If there is one question on Duke fans’ minds heading into the season, it is this: How will the Blue Devils fare without the talented band of freshmen that supplied 60 of the 68 points necessary to secure last year’s national championship?
If the recruiting services did their jobs well, Duke should be just fine. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski once again assembled the best recruiting class in the country to fill the void left by his top four contributors from last season. The Blue Devils’ incoming class features four of the top 25 players in the Class of 2015—the same number as their 2014-15 haul—among their six new scholarship players.
Throughout the preseason, Duke has insisted that this year’s crop not be compared to the title-winning quartet of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen. But, fair or not, those comparisons will inevitably persist.
“It’s about sharing a new journey with a new group,” senior captain Amile Jefferson said. “Last year’s team was last year’s team, but the goal is always the same at Duke. We want to win, we want to have a great season. They understand that, and I think they’ll be really good, so there’s no comparisons to old guys.”
Preseason ACC Freshman of the Year Brandon Ingram headlines Krzyzewski’s second consecutive top-ranked recruiting class. Despite typical power forward measurements at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Ingram has the handles of a guard, a welcome asset for a Blue Devil team with just one true point guard. It comes as no surprise, then, that the McDonald’s All-American has drawn comparisons to 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant.
Ingram won four state championships at Kinston High School—the second player ever in state history to do so—and chose Duke in late April in lieu of North Carolina despite Kinston’s ties to the Tar Heels, which include former North Carolina standouts Jerry Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock.
“Brandon has a unique skill set that he can shoot the ball, wherever that may be—whether it’s at the three or in the post,” junior captain Matt Jones said. “When he’s in the post, he can just turn around and shoot over a smaller guard, and I feel like with the guards we play, they’re going to be smaller because he’s 6-foot-9.”
Ingram’s spot on the floor will likely fluctuate as the year progresses. Last year, Krzyzewski started Winslow at the three before shifting him to power forward as Jones stepped into the starting lineup for Jefferson. The Blue Devils thrived with Winslow at the four, but Winslow came to Durham listed at 225 pounds—35 pounds heavier than Ingram despite standing three inches shorter.
Ingram’s slight frame fueled concerns about his ability to compete in the post. But since arriving in Durham, Krzyzewski said the five-star forward has packed on 23 pounds of muscle that should better equip him to absorb contact against bulkier defenders and finish above the rim.
“Ingram’s talent is a separator, because he’s 6-foot-9 and has a 7-foot-3 wingspan and he can handle and shoot,” Krzyzewski said. “With the extra weight, he can play the big. That versatility, that flexibility puts him in a position to be in the starting lineup.”
Fellow McDonald’s All-American Chase Jeter also joins Duke’s frontcourt. A three-time Nevada state champion, Jeter excels at running the floor and finishing with his back to the basket. Offensively, the big man is known for his jump hook deep in the post, but his face-up jump shot is nearly impossible to block given his length.
The 6-foot-11 center already has some experience playing at a higher level, helping the United States earn a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. Jeter is a resolute rebounder on both ends of the floor, but must adjust to the strength and speed of the college game.
“Guys are a lot stronger on the next level,” Jeter said. “When I first got here in the summer, that was one of the biggest things I was struggling with, but ever since we’ve gone in the weight room and started making gains as a team, we’ve all pushed each other and we’ve all really gotten better in terms of our bodies.”
Freshman Luke Kennard joined Jeter on that U18 team. The two-time Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year averaged 38.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game last year to finish his high school career second on Ohio’s career scoring list with 2,997 points—more than NBA superstar and Akron native LeBron James.
Despite the Blue Devils’ crowded backcourt, Kennard will demand attention on the perimeter and will be tasked with some ball-handling responsibilities.
“Coach has told us that the perimeter guys—we’re not just playing one specific position,” he said. “We’re not just playing shooting guard or small forward or point guard—he wants us to be playmakers.”
On April 15, Tyus Jones declared for the NBA draft, leaving Duke in desperate need of a point guard. Less than a week later, Krzyzewski received a commitment from five-star floor general Derryck Thornton. The Chatsworth, Calif., native was initially a member of the Class of 2016 but graduated high school a year early in order to join the Blue Devils.
Thornton is a true point guard, a huge addition to a team that would have been forced to trust Kennard or sophomore Grayson Allen with primary ball-handling duties. Krzyzewski gave Jones the keys to the offense last season, but the Final Four Most Outstanding Player had a veteran leader in Quinn Cook to help him out. Thornton must transition without an experienced point guard by his side.
“As far as being a leader and helping the guys, they know some of the plays and some of the ways that Coach likes, so they’re helping me out with that,” Thornton said. “I feel like just being vocal and commanding the team is going to help me as far as leading and helping our team form as one.”
For most programs, losing four starters to the NBA would likely result in a rebuilding year, but Duke is the exception. With yet another stellar recruiting class, the Blue Devils are poised to once again compete for the national championship, provided they can craft a new identity and incorporate another set of talented freshmen.
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