Duke nabs another No. 1 recruiting class, but unknowns remain
DURHAM, N.C. — It was mere days after winning a national championship, but the Duke staff didn’t have time to celebrate.
As the coaches met with the talented group of freshmen that had helped carry them to that national title, it became clear that all three — Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow — were going to enter their names into the NBA Draft.
"You win it, you’re excited, we get back Tuesday, we have the celebration, you’re exhausted because we hadn’t really slept. Come Wednesday, we have the meetings. Wednesday, (Okafor), he told us that that was it. The other two were a little bit more on the fence. They weren’t sure," assistant coach Jeff Capel recalled on Wednesday before Duke’s annual K Academy. "I think we were a little bit surprised to hear that from (Winslow). We weren’t surprised to hear it from (Jones)."
Just like that, the urgency that came to replacing their production — or at least attempting to — next season came swiftly into focus. Recruiting to fill out a roster the following year became the immediate priority.
"Then it became, OK, now it’s — but we have to get these guys," Capel continued. "So there was some nervousness, some uneasiness. But we also trusted the work that we had put in before that. It wasn’t like it just happened at the end. … We felt like that we had the best situations for those guys. We felt like that they would see it."
They, in this case, were the two main additions to Duke’s recruiting class: Five-star wing Brandon Ingram and five-star point guard Derryck Thornton, who was able to reclassify so he could enroll at Duke this upcoming season. Alongside earlier commits Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter, the four additions gave the Blue Devils the No. 1 recruiting class for the second straight season.
"The recruiting has helped us to where we’ll be relevant (next year)," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "There was part of us wondering, I don’t know if we’ll be as relevant, but we’ll have a chance to be pretty good, I think."
If there’s a drawback to having the No. 1 recruiting class two years in a row (especially after one led Duke to the national title), it’s that expectations are back. Not so much that Duke will win or compete for the national title, because that’s the expectation most years, but more that the freshmen will integrate seamlessly into the team concept and their talent will win out.
Both Krzyzewski and Capel wanted to caution people against taking that viewpoint, simply because now there are so many unknowns.
Last year’s group knew each other very well (Jones and Okafor were longtime friends, Winslow quickly got to know both). This group doesn’t. And after losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Mercer the year before, Krzyzewski and his staff had nearly a month longer to get to know the incoming freshmen better and really take a hard look at everything headed into 2014-15. This year, they haven’t had that kind of time.
"The main difference is that three of those guys knew each other really well, two of them especially in Jah and Tyus. (The incoming freshmen) don’t have that dynamic," Krzyzewski said. "So when they come here for second session of summer school, we need to work on that a little bit more."
And then there was the matter of Okafor, a terrific talent down low who was nearly unstoppable most of the season. Even before that group of freshmen arrived on campus last summer, it was obvious to Duke and the staff that they were going to build everything around him. This year, Duke doesn’t yet have an obvious identity.
"Everyone has to caution to compare these guys to last year’s guys. I understand it’s natural to do that, but we have to take caution. I’m not saying that they’re not good. We just have to see," Capel said. "With these guys coming in, we know they’re really good players. They’re talented and they’re going to play. It’s just we don’t exactly know what role and what shape our team is going to take now. That’s exciting. That’s exciting to get a feel for them when they get here, we get them in workouts and we figure out who they are."
Getting Thornton was the final piece of the puzzle that ensured Duke had a true point guard to distribute the ball, and still be another scoring threat. Capel described him as a break-you-down type of point guard more so than Jones, who utilized ball screens more.
But Thornton was a luxury after adding Ingram, the long and athletic 6-foot-9 wing who is one of the best players in this class.
Ingram is the most logical candidate for Duke to build around, but as Capel said, much remains unknown. Duke’s been too busy solidifying its roster for next year and celebrating its national title to think too far ahead, and a lot will be determined once Ingram gets to campus.
"Brandon will have a huge impact on our team. We don’t know exactly what that’s going to mean, but when you have someone that’s as talented as he is and unique — that’s the key word for him. He’s just very unique. Really, he’s a 6-10 guard," Capel said. "He can handle it, he can shoot it. He’s got to get stronger obviously, but he’s been able to have success, and he’s a big-time worker.
"So Brandon will be instrumental in that. Again, we don’t know exactly how that’s going to fit. Last year, it was easy. We knew we wanted to play through (Okafor), and it was easy. It was smart. But everything else, we weren’t sure how we were going to operate off of that. But Brandon will definitely be a key part."