The dust has settled. Duke faithful can turn the page from a bittersweet season filled with cardiac comebacks and gut-wrenching losses. Certain block/charge calls can be forgotten, in-and-out floaters erased, double-double tallies reset, mock drafts cleared, 247sports.com Crystal Ball tabs closed, and instead look forward to a historic 2018 roster.
Of course, historic is a loaded descriptor.
It’s historic because of the incoming class. Unless you lost your internet connection for months on end, you’re no doubt aware of the Big Four, each holding the number 1 spot at their position at some point or another. (Tre Jones just recently slipped to the number 3 point guard on some lists after a long stint at the top. Whatever.) No other school has ever landed the top three high school recruits in the same year since the rankings started. 6’7 shooting guard Joey Baker was the cherry on top after announcing his intention to reclassify and join the squad a year earlier than expected. I’ll get to that later.
Lots of talent. Tons of potential. Historic.
It’s also a historically young team. A growing epidemic in the age of one-and-done, Duke’s starting unit will almost assuredly emulate this previous season with four freshman anchored by a lone upperclassman. Only this time, that upperclassman isn’t charismatic, dynamic, controversial, seasoned senior guard Grayson Allen. Rather, it’s enigmatic, soft-spoken, injury-plagued, untested junior center Marques Bolden. In his first two years, Grayson logged 1,639 minutes. Bolden has logged 535. Any further statistical comparison of the two is useless, though, as they are totally different players in opposite positions with dissimilar trajectories. Nevertheless, Bolden will have to step into an experience vacancy by default and will be looked to for stabilizing leadership with this fresh-faced crew. With one senior, four juniors, two sophomores, and four freshman expected to make an impact for Blue Devils this season, experience and leadership are evasive. An issue most Duke teams of the past have not had to battle.
Very young. Virtually untested. Historic.
To get a better idea of what to expect from this historic team, let’s breakdown the pros and cons of each player on the 2018–2019 roster and then look at the big picture with all the information in place. Freshmen first.
R.J. Barrett, Freshman Guard
Pros: Tall, lanky, athletic, great handle, good shot, high IQ, there’s a reason Barrett is number 1 on every reputable recruiting board. I know what you’re thinking, “We’ve read this book before. Freak high school talent, ends up blending in at the college level.” I’ve read that book too. What makes Barrett unique is perhaps the weirdest compliment you could give an athlete in 2018 — he’s Canadian. This means he not only has the typical AAU and prep school experience, but also high-level international play against grown men. He led the U19 World team to a victory over a stout USA team and started on the Canadian national team against NBA veterans. He’s a world-class talent and athlete, obviously. But when I think about what makes Barrett truly special above all the tangibles, it’s that he has an unusual level of experience for a freshman. He’s also a lefty, which bodes well (see Luke Kennard, Justice Winslow, Marvin Bagley, etc.).
Cons: Unfortunately, there’s no experience that matches going toe-to-toe against Kentucky on ESPN in the Champion’s Classic. Not to mention playing in Cameron, the Dean Dome, or gutting out a slugfest against Florida State. His shot leaves a little to be desired from distance but is surprisingly effective from the midrange (shades of Jayson Tatum). Chris Boucher, the Canadian national team coach, also remarked that off-ball defense leaves room for improvement.
Takeaway: The pros certainly outweigh the cons. He’s one of the most decorated high school basketball players ever. You can’t control your experience, but it remains to be seen how Barrett adapts to his biggest stage yet. All indications point toward him being just fine.
Cam Reddish, Freshman Guard
Pros: Reddish’s game often draws comparisons to Rodney Hood. A smooth operator in the lane with the ability to hit from the outside, Reddish can score at all three levels. What puts him a step above (literally) is his size. Reddish is simply a matchup nightmare. He’s all of 6’8 and knows it. He can use his size to dominate off the dribble or just rise up and hit a jumper.
