It really should be easy for next season’s Duke basketball team to put last season’s uncharacteristic struggles in the past.
The majority of the players who participated in the 13-11 campaign to become the first Duke team since 1995 to miss the NCAA tournament won’t be around when the new season begins.
With all of the departures to the NBA and the transfer portal since the Blue Devils’ season ended when COVID-19 cases caused their abrupt departure from the ACC tournament, seven of the top 11 players in minutes played won’t play for Duke next season.
This is a roster tear down and rebuild, for sure.
While some of the churn was expected, other players leaving were not anticipated when the coaching staff looked ahead to getting Duke back to its usual place among college basketball’s elite teams.
But that’s the state of college basketball in 2021, thanks mostly to immediate eligibility for transfers now in place.
So what will Duke look like next season? The roster will be tall and athletic with depth in the backcourt, thanks to a four-man freshman class rated No. 3 in the country and two incoming graduate transfers.
Here’s a look at the comings and goings with thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of what will be coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 42nd Duke team.
Johnson was expected to be a one-and-done. Hurt played so well as a sophomore the time arrived for him to go. Steward was a surprise as he’s likely to not be drafted.
Seniors Jordan Goldwire and Patrick Tape used the NCAA’s pandemic-era rule that allows for a fifth season of eligibility to transfer. Goldwire, a guard, will play at Oklahoma with the 6-9 Tape landing at San Francisco.
Jaemyn Brakefield, a 6-8 freshman forward, will transfer back to his home state to play for Mississippi. Another freshman forward, the 6-7 Henry Coleman, entered his name in the transfer portal on Monday and has yet to select a new school.
Duke could have used any of those four players next season, though all would have projected to be reserves.
That leaves 6-7 rising senior small forward Joey Baker, 6-5 rising junior small forward Wendell Moore, 6-3 rising sophomore guard Jeremy Roach and 7-0 rising sophomore center Mark Williams as the only players who have played a game for Duke set to be in uniform when the new season starts in November
Moore, Roach and Williams all started Duke’s final game of the season, a 70-56 ACC tournament win over Louisville.
All three will be important players on next year’s Blue Devils. In addition, Moore and Baker look like candidates for team captain roles due to their experience.
Two of the four freshmen arrive with high expectations, having been ranked among the top 12 players in the class.
First up is Paolo (pronounced paul-oh) Banchero, already projected by ESPN as the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. An athletic big man, Banchero has reportedly grown from the 6-9 he’s previously been listed at to 6-11 this school year.
At around 235-240 pounds, he’s strong enough to hold his own inside while still being agile and skilled enough to put the ball on the floor and drive or hit a 3-pointer.
He projects as the classic Duke stretch-4 forward who would thrive in an offense with at least four players out away from the basket to create driving lanes.
Another forward, 6-7 AJ Griffin, arrives as the No. 9 player in the class. While not as big as Banchero, Griffin should give Duke another perimeter scoring threat who can help with rebounding.
On the perimeter, 6-2 guard Trevor Keels is another five-star recruit, rated No. 20 in the class. A former high school teammate of Roach in Virginia, Keels should take over the minutes that Steward had for Duke last season as the top scoring guard.
The latest addition to the class is 6-2 point guard Jaylen Blakes, a four-star player from Blairstown (NJ) Academy who projects as Roach’s backup.
Together the class is the best for Duke since the 2018 group that included NBA lottery picks Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish.
In addition, Duke mined the transfer portal to rebuild after its own players transferred.
Theo John, a 6-9, 255-pound center, played four seasons at Marquette with former Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski as his head coach. John is a solid defender and rebounder who should have little trouble adjusting to playing for Krzyzewski.
Duke also added 6-8, 225-pound forward Bates Jones from Davidson. Like John, Jones is using his super senior season to find a new school. Davidson, where he played in a reserve role, doesn’t offer graduate level classes.
Who projects as Duke’s top players?
As usual, it starts with the freshmen, particularly Banchero. His skills put him in line with Duke’s past one-and-done stars like Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Williamson and Barrett. The same was expected from Jalen Johnson last season and, due to injury and indifference, that didn’t work out and Duke missed the NCAA tournament.
Putting it bluntly, Duke needs Banchero to be as good as advertised to be a national championship contender.
He would pair well with the 7-foot Williams inside giving Duke a powerful front court with John a steady, capable reserve or starter when needed.
Griffin, Moore and Roach should get plenty of minutes in the backcourt, along with Keels.
That’s a solid seven-man rotation. Baker could be the eighth if he regains the 3-point shooting stroke that evaded him far too often last season when he hit only 31.4% from behind the line.
What are the concerns?
Team chemistry and camaraderie will be very important with this group. The newcomers arrive from all parts of the country at different stages of their careers. The four holdovers from last season have to introduce them to what’s expected as Duke players.
The restrictions in place last year due to the pandemic cost Duke big time in this area. It doesn’t appear to be as onerous a task this time around, thanks to widespread vaccinations that should lead to more time together in a closer-to-normal campus setting.
One thing to note, though, is that Baker is the only player on the roster to have played in an NCAA tournament game for Duke. As a freshman, he played seven minutes in the second half of a blowout win over North Dakota State in the 2019 tournament.
John played in one NCAA tournament game, also in 2019, for Marquette.
Bates Jones played less than one minute as a freshman when Davidson lost 78-73 to Kentucky in the 2018 NCAA tournament.
That is the extent of Duke’s experience in the event the entire team will be striving to first make and, in their ultimate goal, win.
That’s something to keep in mind as the season progresses toward March.