The critical rhetoric of Duke basketball teams in recent years has become mundane: unathletic; too small on the perimeter; lives and dies by the three.
Throw those critiques out the window for next season. With seniors Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee departing, the team and the program will receive a vast makeover in personnel, playing style and just pure flavor.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s ongoing blueprint of recruiting longer and more athletic players on the perimeter will finally translate into reality for the 2013-14 season. It’s a squad that will be unlike any other Duke team in recent memory. It’s a squad that will have three legitimate first-round NBA Draft talents in its starting lineup: sophomore shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon, sophomore small forward Rodney Hood and freshman wing-forward Jabari Parker. And it’s a squad that should mirror a lot of what Krzyzewski did with the Team USA.
Those three players and Quinn Cook will be the foundation of next year’s club that will be among the preseason favorites to cut down the nets at next year’s Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
Cook is back to quarterback the show for the second consecutive season as the point guard. His freshman-to-sophomore jump was remarkable: from 4.4 points, 1.9 assists per game and unreliable defense to 11.7 points, 5.3 assists and pesky defense. His breakout season as a sophomore is what made the Blue Devils a national title contender in 2012-13. Cook’s disappointing showing in the NCAA Tournament—just 23 points on 7-of-32 shooting with seven turnovers across four games—will be used as fuel for next year. Another offseason in the lab with his close friend and former Duke guard Nolan Smith should elevate his game even more and make him one of the best point guards in the country.
In a similar vein, Sulaimon’s game should jump considerably with another year of maturation and added strength, especially with the bitter taste of being devoured by Louisville’s guards in his mouth all summer—the Texan was limited to three points on 1-of-10 shooting in the Elite Eight loss to the Cardinals.
Many people have called Hood—who transferred from Mississippi State and practiced with the team this season but could not play—the best player on the team. The silky smooth, 6-foot-8 lefty—who will see time at shooting guard when Duke goes with a big lineup—averaged 10.3 points per game as a starter for the Bulldogs during his freshman campaign to earn first-team All-SEC Freshman honors. With a year of practicing at Duke under his belt and another offseason to get stronger and springier, expect the Meridian, Miss. native to be an All-ACC-caliber player from the get go.
“The best thing about playing against Rodney everyday is I think he is as good of a player as there is in the country,” redshirt freshman Alex Murphy said last fall.
It’s hard to imagine Duke getting better at the four position with Kelly’s exit, but the Blue Devils are actually upgrading with the prodigious talents of Parker—the No. 2 overall player in the class of 2013. Widely considered the most skilled player in high school basketball, the 6-foot-8 and 235-pound swingman is a jack-of-all-trades. The four-time state champion and Chicago prep basketball legend has been compared to Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Duke great Grant Hill. He should fit perfectly in Durham as a versatile stretch four who the offense runs through, and the devout Mormon has the potential to be one of Krzyzewski’s best freshman ever.
“I’ll replace what Ryan Kelly has done,” Parker told DraftExpress after practicing for the McDonald’s All-American game Monday in his hometown of Chicago. “I play the same position, we’re about the same size.”
Prolific shooting from distance will still very much be an important ingredient for next year’s bunch. Sulaimon connected on 37.1 percent of his treys as a rookie. Incoming freshman Matt Jones—ESPN’s No. 5 shooting guard in 2013—enters the college ranks with the label as arguably the best 3-point shooter in his class. And it’s still unclear if long-range sniper Andre Dawkins will return after redshirting this season. Unlike past years, though, Duke won’t have to rely on outside shooting because Sulaimon, Hood and Parker should each be able to create their own shot on any given touch.
Positions 1-4 will be loaded, but it’s the center position that is the team’s only question mark. As the only true big man on the roster, 6-foot-11 Marshall Plumlee is still unproven. Amile Jefferson could be serviceable, though undersized at 6-foot-8, while senior-to-be Josh Hairston projects as a reserve. Duke could always scour the country for fifth-year transfer options at center—similar to what North Carolina did by bringing in Justin Knox two years ago—but that appears to be a longshot.
Another new asset next year’s team will have? Depth. Krzyzewski has predominately utilized a tight seven-man rotation during conference and postseason play lately. He should not be constrained next year with waves of athletes at his disposal, which should lead to more full-court pressure and faster pace.
Incoming freshman Semi Ojeleye—a 6-foot-6 man child of a small forward and the No. 36 overall player in the class—will likely be the team’s top performer in weight room from day one. Ojeleye—the all-time leading scorer in Kansas—has the versatility, NBA-physique, and work ethic to earn some minutes, even if he is the eighth or ninth man. Likewise, Alex Murphy should be able to consistently contribute off the bench in what will be his third year in Durham.
Everything about next year’s team will be different, but Krzyzewski’s group should be right where it usually is—firmly in the hunt for a national championship.