Cons: Effort and motor are big detractors. Reddish can oftentimes seem sluggish or disinterested. That can happen when you’re annihilating high schoolers, but he’ll need to develop some internal motivation at the college level. While he’s able to hit from distance, he’s is not exactly consistent and has a tendency to force poor looks at times.
Takeaway: With a motivator and teacher like Coach K, chances are Cam’s deficiencies will get ironed out pretty quick during summer workouts. He’ll be a tough matchup for most opponents and will be a much-needed presence defensively.
Zion Williamson, Freshman Guard/Forward
Pros: All hail the great Zion. Based on the hype and an impressive playlist of YouTube highlights, you’d think he was a full grown man playing a bunch of middle schoolers on 7 foot rims. “Freak athlete” couldn’t be a bigger understatement. He’s got the body of Zach Randolph with the hops of Zach Lavine. He just dominates. Williamson shocked the world when he picked an already-loaded Duke team, which means he saw the amount of talent and still wanted to join the party. He seems like a genuinely good kid with the talent to match. Expect plenty of Sport Center Top Ten feats.
Cons: There are zero high school athletes like Williamson. The big question is whether he can be a great basketball player. Can he shoot? Can he defend? Can he make the right play at the end of the game not just the cool play in the first half? What happens when he gets bodied by ACC forwards who are just as big, if not bigger, than he is? Where does his talent fit in the Coach K system, particularly with this group? Get past the ridiculously entertaining highlights, and some significant question marks remain.
Takeaway: I would rather have Zion on my team than not, 100/100. He’s also just great for college basketball fans. The potential to witness greatness whenever Zion touches the court makes all the noise around one-and-done and FBI investigations fade into silence for a brief moment. Oh, and lest we forget, he’ll have the best coach in history to buff out the rough spots. Is it November yet?
Tre Jones, Freshman Point Guard*
Pros: He’s Tyus Jones’ little brother, ‘nough said? If not, he’s widely reported to be an even better prospect than Tyus at this stage, with Tyus himself joining that assessment. While TrevOn DuvAl (inside joke for Duke fans) was the top point guard in last year’s class, it became apparent fairly quickly that DuvAl was a fantastic athlete who just happened to bring the ball up the floor. He filled a void after Frank Jackson and Derryck Thornton’s early departures. Tre is not a filler. He’s a bonafide point guard ready to make a name for himself beside his Final Four MVP and national champion elder. He passes, he handles, he directs, he finishes, all with impressive composure and low turnover propensity for a teen. He’s a major X factor (which is ridiculous to say for a top-rated point guard) as the spotlight continues to burn on Barrett, Reddish, and Williamson.
Cons: It’s hard to say for Jones right now without the usual generic concerns for any freshmen blue blood point guard. Minnesota high school ball and AAU are one thing, but running the show for Duke University at 18 is quite a different matter. Whereas Barrett will have the pressure of being the best basketball player on the floor on any given night, Jones will have to deal with having the ball the most and directing traffic. Will his modest size be a factor on defense or against particularly physical opponents? Will he have a short memory for inevitably forced turnovers and missed shots? Can he step up in big moments like Tyus?
Takeaway: Duke hasn’t had a true point guard since 2015. It’s nice to know the keys will be in good hands with the Jones family once again. If he proves himself a capable shooter, that will be a massive problem for opponents. You’re already dealing with the other three freaks and Bolden down low. If you’re then having to keep Jones out of the lane and off the three point line, that’s an issue. It’s good to have a Jones back in a Duke uniform.
Joey Baker, Freshman Guard
Pros: It’s a pro that Baker is on board at all this season. A 6’7 sharpshooter, he provides some much-needed fire power for the Blue Devils. However, it’s unclear if he’ll be an immediate impact player or take a red shirt. In a recent interview, Baker addressed such speculation by basically saying, “We’ll see.” Either way, it’ll be great to have him around the program a year ahead of schedule to soak in the Coach K system.
