DURHAM, N.C. — Before the 2012-13 season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski told the assembled media that he was going to build his team around 7-foot center (and current Brooklyn Net) Mason Plumlee.
The Blue Devils would have a back-to-the-basket big man, and the offense would be designed to get Plumlee plenty of touches, he said. The other seniors — stretch-four Ryan Kelly and shooting guard Seth Curry — would be sure to get plenty of looks as a result.
There’s a reason Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in college basketball history. All the things he said would happen, did. Even if there was some initial skepticism at the thought of Plumlee being able to carry the team.
With the three seniors (and Duke’s top three scorers from a 2012-13 team that went to the Elite Eight) gone, the Blue Devils are going to have to rebuild around a much younger core: two seniors (and a graduate student who didn’t play last year), a junior, five sophomores and three freshmen.
There are plenty of players on the roster that will compete for playing time. Krzyzewski typically pares down his rotation to 7-8 players as the year goes on, but he said he planned on playing more than that this year. Almost everyone on the roster could play with almost anyone else, regardless of position.
“It’s not your conventional team of here are your two big guys, your wing, your shooter and your point guard. … It’s going to be a team that has I think very good versatility. Guys are going to have to be able to guard multiple positions,” Krzyzewski said. “And it’ll be a team that uses the full court, both offensively and defensively, a lot. I think it’ll be a team where we play more guys than we have usually played in a ballgame — in a regular game, not in a blowout, where either we’re blowing someone out or we’re getting blown out. A lot of guys get in in those games.”
And while there are a lot of unknowns surrounding this team, Krzyzewski seems to have almost built that into the plan. Young players can be streaky, and Krzyzewski’s going to play the ones who are playing the best at that time.
“As far as a lineup goes or who’s playing, it’ll be very fluid. There may be sometimes certain guys are really going to have a good week or two weeks or whatever, and you go with that type of thing, or even in a game,” Krzyzewski said.
“And so the amount of playing time will really be contingent on how well are you playing. That’s a good thing for us as a coaching staff. No one’s really pitted one on one against another guy like a football depth chart….It’s not like one guy is trying to beat out one guy.”
What the exact mix will be, Krzyzewski doesn’t know yet. But he does know he wants to create just the right mixture with two players as the base — redshirt sophomore and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, and 6-7 forward Jabari Parker, the No. 3 incoming freshman in the 2013 class.
“Basically, you’re trying to blend. The two guys you initially want to try to blend with would be Rodney and Jabari, because they’re two very talented and very versatile players. That’s what we’re going to try to do,” Krzyzewski said.
To best utilize the athleticism and versatility of his roster, Krzyzewski said that he wants to go with a more up-tempo style on both offense and defense, forcing the action on defense with full-court pressure and getting up and down in transition.
The only three players Krzyzewski said he knew he would start if there were a game today were Parker, Hood and sophomore Amile Jefferson. Three players that are 6-7, 6-8 and 6-9 (respectively), all long and athletic with diverse skill sets, particularly wings Parker and Hood.
Jefferson started seven games last year when Ryan Kelly was out with a foot injury, but some doubted whether or not Jefferson was a true big man. But the sophomore forward — according to Krzyzewski — is the one working best with Parker and Hood right now.
“I think Amile has gone way up. To me, he may complement those two guys (Hood and Parker) better than anybody on our team,” Krzyzewski said. “What is he, a 4 or a 5? I don’t know. I think he’s a good player. And with this group, he’s just allowed to be a player.
“When you position a guy, you end up looking at strengths and weaknesses for that position. Most of the time, we look at their weaknesses. When you don’t position guys, you look at their strengths. I’d rather do that. … But if you position a guy and say you have to do these things, sometimes they get caught up in their weaknesses and it doesn’t give the confidence that they should have for their strengths. I think the way we’re playing lends itself to going to people’s strengths.”
Two returning starters from last year weren’t mentioned as having guaranteed spots in the lineup in the proverbial “if a game were today” scenario — sophomore shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and junior point guard Quinn Cook (though Krzyzewski said he “probably” would start him).
As the players adapt to a new scheme, essentially, both Cook and Sulaimon (and the rest of their teammates, for that matter) have to learn to play off of Parker and Hood. But it also creates opportunities for everyone else.
“All I know is when we’re playing somebody, they’re going to look at stopping Rodney and Jabari. There’s certain guys on our team when they’re out on the court, they’re not going to be covered by a man. They’re going to be covered by a half a man because Rodney and Jabari are going to be guarded by a man and a half,” Krzyzewski said.
“A man and a half here, a man and a half here and all of a sudden, what are the two guys that are being guarded by those have guys, what are they doing? Are they visible? Are they active? Are they productive? And so it’s a new role, it’s a new way of looking at it, and then you have to take pride in that and take advantage of it. … That’s what’s going to happen.”
Cook is the established veteran at point guard, but Hood says he’s run the point in practice some too, as has Sulaimon. Senior Tyler Thornton is already a backup point guard. Hood said that he played all five positions last year in practice for Duke (sitting out his transfer year).
“Especially last year, I ran a lot of point and this year, once I get it off the rebound I’m going to be pushing it,” Hood said. “And there’s going to be some offensive sets where I bring the ball up the court, kind of like Lamar Odom for the Lakers, into the offense.”
Parker was excited about the lineup possibilities as well, and compared it to some of the high-scoring teams from the 1970s. “It’s not traditional. We don’t have any set positions,” Parker said. “It’s like the old school 70’s era where you didn’t have a center. You just had forwards; you had guards and everybody’s adjustable, everybody can move around.”
The last team Andre Dawkins played on at Duke ran through point guard Austin Rivers (in 2012). There weren’t a whole lot of other options as far as playmakers and athletes.
Dawkins, who redshirted the 2013 season, is having a completely different experience at practice now.
“There are so many different matchups. Any given time, you could be guarding anybody on the court,” Dawkins said. “Normally, we played more traditionally where bigs guard bigs, guards guard guards. We have so many hybrid players that can play inside and out.
“At any given time, you could be anywhere on the court and I think that’ll cause problems for opponents that aren’t used to that. It’ll be fun.”