Following departure of top three freshmen, what’s next for Duke?
As recently as a month ago, it was far from a foregone conclusion that Duke’s trio of talented freshmen would collectively depart for the NBA Draft. The big man — Jahlil Okafor, by all accounts a contender for the top overall pick — was almost certainly gone, but Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones were less sure bets.
Winslow’s play, particularly in March and April, skyrocketed the talented wing to the top 10 of many draft boards, and, after winning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, Jones’s stock soared as well.
Okafor was the first domino to fall on April 9, just two full days after Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis, winners of the program’s fifth national championship. A release from Duke included exclamation point-laden statements from both Okafor and coach Mike Krzyzewski about how good of a decision it was for the gifted center, who will likely be drafted No. 1 or No. 2 overall.
Winslow followed suit on April 14. He struggled with injuries for the better part of the beginning of the season, and once he learned to play through it, his size and athleticism wowed many as they finally got to watch him on a national stage. When he was on, he was unstoppable, and he was on for most of Duke’s NCAA tournament run.
Jones was the question mark. He’s projected towards the end of the first round, and the delay in his decision seemed to mean he might have been more inclined to coming back.
He went back to his Apple Valley, Minn., home last weekend, though, and after talking to his parents, decided that it was in his best interests to leave. His stock can’t get much higher than it is right now, and without Okafor and Winslow to pass to (not to mention a supportive veteran in Quinn Cook), it’s hard to imagine that he could duplicate what he did last season.
Jones was the only Duke freshman who decided to leave early that met with the media. His decision was announced just a day after Winslow’s, on April 15. Ten days from a national title, all three freshmen — gone.
"Extremely hard. Very stressful," Jones said of making his decision. "With a place like Duke that you’re in love with and your heart is at, you never want to leave. But at the same time, playing in the NBA is any kid’s dream and to have that opportunity, I just felt that it was best for myself and my family to take advantage of it."
Winning a national title might have impacted some of their decisions. Jones said it was impossible to say whether or not it would have changed his. He also said despite that his closeness with his fellow freshmen (particularly Okafor, his longtime best friend), their decisions didn’t impact his.
Krzyzewski added glowing, positive statements to the Duke releases announcing all three of his freshmen entering the draft. He did a remarkable job, all things considered, of getting the young core to focus on last season instead of their own personal long-term goals.
But the decisions leave his Duke team with plenty of questions.
Duke fans will certainly take the tradeoff of a national championship for all three leaving, but the Blue Devils have lost their top four scorers (including Cook) from last season. That’s 71.4 percent of Duke’s points, 58.6 percent of its rebounds and 76.7 percent of its assists.
Duke doesn’t have another point guard on the roster, or even one coming in next season, as of right now. Jones was the only point guard Duke recruited for the last two seasons, partly because they believed in him that much, and he wasn’t viewed as the surefire one-and-done player that Okafor and, to a lesser extent, Winslow were.
That’s the biggest area of need for next year’s Duke team right now. Grayson Allen, the fourth freshman who exploded on to the scene during the Final Four in particular (scoring 16 points in the title game), has the capability to play point, Jones said.
"Grayson is a phenomenal player. He’s very aggressive but he’s a smart basketball player at the same time," Jones said. "That’s what could allow him to play some point guard next year."
Right now, Duke returns four players from last year’s team: Allen, rising junior guard Matt Jones, rising senior forward Amile Jefferson and most likely senior center Marshall Plumlee (he’s going to graduate Duke this summer, but plans on staying for a graduate year before entering the Army).
Duke will add 6-foot-5 shooting guard Luke Kennard, 6-foot-11 forward Chase Jeter and 6-foot-11 forward Antonio Vrankovic from its 2015 recruiting class. Transfer Sean Obi (from Rice) will become eligible next season as well. That would give Duke eight scholarship players, the same number it ended last season with.
Kennard and Jeter are McDonald’s All-Americans, and both Jones (as a 3-point shooter and defender) and Allen showed that they can be significant pieces of a very good team in 2015-16.
But the point guard hole will be a tough one to fill. Duke would probably be better off with Allen making plays off the ball. Kennard is a combo guard as well, and it’s a lot to ask for a freshman to come in and be the primary ball-handler.
Duke’s staff has some point guards from the 2016 class that could potentially reclassify, and obviously there’s the option of exploring the transfer market. But as of right now, it’ll be some combination of Kennard and Allen handling point guard duties.
Depth will probably be a bigger issue than it was last year, too, because Duke’s eight rotation players won’t be as talented as the Blue Devils’ eight were this past season. (That’s nearly impossible to duplicate.)
However, the Blue Devils aren’t done recruiting. One of the top incoming freshmen in the country, 6-foot-8 wing Brandon Ingram, has yet to commit, and he’s seriously considering Duke.
The talent on next year’s team won’t be what last year’s group was, and it will be an incredibly young group yet again. But with the ACC rocked by early entries and key players graduating — oh, and with Duke having the best head coach in the game in Krzyzewski — there’s still a pretty good chance that Duke will find itself a top-25 team all year long and a top-four team in conference play.