Cons: In terms of this season, we just don’t know yet if we’ll get to tap into Baker’s skills or wait. There has been a curious pattern with players of Baker’s profile needing a year to get their footing and then exploding on the scene in their second season (Allen, Kennard, hopefully O’Connell). Of course, each of those players logged important minutes in their first year.
Takeaway: The worst case scenario for Baker (baring injury, which isn’t far fetched for recent Duke freshmen) is he redshirts. Even then, it would mean a year to learn and improve. Like his shooting guard predecessors Allen and Kennard, Baker isn’t a traditional one-and-done talent, but his ceiling is definitely pro worthy.
Alex O’Connell, Sophomore Guard
Pros: Great hair. Seriously, you have to respect a guy who can make commentators consistently comment on his cut while competing with Marvin Bagley’s do. I’ve been following his game since high school and he does all the little things you want in a college player. He can shoot off the dribble and off the pass, makes the right cuts at the right times, and just exudes energy. He was also one of the only positives on defense last year. He’s bouncy, long, team-first, and just a blast to watch on the floor and on the bench. I can already see him getting a steal, racing down court, and throwing a Wade-to-Bron alley oop to Zion.
Cons: If/when O’Connell has an off night from deep, it could pose a significant problem for Duke. Barrett, Reddish, and Jones have varying abilities from three, but O’Connell will be the go-to down three with four seconds left. This isn’t just because he’s a fantastic shooter; it’s because there’s honestly just no one else. Baker could be a threat if he retains eligibility, but he doesn’t have the ability to create his own shot quite as well as O’Connell. O’Connell needs a break-out shooting season like Kennard and Allen along with some time in weight room to fully bloom.
Takeaway: If last year was any indication, Duke fans have a lot to be excited for with O’Connell. He’ll stretch defenses with his shooting and provide an awesome lift as the probable sixth man. He’s got a little Manu Ginobili in his game, and a lot of Ginobili in his nose.
Marques Bolden, Junior Center
Pros: Bolden has had a tough draw to date. Freshman year he got lost in the mix of bright lights, lower body injuries, and Amile Jefferson. Sophomore year looked a bit of the same, except instead of Amile Jefferson he got two lottery picks in Bagley and Carter Jr. At the end of the day, he’s still a five-star talent with tremendous upside. He showed flashes of true brilliance last year, particularly against Georgia Tech. His back-to-the- basket style should fit in well with the Big Four, who will take care of all the high flying acrobatics around the rim. The table is set for Bolden to host his coming out party this year. And most importantly, Coach K agrees.
Cons: You read many of them up top. Confidence can be an issue at times. He’ll have seniority, but Bolden will have to make a conscious choice to be vocal and assertive both offensively and defensively, in games and in practice, on the court and off. He has the most meaningful experience of all the returners, and he needs to act like it. Conditioning was also factor at some points last season as well (probably due to injuries). He has the tangibles to make this his breakout season, it’s the intangibles that will be the deciding factor.
Takeaway: Bolden is a 6’10 250 piece of fine clay ready to take shape. Coach K is confident in his ability to take it to the next level this season, so that should give Duke fans great hope. He might be the most important piece of the puzzle this year.
Javin DeLaurier, Junior Forward
Pros: DeLaurier saw a dramatic increase in playing time this year, including 5 starts, which allowed us to see what exactly his 6’10 220 frame can do. He’s incredibly athletic with a great motor, as evidenced by a few LeBron-esque chase down blocks. Last season was all about defense and finishing around the rim. This season he will provide much-needed leadership on and off the court as well as the tenacity to get better every day. If Jav can develop a midrange game offensively and stay out of foul trouble, he’ll be a key role player for Coach K.
Cons: Speaking of fouls…yikes. According to Sports Reference, DeLaurier would average more than 7 personal fouls over the course of 40 minutes last season. You only get 5. It didn’t matter all that much since he usually came in to relieve one of the other bigs for a few minutes, but it seemed like every other possession DeLaurier was inching the other team one step closer to the bonus. He’ll need to clean that up in addition to an offensive game outside of 5 feet.
