Duke started the season with three seniors in the starting five. With Ryan Kelly sideline indefinitely and Seth Curry limited by a nagging injury, the Blue Devils are more reliant than ever on the development of younger players.
With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at which Blue Devils have the highest ceiling in terms of potential. Obviously, one way to evaluate college player’s potential is by gauging what his NBA prospects may be. But it’s also useful to try and determine how much a player will grow while at the college level.
For top recruits it’s important to show a solid foundation upon which to build their skills. For established upperclassmen it’s essential to showcase a well-rounded resume. Of course, improving as what amounts to NCAA unpaid interns benefits Duke.
So while I dive into the Blue Devils with the most NBA potential, it’s important to remember that their development as potential NBA players will be integral to Duke’s success this season.
Putting Seth Curry so far down on the list might be a tough pill to swallow, but pure spot-up shooters who are liabilities on defense are a tough sell in today’s NBA.
Every sharpshooter faces the same question in terms of their development; can they improve on defense and can they improve their offensive versatility by adding a dribble-drive aspect to their game?
When healthy, Curry is a heady defender and is capable of driving past his man on offense. He can either penetrate all the way to the basket or pull up around the elbow for a medium-range shot. Those attributes would make him a more than serviceable guard at the NBA level.
Unfortunately, Curry isn’t healthy. And as a fifth year senior, Curry can’t be regarded as a spring chicken either. His health concerns and the assessment of him as a one-dimensional player could limit him as an NBA player.
Right now he’s looking like a second-round pick, but if he’s forced to find employment in a European league that might actually be the best fit for Curry’s cerebral playing style.
At the moment, Quinn Cook is one skill short of being a top NBA prospect. Cook has proven that he can run an offense, dole out assists and drive to the basket. To cut it in the NBA, however, he’ll need to add one more facet to his game.
Cook’s three-point shooting leaves a lot to be desired. In his last four games, Cook has shot a combined 4-for-21 from three-point range (game log).
His lack of long-range proficiency could be forgiven if he was a lock-down defender like Rajon Rondo. Unfortunately, Cook hasn’t distinguished himself on the defensive side of the ball either.
Still, Cook is an athlete, and the NBA does value athleticism. His passing ability and his potential to drive to the basket are enough to land him on an NBA roster. But to be a starter or substantial contributor, he’ll need to show that he can do more than just drive and dish out assists.
Right now the freshman guard’s value is wrapped up in potential rather than on-court accomplishments. Rasheed Sulaimon offers promise as a great three-point shooter who is capable of driving to the hoop and playing solid perimeter defense.
If Sulaimon lives up to that potential, he’d be a complete package. He’d have the shooting ability of Seth Curry combined with the driving ability of Quinn Cook and could be better than both those guys defensively (he’s certainly already better than Curry and you could argue already better than Cook).
So far this season Sulaimon has shown flashes of the heights he could reach. Inconsistency has been the freshman's main flaw, but that’s to be expected from a player adjusting to the college game. Fortunately, his play over the last three games indicate that Sulaimon might be hitting his stride—all the more impressive given the increased pressure on Sulaimon to score with Ryan Kelly sidelined.
The downside is that if Sulaimon isn’t shooting well from outside. That undercuts the rest of his game. But in terms of growth and upside, Sulaimon’s ceiling as an all-around player is quite high.
Obviously health is a concern with Ryan Kelly. His most recent injury has certainly dropped his draft stock. However, no one has absolutely ruled out his return before the end of the season. If Kelly could showcase his skills on the highest stage, the NCAA tournament, then he could very well play himself into bottom end of the first round.
With NBA teams seeking to spread the floor, Kelly's outside shot gives him value as a stretch 4. By drawing a post defender out to the perimeter, he’d offer ample spacing for the quick penetrating guards that now populate the NBA. Given the amount of money teams pour into their backcourts, Kelly’s ability to spread a defense would complement the personnel on just about every NBA team.
Furthermore, Kelly is also good enough on help defense and, at 6’11” and 230 pounds, big enough to hold his own against most power forwards in the league. In all, Kelly’s size and shooting ability make him a rarity among NBA prospects.
It’s easy for fans familiar with his play to fume about Plumlee's lack of post moves, his tendency to get pushed out of the paint by bigger players and his poor free-throw shooting.
Nevertheless, Mason Plumlee has the potential to be an NBA starter.
Kelly, Cook, Sulaimon and Curry could all be contributors to an NBA team, but Plumlee has the best chance to force his way onto an NBA starting five.
With the way the NBA is going, Plumlee offers an ideal option at center. The All-Star Game eliminated center as a position, which points to the fact that NBA teams are increasingly utilizing big men who do more than just plant roots in the low post.
That shift in philosophy suits Plumlee. NBA coaches looking for post players who can run the floor and are agile enough to hedge on high pick-and-rolls will take a long hard look at the athletic 6’10” Plumlee.
Whatever his shortcomings, Plumlee would prove himself useful in a lineup that looked to run the floor and plays active help defense. Even on a more traditionally half-court-oriented team, Plumlee could offer an interesting option at power forward a la the twin tower scheme that the Lakers used with such great success with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
The bottom line is that the old axiom is true: you can’t teach 6’10” height. And so often the big bodies are flat-footed in the paint. Those cement-footed post players of yesteryear are more and more out of date in the modern up-tempo NBA.
Mason Plumlee is emblematic of the new breed of basketball’s big men. He’ll certainly be given a chance and he’s likely to succeed. After all, if Josh McRoberts can find playing time in the NBA, then just think what Mason Plumlee could do.