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Column: Losing out on Baldwin stings, but Duke men’s basketball is still a title contender

No. 4 overall recruit Patrick Baldwin Jr. opted to play for his dad at Milwaukee over other finalists Duke and Georgetown.
No. 4 overall recruit Patrick Baldwin Jr. opted to play for his dad at Milwaukee over other finalists Duke and Georgetown.

Let’s make one thing clear—Patrick Baldwin Jr.’s commitment to Milwaukee Wednesday morning was a major blow to Duke, for two reasons.

Firstly, the Blue Devils’ current roster lacks depth and shooting, two issues Baldwin’s services obviously would have alleviated. Duke currently boasts zero returners who shot better than 31.4% from three this past season, and the only incoming freshman or transfer who can be labeled as a plus shooter is Trevor Keels. And on the depth side, head coach Mike Krzyzewski only has six guys right now who I’d say can be relied upon to contribute serious minutes in the heart of ACC play and the postseason: Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Mark Williams, Jeremy Roach, Wendell Moore Jr. and Keels (honorable mention to Marquette transfer Theo John, though I wouldn't say him making a significant impact is a sure thing).

Of course, we’re six months until the season begins, and eight months from the start of conference play. It’s entirely possible Roach’s late-season shooting streak continues into next year, and that Moore’s 82.3% career clip from the free-throw line finally translates to success from deep. It’s also possible that John, Joey Baker or even four-star prospect Jaylen Blakes plays their way into the Blue Devils’ main rotation. But there are no guarantees of any of that. 

Secondly, Krzyzewski was clearly enamored by Baldwin as a prospect, whether it be his picture-perfect shooting stroke or his remarkable basketball IQ. Krzyzewski offered Baldwin a scholarship the summer after his freshman high school season—the earliest Krzyzewski has ever officially reached out to a prospect—and has called him the “perfect recruit.” The five-time national champion has recruited and coached a lot of good players over the last 41 years, so the words earliest and perfect should stick out here.

So yeah, losing out on Baldwin is a big deal. Anybody who says the contrary is lying to themselves. However, it doesn’t rule Duke out as national title contenders.

Let’s run down the Blue Devils’ current top six:

Banchero is perhaps the best incoming freshman in the country, and is ESPN’s Jonathan Givony’s projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.

Griffin fell to No. 27 in ESPN’s recruiting rankings after an ankle injury and COVID-19 robbed him of a senior high school season, but is Givony’s projected No. 6 overall pick.

Williams is a potential All-ACC center and Givony’s projected No. 27 overall pick. He averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks on 74.6% shooting over his final six games this past season.

Keels is not only one of the best shooters in this incoming class, but his 6-foot-5 frame gives him elite defensive potential as well. Don’t be shocked if he has a Gray Trent Jr. level of impact on this team.

Roach never quite showed consistency last year but shot 44.4% from deep over his last seven games, and has the tools to be one of the better point guards in the ACC next season.

Moore also struggled with consistency last year and his early-season slump was particularly ugly, but 24-10-3 and 20-8-3 lines against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, respectively, during the middle of conference play show what kind of player he can be. If he comes off the bench, he could win ACC Sixth Man of the Year.

People are saying that top six doesn’t have championship potential?

In terms of the fallout of Baldwin’s decision, there seem to be two camps. One side is saying Duke is somehow better off without Baldwin, likely due to trauma induced by the Blue Devils’ losses in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 NCAA tournaments. The other side is claiming losing out on Baldwin is the end of Duke’s title hopes.

But in situations like this, it’s usually the middle ground that’s correct.

Losing out on Baldwin hurts. Each description of the six players above is leaning toward the optimistic ends of their potential. That’s because the Blue Devils likely need each of those players to live up to those optimistic outlooks if they want to raise banner No. 6. In addition, they’ll probably need at least one other player to step up into the rotation by season’s end, whether that be John, Baker or Blakes. Baldwin’s commitment would’ve created some breathing room, but now that breathing room isn’t there.

But to say Duke isn’t a real contender is simply untrue. Those descriptions may be optimistic, but they are also realistic, and could very well be how it all plays out. They also leave some room for even bigger leaps from Roach and/or Moore.

Yes, a Baldwin commitment would’ve made this team national title favorites. But even without him, the Blue Devils are bound to be one of the top contenders all year long, and when it comes to the NCAA tournament anything can happen. Per usual, it'll depend on team chemistry and playing their best basketball in March and April.

So at this point, Duke fans might as well buckle up and enjoy the ride.

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