Chron Chat: Reviewing the 2014-15 season and looking ahead

With Duke's fifth national championship victory three weeks old, three veteran Chronicle sportswriters—V. 111 Sports Editor Ryan Hoerger, V. 110 Sports Editor Nick Martin and V. 111 Editor-in-Chief Amrith Ramkumar—reflect on the season that was and look ahead to a Blue Devil team that will look dramatically different from the squad that cut down the nets when head coach Mike Krzyzewski's team takes the floor come mid-November.

The Blue Devils lost freshmen Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor to the draft following their championship victory April 6 against Wisconsin. Of the three, who will Duke miss the most next season?

Ryan Hoerger: Each of those freshmen brought a unique skill set to the table that will be tough to replace. With Jahlil Okafor, Duke had a marquee back-to-the-basket presence and ran its offense through the big man. In Justise Winslow, there was an athletic swingman able to create matchup nightmares on both ends of the floor. But I'm going to say that Tyus Jones will be missed the most by the Blue Devils. Yes, Okafor's talents will be the most difficult to replace—newly-committed point guard Derryck Thornton figures to take Jones' spot as the floor general and third-ranked recruit Brandon Ingram may slide into Winslow's end-of-season role at small forward—but it's not every day you have a true freshman with Jones' knack for hitting clutch shots and total command of the Duke offense. With Quinn Cook graduating and Jones turning pro, Thornton will not have a returning point guard on the roster to show him the ropes as he adjusts to the college game.

Amrith Ramkumar: Jones put together one of the most clutch seasons in recent memory and Winslow carried Duke for stretches late in the year, but I'm going to go with Okafor here. Although the Chicago native took a backseat at times in the NCAA tournament and late in the regular season, many forget how much easier the first-team All-American—who averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 boards per game on 66.4 percent shooting—made the game for his teammates. Big men like Okafor that can command double teams and dominate games for stretches on the low block have become increasingly rare, and the 6-foot-11 center was always an option when the Blue Devils needed a productive possession.

Perhaps the biggest reason Okafor will be missed is that none of Duke's big men likely to see time next year—Amile Jefferson, Chase Jeter, Marshall Plumlee, Sean Obi and Antonio Vrankovic—are currently reliable low-post scoring threats. Lulls like the ones Jones and Winslow experienced early in conference play likely won't be as affordable for the incoming freshmen without a consistent low-post scorer on the roster.

Nick Martin: It’s Okafor, and there’s not really much room for any other argument here. Yes, Winslow and Jones thrived and were, at times, the most important players on the team. But only one was the most talented—that’s Okafor. The reason Winslow could cut through the lane and Jones could knock down his dagger threes was because the Blue Devils boasted the most talented big man in America in the paint and truth be told, only Okafor could stop Okafor. Silly fouls and poor shots were the only things that slowed him down. His passing out of double teams was a thing of beauty and was the reason Cook hit as many wide open corner threes as he did this year. Okafor was the No. 1 recruit and will be the No. 1 or No. 2 NBA draft pick for a reason—he was dominant in his lone year in Durham. The Blue Devils have a solid class coming in, but I doubt we’ll see anyone like Okafor for a long, long time.

The Blue Devils will return Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson—along with Rice transfer Sean Obi—next season. Of the group, who will be the biggest contributor for Duke next season?

RH: From a box score perspective, I look for Grayson Allen to continue his late-season surge and elevate his game as a sophomore. Matt Jones made a significant leap after a cold-shooting freshman campaign and a similar jump from Allen would be a welcome sight for Duke fans. His athleticism and ability to drive the lane aggressively—something he put on full display in Indianapolis—means he should have more scoring opportunities than the rest of the returners because he can create his own shot. Jones will look to continue his improved shooting from this past season and his usual pesky defense, and Jefferson may see an increase in production after ceding some scoring to Okafor this past season, though Duke certainly reloaded with even more potent scorers surrounding the Philadelphia native.

AR: Allen is poised for a breakout season, but with Ingram and sharpshooter Luke Kennard coming in as scorers on the wing, I think Jefferson is the one who will make the biggest impact with his rebounding and leadership. The rising senior was inconsistent late in the season, but stepped up in the title game to slow down National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky with Okafor in foul trouble. With likely fellow frontcourt starter Chase Jeter being a skinnier big man at just 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Jefferson's ability to help Jeter adjust to the college game quickly will be critical for Duke to be a contender again. When Jefferson struggled with interior defense as a sophomore, the Blue Devils were decimated inside—his ability to put on weight in the summer and hold his own down low as a senior could again help determine whether or not Duke competes for a national title.

NM: I’m going to go with a surprise pick here and choose Sean Obi. Hear me out—the Blue Devils have plenty of scorers next year in Allen, Thornton, Ingram and Jeter. And Matt Jones and Jefferson will help shore things up defensively. But Duke is physically a very thin team next year and will have nobody to do what Okafor did and bump with the bigs outside of Plumlee. Obi is a bulldog in the paint and made his name by showing a tenacity in the rebounding game. I’m not saying he’s going to come out and drop 20 and 10 every night, but Obi will see his time to grab the boards for the Blue Devils.

Duke did not waste much time reloading after the departures of Jones, Okafor and Winslow, ushering a new wave of top freshmen headlined by recent commits Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton and top-25 talents Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard. Who are you most interested in watching next year, and who do expect to have the most immediate impact?

