Last season, Duke was the epicenter of the sports universe.
From the cover of Sports Illustrated to the top of the hour on SportsCenter to the Twitter accounts of former U.S. Presidents, it was nearly impossible to go a day without hearing about the Blue Devils.
Fast forward a year later and Duke brings in yet another elite class of freshmen, the sixth consecutive top-two recruiting ranking for the Blue Devils according to ESPN. The highly-touted group includes the No. 6 overall prospect in center Vernon Carey Jr., the No. 11 overall recruit in forward Matthew Hurt, five-star forward Wendell Moore Jr. and four-star guard Cassius Stanley.
But, things are different.
Being the program that it is, Duke will always be a household name for even the most casual college basketball followers. This season, however, the world isn’t zeroed in on Durham like it was when Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish made their one-year college pitstop.
“It’s just sort of back to the norm I guess,” forward Javin DeLaurier said. “Last year was a bit of an exception with all the attention and fanfare that that team had. But at the end of the day, Duke is still Duke, and so things are still back to my sophomore and freshman year about the same level of where they were. So it’s like you said—quote, unquote normal.”
But the absence of dominant names like Williamson and Barrett won’t just affect the Blue Devils off the court. The transition will affect everything about this year’s Duke squad, especially how it operates on the hardwood.
'We’re going to have to play together'
For the first time since 2012, the Blue Devils enter a season without an incoming top-three recruit on the roster. For many, that may spell doom for any hope Duke has at a national championship next spring. The Blue Devils, however, see otherwise.
“I think that we’ll just be much more balanced this year,” point guard Tre Jones said. “Last year we had a lot of stuff coming through R.J. and Zion to start off with and then Cam every now and again would go off as well. We kind of banked on those guys a lot to carry a lot of the workload, where this year I feel like we’re a lot deeper, and we have a lot more guys who can have a good night.”
With Barrett and Williamson gone for New York City and New Orleans, Jones now takes on the role of lead-dog in this new-look offense. But, he isn’t the only one buying into the team’s share-the-ball mentality.
“In terms of sharing the ball, you never know what it’s going to be that kills you on any given night,” DeLaurier said. “We have a lot of talented guys…. We’re going to have to play together a bit more. Last year we had those two premier talents, and so sometimes we could kind of get caught watching them do their thing. And so now everyone’s got to be involved at all times in order for us to be successful.”
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This new fluid offensive focus should also help improve upon the consistency of the team’s role players. With Williamson and Barrett dominating the ball last year, it was difficult for the rest of Duke’s rotation to stay in rhythm as the season went along. Nobody understood that better than forward Jack White.
The now-senior captain began the 2018-19 campaign hot, hitting 37.8 percent of his three-point attempts through December and looking like the kind of veteran talent the Blue Devils would need come March. But once the calendar year turned over, the Australian completely lost his stroke.
White connected on only 13.2 percent of his triples between January and February, including the infamous 0-for-28 streak from deep. He believes that this season, however, the increased balance of Duke’s offensive attack should keep everyone on the top of their game.
“Everyone’s just going to have to be ready,” White said. “You’re never going to know when your number’s going to be called, so I think that in itself is going to help guys stay locked in throughout the whole game…. Everyone recognizes that everyone can make a great impact on winning on this team...guys are starting to work out what role they can best fill.”
Every year, Duke’s role players face countless obstacles hindering their opportunities to develop and improve. If an athlete isn’t a five-star recruit, they often take a back seat to the next projected top draft pick unloading his bags on East Campus.
This season’s Blue Devils still have numerous talented newcomers, but unlike years past, there are no surefire lottery selections. Every returner will have a chance to perform, from White and DeLaurier to Alex O’Connell, Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire.
Balance isn’t just something that will come to define the Blue Devils’ offense, though. Balance changes the entire makeup of the team, from how each lineup is constructed to how the team functions together day in and day out.
'An old-fashioned type of situation'
The one-and-done era has drastically changed college basketball over the last decade, with Duke being one of the main recipients of that change. Gone are the days of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill staying four years, developing chemistry and finally breaking through with national championships as upperclassmen.
Rather, the Blue Devils seem to undergo a complete roster makeover every summer, with their leading scorer changing every season since the 2007-08 campaign. This year is not necessarily altering that trend, with freshmen Carey and Hurt expected to be among the team leaders in scoring. Regardless, the overall roster does have head coach Mike Krzyzewski rekindling old times.
“We have players from all classes that can play,” Krzyzewski said. “I think as a result, everyone feels like they got a chance, and they’re working at it. And so they come and compete every day, and they’re making each other better. Some days some guys look better than others and then other days those guys look better. That’s more of an old-fashioned type of situation.”
Yes, Duke is still constructed with youth at its core, and with the way the Blue Devils’ 2020 recruiting class is looking, that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. What this group does have, however, is a unique mix of both veteran and young talent that this program has not seen in years, something that can prove very valuable come NCAA tournament time.
“We have that blend of old and new,” Krzyzewski said. “I really like the group, and that dynamic of old and guys who’ve been through it…. I like the fact that this is more of an old-fashioned dynamic for us.”
Of course, any sane person would’ve taken Williamson, Barrett and Reddish back for another season. All three are transcendent talents who can take over a game in an instant. But in a way, it’s nice to go back in time for a bit and experience the kind of basketball that dominated Durham long before those three were even born.
Coach K seems to agree.
“It’s kind of refreshing—I like it,” Krzyzyewski said. “And we’ll see how it translates to wins and losses.”
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.