- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell
Key Losses: Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent Jr.
Key Newcomers: RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones, Zion Williamson, Joey Baker
Outlook: Duke has been a staple atop college basketball since Mike Krzyzewski took the reins nearly 40 years ago. And now with Coach K fully embracing Calipari’s “one-and-done” model, the hype surrounding the Devils has never been higher. The last two seasons, Duke was the overwhelming preseason favorite to cut down the nets in March, and while defensive lapses let them down in 2016-17, they nearly did so in 2017-18. This year you’ll see Duke in nearly every college basketball outlet’s top five, but there’s more debate than in recent years on whether the Devils should be #1. The loss of all five starters, including four NBA draft picks, is enough to give pause even with the highest rated recruiting class since Michigan’s Fab Five.
Last season, the Devils played primarily through Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter, their two outstanding frontcourt Lottery picks. With a roster makeup featuring only two true contributing big men this season, expect Duke to shift back towards a perimeter-based attack like it featured back in 2016-17. Coach K’s squads have largely been balanced on offense, able to score from all three levels of the floor while also willing to push the ball in transition. This season, K will likely implement a spread out attack that will look to drive the lane in hopes of earning trips to the foul line and open up its outside shooters.
The drop-off from Bagley / Carter to this year’s center options, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier, is severe from a creation / playmaking standpoint. Neither Bolden nor DeLaurier is capable of creating his own offense, but both actually had solid 2017-18 seasons from an advanced metric point of view. The two bigs are elite offensive rebounders and good finishers off dump passes. Defensively, Bolden is the better shot-blocker, but DeLaurier proved to be no slouch in that regard. It’s worth remembering that Bolden was a 5-star McDonald’s All-American and DeLaurier a 4-star top 50 recruit coming out of high school – now out of Coach K big man jail, it’ll be intriguing to see how both perform with a presumed huge spike in minutes.
Of course, Coach K may just say screw it and continue to leave his once-coveted bigs on the bench in favor of a "small"-ball lineup that features Zion Williamson, the #2 prospect in the country, at the 5. Despite standing only 6’7”, Williamson is fully capable of manning the 5 with a 6’10.5” wingspan and thick body that tips the scale at 285 lbs. Williamson is an absolute freak of nature whose explosiveness off the ground defies the laws of physics – if backboards could still shatter, Zion would have a few hundred under his belt. In college, he’ll be a player that can play the 4 or 5, providing rebounding, shot blocking, and plenty of free throw attempts.
At point guard, Duke will shift from Trevon Duval, a high-flying playmaker with a broken jump shot, to Tre Jones, the brother of former Dukie Tyus Jones. The main scouting report on Jones, the #17 prospect in the class of 2018, is how much intangible value he brings to the table. His leadership, off the court manner, and game managing will be key for a young team trying to challenge for a title. From a skills perspective, Jones is a pass first PG with elite ball handling and passing ability, has a really good pull-up game off the bounce, and more athleticism than one would think. He’s not known as a knockdown shooter, but he should be a significant upgrade over Duval in that regard.
The wing will be the true strength of Duke this season with the additions of RJ Barrett (ESPN #1 2018) and Cam Reddish (ESPN #3 2018) to go along with incumbent wing contributor Alex O’Connell. Barrett, a Canadian native that played ball at powerhouse Montverde in high school, deserves every bit of his #1 ranking. He’s a 6’7” lefty that can score from literally everywhere on the floor and is a very good slasher with a super quick first step. He projects as a menace in transition with his above-the-rim finishing ability and will be a switchable asset on defense where he can guard at least three spots.
Reddish, a 6’8” wing, can be summed up in one word: SMOOTH. The way he scores and manipulates the game with his passing and court vision with seemingly little effort is a joy to watch. He has the ball skills to be a point forward on offense and defensively should be a lockdown stopper on the perimeter with his 7’1” wingspan. With Barrett and Reddish, Duke has a pair of big, long wings that can do everything on both ends of the floor. Throw in the sharpshooting ability of O’Connell (48.9% from three as a frosh) and the aforementioned rookie studs and Duke’s attack looks downright unstoppable on paper.
Coach K brings in one more top 50 recruit this year in 6’7” power forward Joey Baker, who decided to reclass from 2019. Baker is a major stretch-4 prospect with a high arcing outside shot, but given his lack of strength and athleticism at this point, I can see him being a prime candidate for Coach K to bury on the pine.
Defensively, we saw Duke run a ton more zone than in years past (50% of their defensive possessions for the season). With the amount of athleticism and switchable pieces Coach K has at his disposal this season, I’d be surprised to see that much zone in 2018-19, however Duke did perform extremely well while in zone and ranked 9th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.
In the past, we’ve seen the Blue Devils struggle with role allocation – i.e. too many guys that think they should be the #1 option. This year’s roster should have fewer issues with that despite the high pedigrees of the guys coming in. For one, Duke doesn’t have a returning star like Grayson Allen – its freshmen are undisputedly it’s best players. Second, Jones is a pass-first point guard that won’t look to overstep his scoring role like Duval had a tendency to do last season. Finally, Bolden and DeLaurier aren’t looking to score – their best value is as garbage men and hopefully they’ll embrace that role. That leaves a one-two-three scoring punch of Barrett and Reddish that will dominate the offense with Williamson filling in the gaps by crashing the glass and driving hard to the hole. If everything comes together, Duke’s ceiling is a National Championship.