#1 Duke Preview 2017-18

-Jim Root

Key Returners:  Grayson Allen, Marques Bolden
Key Losses: Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones
Key Newcomers: Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent, Jordan Tucker, Alex O’Connell


Outlook: The King of the Rats has done it again. Despite Coach K’s claims that the one-and-done system is harmful, he continues to take the system out to 5-star restaurants and buy it the most expensive bottles of wine, treating it with love and devotion year after year. Defenders of this move shout, “That’s what you have to do to win these days!”, but the successes of the Villanovas and North Carolinas of the country would indicate quite the opposite – high-level teams can absolutely be formed through player development. Duke used to be renowned for its four-year stars – when someone like Luol Deng went pro early, it was very much the exception to the rule – but those days are long gone. Last year saw three Blue Devils declare early for the draft (two being one-and-done), and this year’s team could feature as many as four freshmen who head straight to the pros.

With all of that said…this team is going to be awesome. Its most notable issue, a slight lack of depth, is largely irrelevant due to Coach K’s deathly allergy to eight-man rotations. The only way it could really surface as a problem is if Ted Cruz lookalike/all-around bad boy Grayson "Trip" Allen loses his goddamn mind again and ends up facing a longer suspension, a possibility that we definitely cannot rule out. As it stands, though, K has managed to put together seemingly perfect pieces, with ball-handling, shooting, slashing, rebounding, and rim protection all coalescing in the team’s likely rotation.

Allen is the lone returning lineup mainstay, and my hunch is that he’ll ascend back to the offensive alpha dog status of 2015-16. Duke experienced a strange statistical boost without Allen on the floor last year, compared to his All-American '15-16 campaign, when he was indispensable:

Allen's impact has been consistent for two years; however, without him two years ago, the Blue Devils fell into an abyss of incompetence, whereas last year, they ascended to elite level. Without Kennard and Tatum around (and despite the presence of Marvin Bagley), the Devils will have to lean on Allen more a la '15-16. He’s a devastating pick-and-roll and slash-and-kick player, able to finish against size and make strong reads when help comes. He’ll share primary creation duties with freshman point guard Trevon Duval, who brings a nice combination of scoring and distributing (but I wouldn’t call him a combo guard – I understand that’s weird/contradictory).

The main piece that was lacking from this roster that Coach K has had over the past four years was an NBA-caliber ‘tweener forward to play at smallball four (Hood, Parker, Winslow, Ingram, Tatum). So…Coach K went out and got the best player in the 2018 college class, forward Marvin Bagley, to reclass into 2017 and enroll at Durham this year. Quite simply, Bagley is a destroyer of worlds. He’s an elite athlete at 6’10, renowned for his powerful dunks in traffic, but he also has a developing perimeter jumper and excellent handles. He’ll be a perfect fulcrum when K chooses to play through him at the elbow, both in isolation and as the facilitator for dribble handoff action, and his ability to grab-and-go off a defensive rebound should make the Blue Devils’ transition attack one of the most devastating in the country.

As good as newcomer big man Wendell Carter is, the Dukies’ best lineup may be one with Bagley at the five, freshman Jordan Tucker (a lights-out shooter) at undersized four, and Duval, Allen, and streaky five-star recruit Gary Trent manning the perimeter. This would give the Devils an embarrassment of ball-handling riches, and Tucker and Allen should give the team enough spacing to create major issues for opposing defenses. With Carter likely to start, that leaves Marques Bolden again as possibly the odd man out of the rotation, and he may follow the Chase Jeter Memorial path of realizing his fate during his sophomore year and transferring to greener pastures in the offseason.

Returning forward Javin DeLaurier and freshman wing Alex O’Connell seem the most likely candidates to secure the remaining miscellaneous minutes, but that spot rarely contributes much on K’s thin bench. O’Connell in particular is intriguing as a smooth operator who can shoot from deep, but he still needs to add a lot of strength.

Look! Marques Bolden DID make it onto the court last year!

The spread attack that Coach K favors will once again be a bear to defend, as Allen, Duval, and Trent can all score like crazy. Duval is definitely the worst shooter of the three, though, so having the ball in his hands more frequently and allowing the other two to spot up might prove fruitful. With Bagley at the four (and even the five at times), Duke will have the option of initiating the offense through the high post (as they often did with Ingram and Tatum), so the Devils’ offensive options are aplenty. This team will be the exception to the Coach K rule in terms of not having a ton of shooting – only Allen, Tucker, and O’Connell project as consistent deep threats, and it seems likely that one of the freshmen falls outside the rotation. However, Krzyzewski has long been a master of floor spacing, so I expect him to find clever workarounds to combat that relative dearth of marksmanship.

On the defensive end, Duke should be far better than the last two seasons, when a lack of rim protection and questionable perimeter footspeed really hurt. Trent and Duval in particular are both very good athletes who should be able to stick with opponents’ perimeter players, so long as their lack of experience (and Duval’s questionable motor) doesn’t drag them down too much. Plus, Carter is one of the 2017 class’s best rim protectors (not quite Mo Bamba, but he’s up there), so opponents won’t feast at the rim like they have the last two years (238th and 259th in FG% at rim, per hoop-math.com). Bagley can also block some shots, so even in lineups where he’s the lone big, teams will not have it easy inside.

All of this means that Coach K won’t have to resort to junk zones in an attempt to confuse opponents, something he’s had to do more than he’d prefer in recent history. The Tucker-at-the-four lineup I mentioned may have issues if the opponent has two strong post players, but teams of that ilk are rare in college hoops, so it should be a manageable hurdle.  

Bottom Line: Like every Duke team, this one is stacked with talent. The team has a more clearly defined pecking order, though, which should make chemistry better and sort out some of the alpha dog issues that last year’s edition featured. That coupled with a jump in defensive efficiency should have the Devils right back as the favorite in the ACC and national title races.