Duke welcomed a historic freshman class, but injuries have delayed their debuts. With other players excelling in their absence, how many players does this loaded roster put into the 2017 NBA Draft?
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Nov 29, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Frank Jackson (15) reacts after scoring against the Michigan State Spartans in the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Tuesday night the Duke Blue Devils hosted the Michigan State Spartans as a part of the annual ACC/Big 10 Challenge.
The Blue Devils prevailed 78-69 to move to 7-1 on the season and those in attendance saw an exciting back-and-forth game that Duke didn’t put away until the closing minutes.
Even more so than two college basketball powerhouses facing off in one of the best venues in sports, Tuesday’s game showed how stocked Duke has become as an NBA pipeline.
Once known for being a four-year greenhouse, players on both ends of the college experience are joining forces in Durham to win games while preparing for an NBA future. The NBA Draft every year has a Blue Devil near the top of the lottery.
This year Duke welcomed in the top freshman class in the nation, and one of the best in the history of the one-and-done era. Five ESPN 100 recruits hit campus this season for Duke, including four five-star players.
On paper, the freshman class alone could have led the Blue Devils to the tournament and perhaps deep into it. Combined with the strong returning talent, their deep and skilled roster set Duke up as the preseason number one team and early favorite to win the title.
What has been impressive about the Blue Devils’ 7-1 start is not the freshman class, however. The top three recruits — forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum and center Marques Bolden — have yet to play a game for Coach K as they rehab from injuries. Instead it is freshman Frank Jackson and Wooden Award candidate Grayson Allen leading the way.
With the top draft prospects sidelined, other players on the Blue Devils have had the chance to shine. NBA scouts will be watching to see just how many players in Durham have what it takes to contribute on the next level.
We know about the freshmen, but exactly how many Duke Blue Devils on this year’s team will make it to the NBA?
Nov 11, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Injured Duke Blue Devils forward Harry Giles (left) and forward Jayson Tatum talk on the bench during the second half against the Marist Red Foxes at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke won 94-49. Mandatory Credit: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports
The Lottery Picks
Jayson Tatum – Freshman, F, 6’8”
Jayson Tatum is the type of player every NBA GM wants to snatch up in the Draft – the long, athletic wing who can score in bunches and defend multiple positions.
While he currently lacks a three-point shot, there has been no lack of wings going in the top-5 in recent drafts without that aspect of their game developed. His smooth stroke from mid-range suggests a relatively easy transition beyond the arc.
The biggest weakness in Tatum’s game is a lack of court vision, as he rarely passed the ball in high school.
When you are as talented of a scorer as Tatum that is understandable, but scouts are going to be watching his play at Duke to see if Coach K’s staff will bring out the best in his ability to distribute.
Tatum suffered a sprained foot late in October that has kept him out of the Duke lineup, but provided he comes back and plays well he has the highest floor of any Blue Devil prospect. Barring the unforeseen Jayson Tatum will be a top-10 draft pick in June’s Draft.
Range: Top 10
Harry Giles – Freshman, F, 6’11”
While Tatum’s injury is relatively minor and doesn’t bear any long-term concern, Giles’s draft stock is going to be defined by his health. Rehabilitating from his second ACL tear, Giles needs to prove to NBA scouts that he can play at a high level without getting hurt.
Greg Oden was an elite prospect but couldn’t stay on the court; Giles is by no means doomed for the same fate, but teams won’t use a top-three pick on him if they are worried about his knees.
Those are the high stakes involved, as Giles has the size and talent to be the top overall pick. His athleticism allows him to play above the rim on offense, and he is devastating in the open court as he races to the basket.
But Giles also possesses the skills to work the post, with touch around the basket and the ability to pass with precision that few big men combine.
On defense Giles is no slouch either, as his 7’4” wingspan envelops opposing guards driving towards the hoop. His athleticism allows him to recover from the weakside and block shots as well, and he is a strong rebounder on both ends of the court.
