Though Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has built a balanced roster unfamiliar to Blue Devils fans in recent years and the lights may not be as bright, the college basketball world is about to take notice of a new Blue Devil freshman star: Vernon Carey Jr.
A star emerged during Friday night's Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The top prospect in the highly touted Duke recruiting class put on a show all over the floor in the annual Blue-White scrimmage, displaying versatility that the NBA has come to treasure in big men. Carey finished the 20-minute game with a game-high 15 points along with three rebounds and two assists, also connecting on his only 3-point attempt. When Carey got the ball down low, he looked like a seasoned veteran with a precision on his moves that makes the fact that he didn't spend much time at all in the paint before coming to Duke a shock.
“He’s 15 pounds lighter and he’s playing where he knows he can get the ball," Krzyzewski said. "Literally, he has not played in the post [before]. His footwork and all that comes from his work with us and our staff since about the second week of July. Tonight was outstanding for him.”
While the departure of Williamson, Barrett and Reddish was certainly expected, this season seemed like the first in a while that a new pro-ready prospect wouldn't immediately shoulder the load of a go-to guy. The 2019 recruiting class was the first crop of freshmen in seven years to not feature a recruit ranked in the top three of ESPN's top 100 rankings.
Enter Carey, the No. 6 overall prospect, who often flies under the radar thanks to his soft-spoken demeanor, something Krzyzewski says he has been improving on in terms of communication on the court. The Florida native has a frame similar to what Duke fans saw from Jahlil Okafor, but is in no way limited to the paint like the 2015 national champion.
“Just wherever coach puts me," Carey said on where he feels most comfortable on the floor. "I feel like I can just produce from [the 3-point line] or wherever coach puts me. Like I said, I’m just working on my versatility to be honest.”
After a shaky start, the Blue team's offense got into a rhythm that ran through the 6-foot-10, 270- pounder, especially with fellow freshman Cassius Stanley working off Carey for easy drives to the basket. Things will only get easier for the young center when he teams up with an experienced floor general in Tre Jones and another front-court mate who is always a threat to fire from deep in Matthew Hurt.
“Especially with someone like Matt Hurt, who will at times be our best shooter on the floor for us. When our bigs can spread the floor, it definitely opens up the floor for us more and we can move the defense,” Jones said.
This year's Blue Devils will have a flow very different from last season's team, as the ball is now out of the hands of ball-dominant players and into those of a heady point guard and new weapons that can score from all over the court. The 2018-19 Duke squad could survive off nights with a monumental performance from one of their stars. These Blue Devils can survive off nights because there are so many scoring options to choose from.
“There’s a lot of guys who weren’t really hitting shots tonight that have hit shots in practice, and there’s guys that hit shots tonight that will have off days as well," Jones emphasized. "That’s something about our team that, like I mentioned, we’re a lot more balanced this year and we have a lot more depth.”
The Blue Team went right to Carey on the first play of the game, which ended in a smooth baby hook shot falling for the NSU University School product, but there wasn't a spot on the court where he was limited to, finding shots from the top of the key, the short corners and in transition. He'll face a tough first test in Kansas against Udoka Azubuike, but Carey's competence around the floor could give the Jayhawk center trouble if he has to chase the freshman outside of the paint, where the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year makes his living.
The new-look Blue Devils certainly look like a more balanced, versatile team with a number of guys who can contribute meaningful minutes. Even in the absence of an alpha-dog top scorer like Williamson or Barrett, Carey flashed glimpses of a lottery pick like those before him and that he can be the catalyst for Duke's offense this year.
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"He was actually a guy that you could play through tonight and that was something really good to see," Krzyzewski noted. "As a result, his team didn’t take as many threes, they had more assists, it kind of gave a rhythm to his team.”
Though he isn't going to make headlines with every word he speaks and he claims his multifaceted skillset is "just something he wants to get better at," Carey is already making himself known as the next Blue Devils freshman sensation.