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What Duke’s 2024 Recruiting Targets Might Tell Us About This Season

Does Duke’s focus on 2024 centers mean anything for Christian Reeves or Sean Stewart?

NCAA Basketball: Duke Countdown to Craziness
Duke Blue Devils center Christian Reeves (21) shoots a free throw during Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the final period of Mike Krzyzewski’s career, what can colloquially be termed his “one-and-done” era, roster turnover was a feature, not a bug. That meant that reading too much into what his recruiting targets meant for his more near-term plans was typically a fool’s errand. Krzyzewski parlayed his brilliance into finding ways to make the most talented pieces he could find fit together, regardless of the traditional “positions” on the basketball court.

Just one year into his successor’s tenure, things are very different.

Jon Scheyer promised there would be more roster continuity and a concerted effort to build older teams with him at the helm. What appeared to be a nice aspiration in early 2023 has since become reality, with the first-year head coach convincing four of Duke’s five typical starters to return for another year in Durham. In an admittedly small sample size, Scheyer has shown that he recruits with an expected group of returnees in mind.

That makes his 2023 recruiting strategy seem much more prescient in hindsight. Absent in the four man group is a traditional center; while Duke did strongly pursue 4* center JP Estrella last summer, the mutual interest very abruptly cooled and Estrella is now at Tennessee. When Scheyer didn’t shift his focus to another 2023 center, eyebrows were raised given the expectation that Dereck Lively II and Kyle Filipowski would each be one-and-dones. While Lively II is now with the Dallas Mavericks, Filipowski returns to Durham as a potential ACC POY favorite as a sophomore and likely to play many of his minutes at center. Taken together, it certainly seems like Scheyer and Filipowski had a two-year plan, one that Scheyer was confident enough in to eschew big name bigs in the Class of 2023.

With that mindset, the focuses of Duke’s 2024 recruiting might be the clearest window into what’s happening behind the scenes with the current squad. Duke’s two current commits, consensus 5* Isaiah Evans and 4* Darren Harris (who has a claim to the title of “best shooter in his class”), are wing players. With the likely departure of Mark Mitchell after this season and no natural wings behind him on the roster (TJ Power might fill that role, but it’s easier to project him more as a “stretch 4” until we see him in action; meanwhile, Caleb Foster and Jared McCain will likely see the floor in three guard sets this year, but project more as point guards at the next level), this makes sense. Evans, in particular, has drawn comparisons to Brandon Ingram and could slot in as a Day 1 contributor at small forward.

Outside those two commitments the picture becomes murkier. Three players have seemingly become Scheyer’s focus this summer: guard Dylan Harper and centers Flory Bidunga and Patrick Ngongba II. Harper is listed by some services as the No. 1 recruit in the entire class, so focusing on him likely doesn’t mean much regarding Foster and McCain’s futures. If anything, the lack of a clear “backup” option to Harper, given that many experts see Rutgers as the leader for his services, indicates that Scheyer anticipates at least one of this year’s incoming guards to return as a sophomore to potentially take the reigns from Tyrese Proctor and Roach.

The focus on Bidunga and Ngongba is much more telling. It’s no secret that Scheyer hoped to secure a big man from the transfer portal this year, but despite mutual interest with Kansas transfer Ernest Udeh Jr. things did not pan out. Now, Scheyer has turned his focus to Bidunga, a consensus 5* recruit and arguably the top center in the class, and Ngongba, a fast riser in the rankings who happens to be Harris’ teammate. Either would command immediate playing time, if not a starting role, but Bidguna in particular projects as an instant impact recruit.

What does that say about the young bigs currently on Duke’s roster, Sean Stewart and Christian Reeves? The story on Stewart is more straightforward: listed at 6-foot-9 at the tallest, it’s likely the freshman Stewart’s more natural position is at the 4 as opposed to the 5. While he could play the 5 at that size in the ACC (think of Miami’s Norchad Omier) if necessary, that clearly isn’t option A.

Reeves’ story remains more mysterious. Consistently listed above 7 feet tall, the sophomore has height you can’t teach, and has put on significant muscle from last season if Duke’s official roster is to be believed. He showed flashes of potential at Countdown to Craziness last season, but didn’t play impactful minutes in real action. If Scheyer sees Reeves as a potential starter in 2024, that would likely mean he would be penciled in for significant minutes this season. A commitment from Bidunga or Ngongba, though, would imply the Duke staff has real questions about if Reeves can claim that role.

That said, there are interesting parallels between this recruiting cycle and last that should delay any overreactions. Around this time last year the interest between Duke and Estrella picked up steam, but a month later Estrella cancelled his official visit. The correspondence between that timing and summer practice is unlikely a coincidence, instead likely reflecting the crystallization of Scheyer and Filipowski’s two-year plan. Now, while Duke is heavily pursuing Bidunga and Ngongba, a commitment from either does not appear imminent, which is particularly noteworthy given the number of top players who have already committed this cycle.

All these data support the idea that Scheyer’s 2024 recruiting plans depend heavily on how Reeves performs in July practice. If Reeves has taken the proverbial leap forward, Scheyer’s focus might shift to Ngongba (who doesn’t project as an immediate starter as of yet) or cool entirely on both prospects. If Reeves is still on track to play a more supporting role in Durham, expect the chatter around Bidunga and Ngongba to pick up heading into the fall.