Let the year of last times begin.
Duke had its first official practice Tuesday and its annual preseason media day with the entire coaching staff and roster. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke first and ranged from talking about the chemistry of this team, to how he’s approaching this last year, to updates on some Blue Devils to watch out for during the season. Like so much else this next year, this marks Krzyzewski’s last first day of basketball season. But that’s the furthest thing from his mind.
“I told my staff and everyone around me not to use the word last,” Krzyzewski said. “This is my 47th year, my 42nd here at Duke. I’m going after it the way I’ve gone after it every year.”
The increased paparazzi presence and uptick in eyeballs will be undeniable this year, but the potential of this Blue Devil roster makes it impossible to focus on this season solely being Krzyzewski’s farewell tour.
A number of players talked about the toughness of this year’s team, and the consensus was that this offseason has put the team lightyears ahead from a chemistry standpoint than the days of being isolated in the Washington Duke Inn a year ago.
The team even made an attempt at getting out of an escape room for a bonding activity—they didn’t make it out in time, but Wendell Moore Jr. promises his group just needed 20 more seconds and they would have completed the challenge.
The obvious headliner of Duke’s 2021-22 roster is projected No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Paolo Banchero. The 6-foot-10 power forward is revered as a do-it-all player who is expected to be a leader on this team despite it being his first year of college basketball.
“I’m gonna do everything on the court. Get my teammates the ball. Play hard. Play aggressive. Talk,” Banchero said. “You’re just gonna see me do a little bit of everything.”
Banchero’s joined in the front court by big man Mark Williams, who is perhaps the second-biggest “What if” of the Blue Devils' season from a year ago right behind the eternal question of if Duke would have rattled off three more wins for a magical ACC tournament run. There was no Blue Devil hotter than Williams toward the end of last year, and after another offseason under his belt, the sophomore says he’s worked on his ability to run the floor and shoot, among other things.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Williams said.
The remaining three starting spots on the floor figure to be some mix of Trevor Keels, Jeremy Roach and Wendell Moore Jr., though Krzyzewski spoke highly of freshman AJ Griffin’s summer. It’s hard to picture a reality where Griffin isn’t pitching in significant minutes on a nightly basis, but it may take some time to get him firing on all cylinders considering he missed his entire senior season with an ankle injury.
If this year is going to end with Krzyzewski cutting nets one last time, Duke needs a floor general, and Roach is that guy. The game is slowing down for him in his sophomore season, and he’s worked on reading the game, both through live-practice and film.
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“Coach [K] is big on ‘the game is 90% [mental],’” Roach said.
But Roach doesn’t just have an interest in logging assists and scoring buckets.
“We coming at you every possession. We talking to you. We gonna be physical. We gonna defend the hell out you,” Roach said.
His backcourt counterpart is none other than Keels, his former high school teammate. Keels gives Duke some length and size at the guard position that it lacked last year—but the coaching staff might have to thank Banchero for making that happen.
“[Banchero] recruited me every day,” Keels said. “He texted me every day—‘you gotta come here, you gotta come here’—and I couldn't say no. I knew I always wanted to play with Paolo since we’ve been going at it since eighth grade.”
The remainder of minutes will be filled up by a combination of freshman Jaylen Blakes, senior Joey Baker, Marquette graduate transfer Theo John and Davidson transfer Bates Jones (yes, he is the brother of New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones and current Duke women’s soccer goalkeeper Ruthie Jones).
“[John] can really protect the basket, defend the ball screen and he's a man. He and Bates Jones, they're 23 years old, have both been at outstanding programs playing for Steve Wojciechowski and Bob McKillop,” Krzyzewski said. “Even though Bates was a role player for Bob, he knows what it means to come to work every day.”
Baker missed the past four days with a minor injury, but is expected to be back next week after what Krzyzewski called a “great summer and September” of work for him.
Blakes is the final member of the backcourt and could be a key rotation piece that pours it on from the land of plenty later in games. And he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.
“If I were to describe my game, I just love defense. I love to be a dog on the court and I would like to say that I’m a winner,” Blakes said. “Something I pride myself on when I was playing in high school is that you not gonna be great unless you win.”
Seniors Michael Savarino and Keenan Worthington are both on scholarship this season, and sophomore Spencer Hubbard earned a walk-on spot after serving on the practice squad last year.
The next time for the Duke faithful to get nostalgic over another one of Krzyzewski’s lasts will be Nov. 9, when the Blue Devils take the court at Madison Square Garden for a marquee matchup against Kentucky in what will be Krzyzewski’s last season opener.
But don't tell him that.
Max Rego and Sasha Richie contributed reporting to this article.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.