Outside of his knees, there are very few weaknesses in his game.
Duke is rightly going to be patient with bringing Giles along, but once they unleash him on opposing teams he could be one of the best players in the country.
If his knees hold up and he shows no signs of lost athleticism, he could pass Markelle Fultz or Josh Jackson to regain the top spot in the Draft. If NBA teams have any concerns, he could fall to the back half of the lottery.
Nov 29, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) drives past Michigan State Spartans forward Kenny Goins (25) in the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Marques Bolden – Freshman, C, 6’11”
Bolden was the latest freshman to commit to Duke, giving the Blue Devils the most talented frontcourt in the country. While he has yet to take the court due to a lower leg injury, Bolden possesses all of the physical tools scouts are looking for in NBA center prospects.
Bolden stands a hair less than 7 feet, but possesses a massive 7’ 6” wingspan. His body is more NBA-ready than most players his age — similar to another Duke center, Jahlil Okafor, who arrived on campus with an NBA body. He has the size and strength to hold up in the post on both ends.
The problem with Bolden is not the physical tools, but the motor behind them. He possesses the skill to score in the post, to protect the rim, and even to switch out onto the perimeter at times. But the red flag on him all throughout high school was the effort he puts in.
Few coaches get their players to engage more than Coach K and four months of playing all-out could lift him back into the lottery. If he has a lackluster season for a loaded Duke squad, he could fall into the 20s.
Grayson Allen – Junior, G, 6’4”
Grayson Allen burst onto the basketball scene with authority, scoring 16 points in 21 minutes to lead the Blue Devils from behind in the 2015 national championship game.
His freshman year he averaged only 4.4 points per game in a backup role behind his more heralded classmates Tyus Jones and Justice Winslow.
Last season Jones and Winslow went to the NBA, senior Quinn Cook graduated, and Allen took the reigns in Durham. He increased his scoring average to 21.6 points per game and led a less-talented Blue Devils squad to the Sweet Sixteen.
Although he was projected as a fringe first-round pick, Allen elected to return to school to increase his draft stock and bring another title to the stocked trophy room at Duke.
This season Allen is again the leader of the team, serving as the primary ball-handler in the absence of a true point guard on the roster. This is despite a toe injury that has left him unable to practice for the last two weeks.
Against Michigan State Tuesday night, Allen dropped a game-high 24 points, including five triples, to keep the Spartans at arm’s length down the stretch.
Allen’s strengths are numerous and well-known — he is an elite shooter from anywhere on the court, he can handle the ball, and makes smart passes. On defense he puts in maximum effort, and his quick hands spring steals that can generate transition baskets.
He is also a top-notch athlete, exploding to the rim for dunks when least expected.
But Allen is also slight, weighing only 185 pounds, and his 6’4” height and 6’6.5” wingspan are on the smaller side for 2-guards. That doesn’t mean Allen cannot succeed at the next level — C.J. McCollum is demonstrating just that for the Portland Trail Blazers — but he will need to work much harder than his taller, longer peers.
Allen has struggled at times against the most athletic teams, so his top priority this season is proving that he can play at a high level against the best competition. While his sights are surely set on a Wooden Award and a National Title, NBA scouts will be watching to see how he plays once the teams freshman hit the court.
If Allen puts together another dominant season he may win over enough NBA front offices to climb the draft board.
Nov 29, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson (21) sets a pick as Duke Blue Devils guard Luke Kennard (5) drives with the ball against Michigan State Spartans guard Joshua Langford (1) in the first half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Frank Jackson – Freshman, G, 6’4”
Frank Jackson is the “Grayson Allen” of this draft class, the fourth option after three fully-hyped lottery contenders.
But rather than wait until the end of the season to make his mark, the lack of depth in the backcourt has given Jackson the opportunity to prove himself. He has taken that opportunity and absolutely ran with it.
