Much of the beauty of sports comes from its unpredictability. For all the prognosticating, there are usually one or two things that crop up during the course of the season that makes all the forecasting seem pointless.
With that in mind, maybe the best bet is to try to predict the potential game-changers that might cause all bets to be off in terms of preseason predictions. So these are the five biggest wild cards for Duke basketball's upcoming season.
Any one of these five things going well or going poorly would radically make a prognosticator's best guess for the upcoming season look stupendous—or just stupid.
It’s impossible to predict injuries. It’s equally difficult to proactively work to prevent them. For whatever reason, Duke has been heavily victimized by injuries over the past couple of seasons.
Seth Curry played his entire senior season hindered by a nagging injury. Ryan Kelly missed time during critical parts of his junior and senior years. Marshall Plumlee has undergone surgery multiple times.
Every team suffers from injuries through a long season, but Duke’s sidelined players have significantly hamstrung the team or exposed severe shortcomings. An injury in 2013-14 could do the same thing.
Although the Blue Devils will be loaded with talent, the health of certain players is vital to Duke’s success.
Duke doesn’t have a ton of post players. Losing Amile Jefferson or Marshall Plumlee would shorten the Blue Devils’ already limited options inside the paint.
Jefferson has bulked up over the summer, which could make him more durable. Plumlee, meanwhile, has had two surgeries. Given his limited minutes, it’s hard to know if what sort of player Plumlee is or what he has the potential to be. Unfortunately, what is clear is that Plumlee is no stranger to injuries.
Most likely, Duke’s lineup in the upcoming season will emphasize the abundance of talented and athletic wing players. Even still, someone will need to play center—and an injury that takes away one of the few players capable of occupying that spot would cause serious problems for the Blue Devils.
Speaking of Marshall Plumlee, he might be the biggest wild card for Duke this season.
There’s been a lot said about his talent, but there hasn’t been any evidence of it on the court. Plumlee made only 19 appearances last season due to injuries and being way down on the depth chart. Averaging 2.8 minutes per game didn’t allow the youngest Plumlee brother to showcase his skills (stats via ESPN).
Judging just from what could be seen on the court last season, Jefferson probably has the inside track on starting at center. But Jefferson is just 6’8”, while Plumlee is 6’11”—and even if Jefferson has added weight, Plumlee will still have the bigger body.
If Plumlee doesn’t pan out as a big part of the Blue Devils’ roster, he’ll still have a role as a backup center. His worst-case scenario is that he’s a big body to plug into the rotation to give other players a rest. His best case is that he’s a game-changer for Duke.
If Plumlee emerges as a reliable defender, rebounder and point producer, then Duke’s lack of post players isn’t such a glaring flaw. For a Blue Devils team that is abundantly talented and deep at every position except center, Plumlee could turn Duke into a well-rounded powerhouse.
Even if Plumlee is just serviceable as a sophomore, his impact would be invaluable. For that to happen, however, he’ll need to stay healthy and live up to at least some of the hype.
All anyone really expects from Jefferson this season is that he holds down the fort in the paint. Jefferson will be called upon to defend opposing centers and post players. He’ll also be counted upon to come up with rebounds.
What Jefferson won’t be held responsible for is scoring.
But the truth is that Jefferson is no slouch. Though he only played sparse minutes last season, Jefferson showed a real ability to fight for offensive boards and get second-chance baskets. More impressively, he demonstrated a good understanding of how to find space in the paint.
If Jefferson has put on muscle, then the possibility of him using post moves to bang inside comes into play. As a freshman he scored four points per game while only averaging 12.7 minutes of playing time (via ESPN). More time on the court combined with greater strength should add up to greater offensive production.
Jefferson doesn’t need to be a double-digit scorer, but any offense he adds will make the Blue Devils even more offensively potent.
On the flip side, if Jefferson fails to provide Duke with an anchor in the middle of the paint, then the Blue Devils will have a serious problem that opponents can exploit.
Initially it seemed like Ojeleye was destined to sit on the bench for most of the year. The influx of small forwards means that there will be a bunch of similar players competing for court time.
It’s hard to imagine Ojeleye getting minutes over Rodney Hood or Jabari Parker. Even guys like Alex Murphy figured to be ahead of Ojeleye.
However, Ojeleye has tremendous potential. As the all-time leading scorer in Kansas high school basketball and Parade magazine player of the year, Ojeleye clearly has talent in spades. He’s also a big guy. That size combined with his scoring ability might make Ojeleye a real force on offense.
Defensively, Ojeleye is athletic and long. That’ll make him physically capable of causing problems for opponents. Ojeleye’s mental commitment is also something that no one can question. He can be counted on to play with the utmost intensity and will reliably work to improve his game.
As an already well-rounded player, Ojeleye’s abilities will force the coaching staff to find him playing time. It’s also within the realm of possibility that these physical and mental features combine to make Ojeleye a true star.
As gifted as Ojeleye is, the ceiling for his potential is extremely high. If it takes Ojeyele a year or so to tap into his upside, the Blue Devils will be fine given the amount of talent they already have.
If, on the other hand, Ojeleye hits his stride early in his career, then Duke could have a seriously loaded roster. There’s a hint of Luol Deng to Semi Ojeleye. If he has the kind of impact that Deng hand, then Ojeleye will turn the Blue Devils into a team that could challenge for an undefeated season.
There will be a lot of guys to share the scoring load for the Blue Devils. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are potent scorers. So while the entire burden of the offense won’t be on Sulaimon’s shoulders, he’ll be counted on to keep the points piling up.
Last season Sulaimon averaged 11.6 points, but his scoring consistency really picked up toward the end of the season. With the exception of the Louisville game, when he shot 1-of-10, Sulaimon stepped up for Duke when it mattered most.
Against Michigan State Sulaimon had 16 points, which were in large part earned by hitting 12 of his 14 free throws. What Sulaimon demonstrated in that game and others is an ability to drive the lane and draw contact. If the refs don’t make the calls, Sulaimon can still finish at the rim.
The only complaint from Sulaimon’s freshman campaign was that his shot lacked some consistency.
Thanks to the occasional horrid shooting night, like against Louisville, Sulaimon shot 42.4 percent from the field and just 37.1 percent from three. Sulaimon is certainly capable of knocking down long-range shots.
In the first game against Maryland, he was 6-of-8 on three-pointers. The result was that Sulaimon finished with 25 points and Duke won by 20.
That could be a familiar recipe in the upcoming season. If Sulaimon steps up his game from last year by improving on his outside shot and scoring with consistency, then Duke will have a star scorer on its hands.
And there’s reason to believe that Sulaimon is taking that next step. His play during the Under-19 FIBA Championships distinguished him among some of the country’s best young prospects. He started all but one game in the competition and played a crucial role en route to the championship.
Sulaimon has NBA potential and could certainly show off his skills this season. If he becomes a top-notch scorer capable of putting up 20 points per game, then Duke will truly be one of the nation’s premier teams.