In the 2022 NBA Draft, Duke fans patiently waited as five beloved members of the Blue Devils’ Final Four roster heard their names called out by league commissioner and Duke graduate Adam Silver.
But a chunk of the starting lineup departing for the NBA is a yearly occurrence in Durham. New year, new team.
The hole left in the frontcourt by Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams is by no means small. Luckily for Duke, this next team has plenty of size to fill it.
Head coach Jon Scheyer’s first-ranked 2022 recruiting class features the top two big men in the country—Dereck Lively II and Kyle Filipowski. The first- and second-ranked centers, respectively, will both don Duke blue this season.
This year’s frontcourt has high expectations to live up to. This season will be the eighth since Duke’s last national title, and the Blue Devil faithful are itching for a championship after falling just short in April. The guy with the biggest shoes to fill, however, stands on the sidelines: Scheyer is replacing the winningest Division I basketball coach in history in Mike Krzyzewski, who ended his career with 1,202 victories. That shift in leadership, though monumental, has not fazed this year’s group.
“Everyone has a first time for something,” said Filipowski at the team’s media day Sept. 27.
Lively’s bio might say that he is 7-foot-1, but the center appears to tower over any player he goes up against. Hailing from Philadelphia, Lively grew up in a basketball family as his mother Katherine Drysdale was an 1,000-point scorer at Penn State and his grandfather played for Xavier. Even with the sport in his blood, Lively wasn’t its biggest fan at first.
“I didn’t really like it at first,’’ he told The Athletic in 2021. “I didn’t want to play it at all.’’ With time, he changed his tune, growing into a 6-foot-6 middle schooler and boarding at Westtown School, three hours from his home in Bellefonte, Pa., per his mother’s request.
The decision was a good one. Lively led Westtown, former Duke star Cam Reddish’s old stomping ground, to the 2022 Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association state championship. He averaged 14.0 points and 14.0 rebounds as a senior and earned himself McDonald’s All-American honors.
What is most impressive about Lively, however, is not his size or his skill: It is the circumstances under which he obtained them.
When Lively was seven years old, his father—and namesake—passed away. Just two years later, Drysdale was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. After losing his father, nine-year-old Lively had to face the very real possibility that he might lose his mother, too.
“I was forced to grow up at a young age,” said Lively at Duke’s preseason media day. “So I just face life.”
His positive outlook and persistent mindset served him well throughout high school; when the time came for him to commit, Lively had his pick of the litter—and he chose Duke.
“Who are the guys you can play with for four years, and the coach you can play for?” Drysdale told The Athletic. Ultimately, she and Lively decided that coach was Scheyer. The freshman is now a key part of Scheyer’s inaugural team during a potential turning point for the program.
“I’m just someone who just likes to take care of opportunity.”
And opportunity is not something that Lively lacks.
Filipowski also has basketball in his genes. His father, aunt and uncle all played college basketball. His mother, Rebecca Hagerdon Filipowski, was captain and MVP of her high school team that won the New York state championship in 1982, before she advanced to the Elite Eight at Long Beach State. After suffering a career-ending knee injury, she turned to coaching, and the Filipowoski twins—Kyle and Matt—were the beneficiaries.
“My mom holds us to high expectations,” Kyle Filipowski told On3.com in March. “She has pushed us because she wants the best for us and sees the potential.”
The now-18-year-old arrived at Wilbraham and Monson Academy in a slightly unique situation—he was a repeat sophomore. Filipowski had started school early as a small child and was a grade ahead of his age. By repeating his sophomore year, thereby reclassifying from the class of 2021 to 2022, he moved back to his appropriate grade.
“What we got was a 15-and-a-half-year-old that was 6-foot-9,” Wilbraham and Monson head coach Michael Mannix told The Chronicle. “Incredibly versatile, good basketball IQ, good skillset, like really good feel for the game.” Filipowski excelled under Mannix, earning MVP honors in the New England Prep School Athletic Council Class AA championship as a sophomore. Then the pandemic struck, and along with countless schools nationwide, Wilbraham and Monson only played five games in the 2020-21 season.
Filipowski didn’t slow down—he sped up.
According to Mannix, the center put on around 25 pounds from the end of his sophomore year to the time he returned as a senior. He earned the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year award as a junior, played on the Nike EYBL circuit and was a member of the gold medal-winning 2021 USA Basketball 3x3 U18 team, an experience that he credits with helping his spacing and teamwork. As the first recruit of the Scheyer era, Filipowski helped set the tone; Duke didn’t go anywhere.
Now that they have both arrived at Duke, Lively and Filipowski are joining an elite list of Blue Devil frontcourt duos. Last season’s iteration, the final under Krzyzewski, was comprised of Banchero and Williams, both of whom were selected in the 2022 NBA Draft as high choices. Banchero went first overall to the Orlando Magic and Williams rounded out the top 15, joining the Charlotte Hornets.
The combination of Williams’ size and Banchero’s overall skillset proved lethal. Between the two of them, they averaged 28.4 points, 15.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks.
The duo controlled the paint on both ends of the court and was a driving force behind the team’s Final Four run. When asked whether he thought that he and Lively could replicate last year’s dominating frontcourt, Filipowski’s answer was simple: “Absolutely.”
“A lot of people have some negative things to say about that just because, you know, ‘we’re not ready’ or ‘we have a lot to learn,’ ‘new coach,’ things like that,” said Filipowski. And while the pair is young and unproven at the college level, its ceiling is also sky high. “We have a lot of upside to what we bring.”
Each individual, a five-star prospect and top-five recruit, has plenty of upside in his own right. The combination? Downright dangerous.
The pair, and the whole squad under Scheyer, centers its play around unselfishness. Because both can fill similar roles, they have had to learn how to play complementary basketball.
“One day he’s gonna have his games, one day I’m gonna have my games and just vice versa,” said Lively. “So we know that whenever he’s open, I’m gonna give him the ball. And whenever I’m open he’s gonna give me the ball.”
This team-first, selfless attitude is a staple for both players. If it translates to the court, you will be hard-pressed to find a team capable of stopping them.
“You look at us and you don’t really think that that’s something that could happen,” said Filipowski of the two playing well together. “It’s really something unique and not many people in the country can do, so it’s something that everyone’s gonna be shocked with once we start playing.”
Filipowski’s opinion that the college basketball community is in for a surprise is not unique—Lively shared the same sentiment, not just of the duo, but of the entire squad:
“I know everybody in the gym is just waiting for their time to shine. And I know that we all are ready to shock the world.”
It’s a new team, new coach, new era. But if the frontcourt has anything to say about it, the outcome will be just the same: dominant.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.