Two players who have never played a single minute of Duke basketball are already making headlines before the season even starts. No, not Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. The two players are freshmen Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye.
The Blue Devils' 2013 recruiting class drew high marks coming into the season, but that was mostly due to Parker, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 2 player in the class. Jones and Ojeleye were much less ballyhooed upon arriving on campus, ranked 36th and 40th, respectively. Adding a consensus star and two less-heralded players is nothing new for Duke, however.
“The three guys that we had come in this year kind of remind myself of my freshman class," senior forward Josh Hairston said.
Hairston, the No. 19 recruit in his class, was joined by Kyrie Irving—No. 3—and Tyler Thornton, who was not in ESPN's top 100. Coming to the team following a championship season, the trio joined a deep and talented roster, leaving Irving the only one of the three who was expected to play a significant role for the 2010-11 Blue Devils. Jones and Ojeleye were similarly penciled into minor roles by pundits this season—until their play dictated otherwise.
“It’s even to start," Ojeleye said of the opportunity afforded to himself and the other freshmen. "[Head coach Mike Krzyzewski] doesn’t say, 'He’s a freshman, he can’t play,' but you have to prove yourself, everyone has to prove himself.”
Both Ojeleye and Jones have done just that in their limited time with the program. Jones, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard out of DeSoto, Texas, came to camp drawing Ray Allen comparisons for his sweet 3-point stroke. But it wasn't Jones' jumper that drew rave reviews this offseason and preseason—it was his defense.
“Coming out of high school, I always thought I was a good defender," Jones said. "I guess my shooting overshadowed that.... I’m just glad everyone else realizes it as well. It’s kind of a good feeling knowing that you’re a good defender and everybody knows it now.”
Jones' defense has played a big role in his surprising inclusion in the starting conversation as Duke careens toward its first game of the season. Jones said that final white jersey is still being shared in practice, meaning the right to start next to Parker, Hood, Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson is still up for grabs. Incumbent Rasheed Sulaimon is still adapting to playing with Parker and Hood, graduate student Andre Dawkins is still getting back in his rhythm after sitting out last season and Thornton, a senior, is more of a point guard than a shooting guard.
That leaves Jones—a player with a high ceiling on both sides of the ball—very much in the mix to crack the starting lineup at some point this season. Ironically, it is the very players Jones is competing against that may be helping him the most in his bid to earn the starting nod.
"They’ve definitely taught me a lot," Jones said. "It’s great to just go against those guys every day knowing that those are the type of caliber guys you’ll have to face every night, so it’s definitely a great opportunity for me to show my skill as a defender and on offense as well.”
Unlike Jones, Ojeleye's main skill set was no surprise to anyone when he stepped onto the court. Ojeleye is already one of the top athletes in the country. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward is of the Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried ilk in the way his athleticism can completely change the way a team plays the game.
“It’s definitely a blessing," Ojeleye said of his natural gift. "It helps me defensively and offensively, as a rebounder, to guard somebody. Coach has told me to use it however I can. I’m still young and learning the game and the system and what he wants, so I have to use that first and then let everything else fall into place.”
The high-flying Ojeleye, who has been dunking since the summer before high school, has already put his prowess above the rim on full display. He competed in the dunk contest at Countdown to Craziness—though he says he's not a contest dunker and didn't do much advance planning.
Ojeleye has also already made an appearance on SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays, despite never playing a regular-season minute, with a dunk in practice that sent shockwaves through the college basketball world. His leaping ability should translate to strong rebounding, which would give him a leg-up on earning playing time ahead of other forwards considering the expected rebounding deficiencies that accompany Duke's undersized frontcourt.
Parker may be the crown jewel of this recruiting class, as a player who is projected to be a top-five pick in this June's NBA Draft, but it appears that the Blue Devils' two unsung freshmen have bright futures in the program.
"The great thing is they came here to work, they didn’t come in here feeling entitled," Hairston said. "They knew that they needed to prove themselves, and they definitely have.”
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