The departures of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood for the NBA left a large hole in Duke's roster, but also a very temporary one. Exit Parker and Hood, enter seven gold medals for Team USA, two high school state championships and four McDonald's All-Americans.
As the nation's top-ranked recruiting class descends upon Durham, with it come lofty expectations. The quartet of center Jahlil Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones, small forward Justise Winslow and shooting guard Grayson Allen—all of whom are ranked in the top 25 in the ESPN 100—are already drawing praise as the best freshman class of head coach Mike Krzyzewski's career.
For his part, Krzyzewski acknowledges the talent of the group, comparing it to the recruiting classes that helped put Duke on the map in the early 1980s because of the need for instant impact. The Blue Devils return just 39 percent of their offense from last year's team, which was upset by No. 14-seed Mercer in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
"It’s an outstanding class. What it turns into will determine what people say, whether it’s the best or one of the top two or whatever," Krzyzewski said. "To me, because of how things change so quickly with people going early, it reminds me a little bit of [Johnny] Dawkins, [Tommy] Amaker, [David] Henderson, [Jay] Bilas. Those guys came in early in my career because they came into a group that needed an infusion of talent right away. In other words, we only have 10 scholarship players [for 2014-15]. So 40 percent of the team are freshmen, so it’s not only a good class, but one of the more important classes that we’ve had. That combination makes it incredibly intriguing to see how they develop."
Only three Blue Devils return from last year's team who consistently logged double-digits minutes in senior Quinn Cook and juniors Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. In addition to replacing Parker and Hood, Duke must also absorb the losses of sharpshooter Andre Dawkins and role players in team captains Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston.
The most successful Duke teams have been carried by a strong veteran presence, so it will be important for Cook, Sulaimon, and Jefferson to play at a consistently high level. But just as they learned to adjust from Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly to Parker and Hood, they'll now need to learn how to play with Okafor, Jones, Winslow and Allen.
"We have a new team every year. So continuity is very difficult for us. The two times in the past five years we’ve had continuity, we’ve either won a national championship or were close. The third year where we had continuity and newness combine, Kyrie [Irving] got hurt," Krzyzewski said. "This should be like a whole new team and its own team. It has to develop its identity quickly and the togetherness that a team needs real fast while we’re trying to maintain the level of success that we’ve had over the years."
Allen was the first puzzle piece in the class to fall in place, committing to Duke in April 2013. He spent nearly seven months as the lone Blue Devil signee, until Krzyzewski won the sweepstakes for the package deal of Okafor and Jones, who in November announced their decision to play in college together via a nationally-televised broadcast. Six days later, Winslow cast his name into the ring.
At 6-foot-10, Okafor—the nation's top-ranked recruit—will give Duke something it lacked at times last year: a consistent back-to-the-basket threat. Krzyzewski called the Chicago product "the most NBA-ready type of guy" in the class, but said he doesn't expect Okafor to attract the level of individual scrutiny that was brought upon Parker last season. In a year where freshman phenoms littered the college basketball landscape, Parker was Duke's standout performer. Now, Krzyzewski has several elite freshmen, which will still attract plenty of attention.
"There’s not the focus on just the one," Krzyzewski said. "Coming in as a group like that, there won’t just be the focus on Okafor, or I don’t think there will be. I think there be a focus on them as a group, which we have to be concerned about to make sure that it’s not just the freshmen, it’s the whole team. Now, what we do during the summer, they’ll all be here in a couple weeks, that’ll help for them to get to know one another."
Okafor and Jones are already familiar with each other from the AAU circuit, and Jones and Winslow competed together for Team USA at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in mid-June. Allen and Okafor have also teamed up on the basketball court, though not in the traditional way: the 6-foot-4 Allen scaled his Blue Devil teammate to capture the slam dunk contest title at the McDonald's All-America game festivities.
Duke has harbored a one-and-done in three of the past four seasons, and one or more of the freshmen in this year's class may decide to follow in the footsteps of Irving and Parker and depart Durham after one season. Krzyzewski noted that the days of competing against greats like Ralph Sampson and Michael Jordan year-in, year-out are gone forever; instead, Duke and other schools must continue to covet top-tier talent, running the risk that it could be a short-term investment.
"You should go after the best players who also fit Duke. If they turn out to be one-and-done, so be it," Krzyzewski said. "Hopefully that one was a great one, both individually and collectively. We’re going to continue to do that while [the rules allow] one-and-done. The fact is, we’re going to have to play against that level of player.... You end up recruiting a kid over a two-to-three year period for a one-year return. It’s a lot of time [and] money. But that’s what it is. And so, we’ve got to stay in that fight for that."