Summer is almost upon us, which in the college basketball world means that the opening tip of the 2021-22 season cannot come soon enough.
Patrick Baldwin Jr. committing to Milwaukee over Duke and Georgetown means that the Blue Devil roster is firmly set for the upcoming campaign. Alongside notable returnees such as Mark Williams and Jeremy Roach, Duke brings in the No. 3 recruiting class headlined by third overall prospect Paolo Banchero. With that collection of talent and positional versatility, the Blue Devil rotation may not be fully ironed out until ACC play. Despite that, it is always an enjoyable exercise to speculate about how the share of playing time will shake out for Duke this season, so we are going to do just that.
Point guard: Jeremy Roach…and then what?
There is fairly little doubt that Roach will be the starting point guard throughout next season. The Virginia native improved as the 2020-21 campaign went on, and could grow into the ideal floor general that this mixture of veteran and emerging talent needs. Look for Roach to garner roughly 30 minutes a night, directing traffic and getting the Blue Devils into the right offensive sets. The freshmen might come in with more excitement, but I truly believe that Roach taking the next step—does being a 12-point scorer and dishing out five assists per contest sound encouraging?—could be the line of demarcation come March for Duke.
Behind Roach, the intriguing Jaylen Blakes enters the equation. The four-star prospect out of Blair Academy might enter Durham with less fanfare than his fellow classmates, but energy, defensive fire and a quick burst off the dribble define Blakes’ skillset. With those traits, coupled with the lack of a true point guard besides Roach on the roster, the New Jersey native will likely see the court for about 10 minutes a night in the early stages of the season. If Blakes becomes a reliable playmaker alongside his impressive defensive traits, his playing time could rise, but I would not anticipate a major role in the absence of injury for the young guard.
Wings: Welcome to the AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels show, co-starring Wendell Moore Jr.
The ancient debate lives on. Experience versus youth has constantly been a question for the Duke coaching staff in the one-and-done era, with the debate regarding the wings being more of the same this upcoming season.
First off, let’s look at Moore, who has been somewhat of a Pandora’s Box during his two seasons as a Blue Devil. The North Carolina native started his sophomore year in disastrous fashion, going 1-for-21 during a four-game stretch in December. By the end of the year, though, the former top-30 recruit saw upticks in points, rebounds, assists and 3-point percentage from his debut season, while also suiting up for 27.6 minutes an outing. If he could push the envelope a little further than his 30.1% mark from distance last year, Moore could be the perfect creator and floor spacer that Duke needs, particularly with the action down low being dominated by Williams and Banchero.
And then there’s AJ Griffin. For those of you who enjoy highlight reels, Griffin is your guy. The No. 27 recruit in the ESPN 100, Griffin has a knack for getting to the bucket and can jump out of the gym. Despite his freshman status, the New York native should have no issues being an immediate contributor as a slasher and flexible scorer. Whether he evolves from contributor to co-star a la Justise Winslow or RJ Barrett is a different story, but Griffin certainly is at the top of the list to start at the three. Moore may have the knowledge of the system that Mike Krzyzewski wants to run, but the upside with Griffin is too enticing to leave him on the bench late in games.
Trevor Keels was a relatively late addition to the 2021 class, yet he still enters the fray with loads of scoring potential. The departure of DJ Steward to the NBA left an obvious void at off-guard, which is a beacon for Keels to step right in alongside Roach in the starting backcourt. At 6-foot-5, Keels will be able to defend opposing shooting guards and can pick his spots at all three levels, making him a prime candidate for clutch moments in tight battles.
The three guys I’ve already mentioned are the notable names on the wing, but let’s not forget about Joey Baker. If he can revert back to anything near the 39.4% clip he posted from deep in 2019-20, the senior can be a suitable 3-and-D role player that Duke so desperately yearns for. He won’t take the court for 20 minutes a night, but something in the low double digits makes the most sense for Baker.
Frontcourt: Banchero and Williams command the paint
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Look, it should be no secret that Mark Williams’ return is a massive wind in the Blue Devil sails. The 7-footer took it to a second gear late in the ACC slate, including a 23-point, 19-rebound gem in the conference tournament against Louisville. That would be the last time that the IMG Academy product took the court though, as Duke saw its season get shut down due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program the next day. All that is now in the past, and Williams is poised to make a massive leap as a second-year player. Williams racking up roughly 30 minutes a night with Theo John waiting in the wings is a reasonable expectation.
Last on the docket is Banchero, who has garnered buzz as the potential top selection in the 2022 NBA Draft. The Seattle native, despite his 6-foot-9, 235-pound frame, can do it all with the ball in his hands. Banchero can step out and knock down perimeter jumpers, possesses an ability to attack the rack and can even bring the ball up after snatching a rebound. If you are searching for a Blue Devil to be a candidate for ACC Player of the Year, Banchero is the one to keep your eye on. Anticipate the freshman to stay on the court in excess of 35 minutes, particularly against Kentucky, Gonzaga, North Carolina and March Madness opponents.
6th Man: Moore