Takeaway: My greatest fear in life would be going up for a lay up knowing Javin DeLaurier is about to put a hole in backboard after pinning the ball on the glass. I really like his potential, however raw it may be. We’ll see what his new veteran status does for his game and role on the team.
Jack White, Junior Guard/Forward
Pros: The blonde haired blued eyed Aussie burst on the scene against Notre Dame last season, showing the same grit roommate Grayson Allen displayed in the 2015 national championship game. He’s a proficient shooter with a solid build to help grab rebounds. He’ll be a great 4-year player Cameron Crazies will be sure to root for the next two years.
Cons: White can look a little lost on the floor at times. Not quite the athlete DeLaurier and O’Connell have proven to be, White will need to continue to find ways to impact the game through energy and hustle. And with the dearth of shooting this year, he will no doubt have more opportunities to show his offensive capabilities.
Takeaway: White showed exciting signs of growth as a sophomore. Combine that with a few more threes and an ever-improving IQ, and the Blue Devils will have a trustworthy 8th man.
Jordan Goldwire, Sophomore Guard
Pros: Goldwire reminds me of a more athletic Tyler Thornton. He’s a trustworthy backup point guard and can pester opponents full court. Despite a slightly unorthodox release, he knocked down a few crucial shots last year, which will be an added luxury if he can duplicate those performances. He’ll be all over Tre Jones in practice to get the rookie ready for the big stage. I don’t panic when Goldwire is on the floor.
Cons: Goldwire is not really an offensive threat, but he’s not supposed to be. He does what backup point guards are supposed to do: keep the ship going while the starter catches his breath. As long as Goldwire continues to stay within himself and focus on his assist/turnover ratio, I can only expect he’ll get more opportunities over the years.
Takeaway: Tyler Thornton was an invaluable four-year player on a championship Duke team. I believe Goldwire has the same potential. Much of his contribution may be behind the scenes, but that will be crucial on a freshman heavy team.
Justin Robinson, Junior Forward
Pros: I owe a lot to Justin Robinson. Son of NBA Hall of Famer and former San Antonio Spurs superstar David Robinson, he’s a big reason my San Antonian in-laws indulge my ridiculous Duke obsession. He walked-on as a freshman, but his frame and skill made it pretty clear that was just a formality. I thought he would be another David McLure type, but this past season proved much more. He has real shot blocking ability and enough three-point prowess to make defenses uncomfortable. Robinson is universally loved by teammates and coaches, and an intelligent, high character kid just like his dad. He’ll see limited minutes over the next two years, but those minutes will be in good hands.
Cons: Coming from a family synonymous with excellence, it’s clear Robinson translates that to every aspect of his game, almost to a fault. Whenever he makes a mistake, he usually drops his head and mutters a critique to himself. Robinson will be at his best when he gets out of his head and just plays his game.
Takeaway: A deep bench is a luxury not many college basketball teams can afford. Robinson rounds out the second team in highly capable fashion.
Antonio Vrakovic, Senior Center
Pros: The lone senior, “Vrank” follows in the size 16 footsteps of former 7-foot centers Marshall Plumlee and Brian Zoubek (both national champions, I might add). Vrank has seen limited minutes over his career, but he will step into a much different role in his senior season. He will be the first in line behind Bolden to hold down the front court and, perhaps more importantly, will provide much-needed veteran leadership. Many players from last year described Vrank as the most entertaining guy on the team, which is sure to help his off-court contributions.
Cons: Honestly the best case scenario when Vrank is on the floor is that he will maintain the status quo. Like Zoubek, he’s not going anywhere fast and his vertical isn’t setting any combine records. Unlike Zoubek, though, he hasn’t proven overly physical or the ability to clear out the lane for penetration.
Takeaway: Vrank’s time has come. Whatever proficiencies and deficiencies have been hiding at the end of the bench the last three years, they will on full display this season when Bolden gets in foul trouble or needs a breather. Much like Goldwire, his greatest contributions will most likely be out of sight as ranking veteran.