Jackson is third on the team in scoring, dropping in 15.4 points per game and never once scoring less than 11. His ability to attack the basket has resulted in free throw attempts – 4.7 per game, which he is hitting at an 82 percent clip – as well as opening up shots on the perimeter for his teammates.
He has started the last four games for the Blue Devils as they have gone smaller in the starting lineup, and Duke is 4-0 in those games with an average margin of victory of 19 points.
Jackson can shoot, he is athletic, and he plays with a tremendous motor.
He has also shown a great ability to find the right opening on the perimeter — the spot where a driving Allen can fit a pass through to him, or the spot where his presence will pull the defense away from another shooter.
His knowledge of the game is shining through already, just eight games into his college career.
The problem for Jackson will be his ability to run the point. If he can be a swing guard in the NBA, that will open up roles for him on most any team. If he is strictly an undersized 2-guard, then his options will be limited.
With no true PG on the roster, jackson should get plenty of run even when his fellow freshman return. With Duke on the highest of stages, he will be under plenty of scrutiny — but likewise have plenty of opportunity to impress.
Luke Kennard – Sophomore, G, 6’5”
Luke Kennard is the first player on this list who is most likely not going to turn pro after this season. An ESPN 100 player from last year, Kennard took time to find his role in the rotation, and it wasn’t until late last season that he began contributing at a high level.
With space open on the wing in Durham, Kennard has stepped up in the absence of an NBA lottery wing and is having the best stretch of his career to begin this season. Kennard leads the country in minutes played and leads the Blue Devils in scoring at 17.5 points per game.
The last few games Coach K has started Kennard at the 4, a position held by recent lottery picks Justice Winslow and Brandon Ingram.
Kennard is an elite shooter, he can dribble and like so many Blue Devils he puts in the effort on defense. But his lack of elite athleticism and relative lack of speed for a player who projects as a guard in the NBA keeps him from being a surefire draft pick.
If he continues to play well when the freshmen return, he could fight his way into the second round.
Nov 29, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Amile Jefferson (21) reacts after scoring against the Michigan State Spartans in the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Chase Jeter – Sophomore, C, 6’10”
Jeter has grown in leaps and bounds from when he first arrived in Durham as a raw prospect. With Amile jefferson going down for the season last year, Jeter was forced into the lineup and grew on the job, showing in flashes during the NCAA Tournament the type of talent he had.
It will probably be another season or two in Durham before he enters the Draft, but his athleticism could put him into the mix to be drafted. If not, he could catch on with a D-League team and develop into a future reserve big man.
Coach K and his staff will continue to work with Jeter to improve their team and his future prospects.
Amile Jefferson – Senior, F, 6’9”
The veteran leader of the Blue Devils’ team, Jefferson is a do-it-all forward who glues together the Blue Devils’ defense. On offense he crashes the boards, sets hard screens, and even puts together bursts of scoring from the post.
Against Michigan State he poured in 17 points and 13 rebounds against a strong Spartans frontcourt.
Jefferson lacks the top-end athleticism to be a sure prospect, but other Duke glue men have managed to carve a role for themselves in the league.
Lance Thomas secured a four-year contract with the New York Knicks this past offseason, and he was an NBA afterthought when he graduated from Duke. The odds are long, but a team could give him a look in Summer League.
Matt Jones – Senior, G, 6’5”
Matt Jones does two things, and he does them both very well. He shoots three-pointers, and he guards the other team’s best player. That role is one that every NBA team needs to fill, the elusive “3-and-D” wing.
Jones doesn’t have all of the tools to be a consistent option in the pros, and he is on the smaller side to truly be a wing-stopper. But teams always need shooters, and Jones is a shooter.
This season he has added the ability to pump a recovering defender and drive past him to the rim, another skill that translates to the NBA.
His odds are similarly long, but he fits the job description of a helpful NBA player. If he has a strong year and impresses some scouts, he could find his way into a training camp — if not next year, down the road.