RH: I'm curious to watch Thornton as he presumably takes hold of the starting point guard position. As most of the recent national champions can attest to, good guard play wins titles, so Thornton may well be the key to Duke's season. As far as having an immediate impact, I look forward to seeing how Krzyzewski retools the offense without Okafor and the way he created opportunities for teammates just by being there as Nick said. Specifically, I'm looking for how he deploys Ingram, who is a versatile player with range and ball-handling ability at 6-foot-8 that is somewhat reminiscent of Rodney Hood two seasons ago.

AR: Kennard. The Franklin, Ohio, native is a deadly sharpshooter who averaged 40 points and 10.4 rebounds as a junior and put up similar eye-popping numbers as a senior. But, he also played against a much lower level of competition than many of his new teammates did in high school. How will his game translate? How will Coach K balance Kennard's minutes with Allen's while keeping both players confident? How will Kennard fare defensively and if and when the southpaw spells Thornton at the point? All of these questions make me interested to see how the 6-foot-5 deadeye shooter plays when the 2015-16 campaign rolls around.

NM: Jeter, hands down. We know that Kennard is a shooter with ridiculous numbers playing against kids like me out in Ohio. Thornton is a destroyer of ankles and Ingram is an athlete with some really nice ball skills. But Jeter is the one who excites me. He’s 6-foot-10 with soft hands and—from the tapes and games on TV I’ve watched—a high-IQ basketball player. He has a small frame that will definitely need a little extra meat, but with him on the court, this team is going to be able to really get out and run. Okafor wasn’t lead-footed, but Jeter’s stride and lightness on the court make this team one that has the ability to small-ball opponents to death with a talented big man inside. I’m still not 100 percent sold on his physicality just yet, but I think Jeter is the piece that makes next year’s squad a lot of fun to watch.

Following the Badgers' defeat at the hands of the Blue Devils, Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan criticized the "rent-a-player" system that has become commonplace in college basketball. Considering the fact that Duke has had four one-and-done players in the last two years and lost Rodney Hood after one season in Durham, have the Blue Devils transformed into a program that is willing to play the recruit and reload game?

RH: I think that's just the nature of the college game right now. I think all coaches would love their players to stick around for four years from a purity-of-the-game perspective, but under the current system that's not going to happen. The best players will move on when they feel like it, whether that's after one, two or four seasons, so the best thing for coaches to do is to recruit the best players possible every year, knowing that there may be extra roster spots to fill. Clearly, Duke has been able to play that game effectively of late, bringing in the nation's top recruiting class two years in a row.

AR: Duke has clearly transformed into a program that recruits and reloads, but as Ryan said, there are very few top programs that are only relying on veterans to get the job done these days. The notable thing about the Blue Devils is not just that they are playing this game, but rather how well they're playing it. Associate head coach Jeff Capel and assistant coaches Nate James and Jon Scheyer have made Duke attractive to both four-year players and highly touted one-and-done talents—and the scary thing for other programs is that their success keeps increasing. In addition to this year's notable class, the Blue Devils are favored to land three top-15 recruits in the Class of 2016 according to 24/7 Sports—Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith Jr., and Tyus Battle

NM: Yes, and the reason people give as much grief as they do to Kentucky head coach John Calipari about his system is because he’s so forthright about it. Instead of boasting about recruiting one-and-dones the way Cal does, Krzyzewski talks about adapting to the college game. And he’s right to do so. The way of differentiating between the right and wrong way to build a program no longer begs the question of how long you keep your kids, but what you do while you have them. Duke is coming off a national title with three of its best players going to the NBA. The transformation is complete, and until the rules change—good luck convincing the NBA Players Association on that—the Blue Devils will continue to do what it takes to bring home title banner No. 6.

The Blue Devils produced a plethora of lasting images during their championship run. What will be the defining image or storyline of this year's Duke squad?

RH: The moment that sticks out for me is Cook embracing Krzyzewski with the Elite Eight victory and Final Four berth well in hand against Gonzaga. Duke's captain had endured more than his share of tournament heartbreak in his first three years in Durham and he spent the offseason making sure he was ready to go for his last chance at hanging a banner. In that moment, we got a glimpse at how much it meant to him to make a Final Four, much less to win one a week later.

AR: The elation on Tyus Jones' face as he jumped in the air after he canned the 3-pointer that clinched the Blue Devils' fifth national title. This year's Duke team was a close-knit group that played together with passion and toughness. The raw emotion of Jones and Co. after they accomplished their goal with only eight scholarship players and four freshmen definitely showed that even in the one-and-done era, magical postseason runs don't mean any less.

NM: I have two. The first is the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon. After the Houston native was dismissed, the Blue Devils finished the season 17-1 and, as a whole, the team just looked better. The ball movement was crisper, the role wing players—Matt Jones and Grayson Allen—were forced to step their game up and the squad was able to rally around the cry “Eight is enough.” The second moment came on the floor in Indianapolis, when Cook was bawling on-stage during "One Shining Moment" with Krzyzewski hugging his lone senior. With all the talk of one-and-dones and reloading, that was a truly special moment where a player who stuck it out for four years got to finish his college career with a win and a coveted banner.

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