer era, we got some ideas of how things might change for Duke Basketball after the retirement of one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.
Scheyer kept a lot of Mike Krzyzewski’s system, for lack of a better word, but modified it in significant ways too.
When Coach K got to Duke, one of the early slogans was “Coach K’s kids will never quit,” which turned out to be true. You can count the games very quickly where Duke failed to compete at the highest possible level. We’re not talking wins and losses here. We’re talking about competing. A while back, Jeff Capel identified what made Duke different and he said “they fight.” And that really sums up something about Coach K’s approach and personality. At one practice, he talked about fighting a player. You might win, he told him, but you’ll have to kill me.
That attitude permeated his program and his players including, obviously, Scheyer.
The earlier K teams were also much more focused on defense than the later teams were. In the one-and-done era, it was just harder to teach complex ideas, so K simplified some things, including defense. He even used some zone, something a younger K sneered at. A guy like Jabari Parker, who has basically been allergic to defense his entire career including at Duke, started and starred.
That would never have happened in the 1980’s or ‘90’s: he would have sat until he learned to defend.
It was the price for gathering young, elite talent.
Scheyer of course helped build that approach and recruited many of the one-and-done stars. He’s never said this directly, but clearly he noticed the defense wasn’t always great in the later K years and he addressed that pretty firmly in his first season at the helm.
Not coincidentally, he’s also talked repeatedly about the importance of building a more experienced team. Towards that goal, he brought in several transfers last year. Of those, only Ryan Young and Jacob Grandison played much, but all of them helped to bring the freshmen up to speed and it worked. And still-young Duke is now a considerably more experienced team than what he inherited as well.
There is another interesting adaptation also.
Coach K’s approach focused heavily on attack. In the early K years, when Duke’s talent wasn’t equal to other ACC teams, he had his teams attack the rim to draw fouls. And as it turns out, if you’re shooting foul shots, not even Ralph Sampson can block them. It was a brilliant way to neutralize a talent disadvantage. You could find a lot of words that would help define the K era, but perhaps nothing would do that as well as the word aggressive.
We’ve seen a shift with Scheyer. A guard with preternatural intelligence, Scheyer was intensely competitive - he shares that trait with Krzyzewski - and he was deceptively athletic, but what set him apart as a player was his intelligence and his perimeter shooting, something he is placing a premium on in recruiting.
In his first three classes, Scheyer has signed or gotten commitments from Dereck Lively, Dariq Whitehead, Jaden Schutt, Mark Mitchell, Christian Reeves, Tyrese Proctor, Jared McCain, Caleb Foster, TJ Power, Sean Stewart, Isaiah Evans, Kon Knueppel and Darren Harris.
Of these, only Reeves and Stewart lack three point range, and we can’t say that for sure about Stewart yet.
Even Lively has three point range, as he has demonstrated with the Dallas Mavericks in practice.
Not everyone is perfect - Proctor and Filipowski were erratic from outside. But they can still hit it. Even Ryan Young, to the surprise of many, has been shooting threes in preseason.
Scheyer is putting an emphasis on outside shooting like we’ve never seen. Duke will use the three to open the court, because if you have, say, McCain, Schutt, Filipowski, Power and Jeremy Roach on the floor at the same time, who can you leave alone?
And that’s going to be a problem. Open the court and you can attack with impunity. As Frederick the Great said, “Audacity, audacity, always audacity!”
Talk about aggressive.
Duke’s certainly going to start Filipowski, Proctor, Roach and Mitchell and we have a good idea of what to expect from all four. Who’s the fifth starter though?
It’s too early, but right now we’d assume either Stewart or McCain.
Stewart could shore up the interior defense. Duke has been very fortunate to have three seasons of Mark Williams and Dereck Lively. Stewart isn’t as big but he’s explosive.
If it’s McCain, Duke goes smaller (and Scheyer has said he’s going to play smaller this year) and provides a partial solution to one of Duke’s potential strengths/pleasant problems: luxurious guard depth.
Assuming Proctor and Roach start, Duke has Jaylen Blakes, Foster and Schutt and possibly McCain in reserve. We saw Blakes make his case last season, prior to his injury, and he belongs. McCain looks like a potential breakout player. Foster is talented and Schutt has a golden arm.
You have to find minutes somewhere and a three-guard offense would simplify that.
This would be a good time to mention another way that Scheyer may be subtly different from Krzyzewski.
Coach K always cut his rotation down to eight by the time things got serious. Injuries affected things last year obviously but still, Scheyer often went nine deep. Roach, Proctor, Filipowski and Mitchell got heavy minutes, but remember that Whitehead, Lively and Blakes all had injuries.
Even so, Scheyer used more players than K typically did and it’s intriguing to wonder how things might have changed had he had a fully healthy team all season.
We’ll see how he handles the guard depth this season, but the Blue Devils have the potential to just press other teams to death.
Toss in Mitchell and Stewart, who we think is athletic enough to defend away from the basket too, and Duke’s perimeter defense could be intimidating.
Over the last three seasons, Duke has been spoiled by having Mark Williams and Dereck Lively around the basket. Both were intimidating presences who could really lock down the lane.
Stewart is the best candidate for a role like that this season. He’s smaller at 6-9 but set a new vertical record in the pre-season, breaking Zion Williamson’s earlier standard.
However, Christian Reeves is looming in the background. He’s 7-1 and has bulked up considerably since last season. We’d keep an eye on him. Certainly he has a chance to step up and claim a bigger role.
To us, rim protection is the biggest question mark we have about this team. And Scheyer has already made clear it’s going to run a lot. If Duke can find some rim protection to back up what could be a great defense, that’s a lot for opponents to overcome.
Last season, and with a good bit of youth and adversity we might add, Scheyer proved he could coach. This year’s team is quite different, starting with, we hope, better health.
If everyone stays healthy, we could again see a tremendous defense. But we really haven’t gotten a full sense of Scheyer’s offensive scheme yet. Last season, Whitehead, Lively, Roach and Blakes all suffering injuries that slowed their progress. Filipowski had his own issues which were resolved with summer surgery and Proctor got to campus quite late and wasn’t fully up to speed until after the holidays. And people forget that he was supposed to be a freshman this year.
We expect Scheyer to be a defense-first coach as he was last year, but when he has an effective three point attack, as he should this season, guarding Duke is going to be a nightmare. Take a look at when Mike Brey was most successful at Notre Dame: his teams used the three to absolutely filet opponents, including Duke. We’re not saying that Duke is going to run Brey’s sets or principles, but when The Irish threes were falling, it was almost impossible to guard that team. You had to stop the threes but doing so meant giving up higher percentage two point shots.
We think that this Duke team could also force opponents to make that choice. And either way could work out well for the Devils.
Let’s close it out with this: we’ve always heard that Scheyer was a decent student at Duke. He finished his classes and graduated, doing well along the way.
But when it comes to basketball, some people have been saying he’s a savant. And if that turns out to be true, then so could this: rather than being judged as a disappointment, as so many other such transitions have been, Duke’s move from one of the absolute greatest coaches in the history of the game to his successor might ultimately be regarded as a major triumph.
Let the games begin.