Mike Buckmire, Sophomore Walk-On
Pros: We are all Mike Buckmire. I jumped off my couch and cheered with the Crazies after the freshmen walk-on finished a spectacular and-one last year. Buckmire’s biggest pro is that we are all living vicariously through him whenever he checks in.
Cons: None, he’s perfect.
Takeaway: If Buck is in the game, that’s usually a good sign.
Brennen Basser, Junior Walk-On
Pros: Basser gives very entertaining interviews for Blue Devil Planet. As an avid consumer of any Duke basketball media, I appreciate his efforts.
Cons: I’d like to see a little more creativity with the bench celebrations.
Takeaway: When Buck AND Basser are in the game, Duke has probably covered the spread.
Now that all the pieces are in place, here are three major pros and cons for the team as a whole as we look ahead to November.
- Talent — This one is obvious and has been a staple for the Duke program for decades. The players are great, the coaches are great, the fans are great. Talent is everywhere, and this year is certainly no exception. The freshman class is historic as mentioned, Bolden is a five-star talent regardless of his track record, and most of the bench could start anywhere else in the country. Talent will compensate for some inevitably lackluster performances, like we saw early last season.
- Improved Defense — It was borderline painful to watch Duke’s defense last season. I don’t anticipate it to be as much of a problem for this group. Barrett and Reddish in particular have good defensive instincts. Bolden showed great improvement in pick-and-roll situations and won’t be as tempted to stray from the rim as other combo centers. If Jones defends like his brother and Zion uses his size appropriately, they’ll be in much better shape this time around.
- Offensive Diversity — Before Grayson started his shooting skid toward the end of the season, we saw the problems opponents faced with picking their poison defensively. While Duke is not as formidable inside this year, Jones, Reddish, and Barrett’s playmaking abilities combined with Zion’s finishing should keep defenders on a swivel. I’m envisioning a lot of high pick-and-roll situations with Jones to get the offense started and trusting his discernment to pick apart whatever the defense decides to do from there. Mix in O’Connell with a corner three or an over rotation off DeLaurier from the baseline and it should be a very entertaining season.
- Youth — Again, we’ve addressed this already. If the one-and-done era has taught us anything, it’s that talent is necessary but not sufficient to reign supreme in college basketball. Nearly every team to raise the championship trophy in April since the rule was instated has had its share of young stars, but it has also had a battle-worn veteran core. Duke’s four incoming juniors and one senior averaged just 7.5 minutes per game during the regular season. Experience is at a premium.
- Outside Shooting — Barrett and Reddish are streaky at best from distance. Jones will have other priorities. Zion doesn’t show many signs of reliability when he’s not 12 inches above the rim. Bolden will not be taking the occasional jumper like Bagley and Carter Jr. This leaves O’Connell, (maybe) Baker, and White. Considering all three will most likely come off the bench, there’s plenty of reason for apprehension about Duke’s ability to convert from three.
- Front Court — In a total about-face from last year, Duke is extremely thin up front. All eyes will be on Bolden as teams attempt to lure him from the rim defensively and wear him down on the offensive end. Foul trouble, conditioning, and injury are all serious concerns. This means Antonio Vrankovic will need to make his biggest jump skill wise to provide impactful minutes in Bolden’s stead. Front court coach Nate James and the rest of the staff will have their hands full getting Bolden and Vrank ready for action.
All in all, Duke definitely has the bones of a title contending team. With the Big 4’s talent, Bolden’s size and experience, O’Connell’s shot, and an eager second unit, the 2018–2019 season promises to be as entertaining as any in recent memory.
However, as Duke team’s have reminded us in the past, talent does not always equal success. The moniker for many Duke fans will be cautious optimism. Of course, caution will be thrown to the proverbial wind when Zion lines up a trademark slam at Countdown to Craziness. Until then, we’ll just have to settle for pre-playoff baseball and Alabama vs. The Field in football. Excuse me while I put the 2015 championship game on loop.