With the severe problems the Blue Devils had containing Emeka Okafor during last year’s national semifinal and with the obvious lack of depth in the post this year, it is apparent how much Michael Thompson’s transfer last December hurt the Blue Devils.
When Thompson first announced he would leave Duke for Northwestern, it hardly warranted press coverage. Although he was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, Thompson struggled to adjust to the college game. He averaged just 1.3 points per game his freshman season and left the Blue Devils before Christmas of his sophomore year. He had shown some progress in slowing down current Los Angles Clipper Chris Kaman when Duke defeated Central Michigan in the second round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament, but the Chicago native rarely showed much potential in his other brief appearances.
But at 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds Thompson is exactly what the Blue Devils need this year. He is a big body to replace Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph—the best starting front-court in the nation—when they are fatigued and, more importantly, when they find themselves in foul trouble. Thompson’s size and adequate athleticism could also have translated into an All-ACC performance in 2006 if Williams leaves for the NBA after this season.
The lesson is: Don’t let a talented player go, because you will never know when you may need him. Last year Thompson’s loss was nothing more than an afterthought. This year his presence will be missed every time either Randolph or Williams leaves the court.
Duke, however, is by no means in dire straights with its big men. In addition to Williams and Randolph, the Blue Devils have brought back Reggie Love. The former standout wide receiver on the football team is using his final year of basketball eligibility. Although he only stands 6-foot-4, his play in the ACC Tournament against 7-foot North Carolina center Brendan Haywood in 2001 shows just how well he can use his limited frame.
Freshman David McClure will also contribute under the hoop. Standing 6-foot-6, he only weighs 205 pounds and must gain weight in order to play consistent minutes in the paint. Early reports indicate, though, that he is deceptively strong and will fit nicely in Duke’s front court rotation.
The biggest determinant of how well the Blue Devils will play inside will have to do with Randolph and Williams. Both players must become less foul-prone this year. If they can do this, there will be no concern about depth. Because most talented big-men leave earlier than guards for the NBA (only one player shorter than 6-foot-5 has gone directly from high school to the professional ranks), few power forwards and centers have dominating college careers. As soon as a big man shows any type of potential, he often leaves for the NBA. As a result, Williams and Randolph have a real chance to dominate the paint like few duos in recent history.
Without Thompson, Duke will have fewer options for its front court rotation. But with the strength of Williams and Randolph, Duke should still have an impressive post presence to join one of the nation’s best collections of perimeter players.
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