The case could be made that Duke is the best team in the country at positions one through four.
The Blue Devils are set at those four spots with point guard Quinn Cook, shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon, small forward Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker moving from small forward to play a stretch four. That leaves coach Mike Krzyzewski with one spot to fill and one major question mark: center.
The good news for the Blue Devils is all they really need out of that position is defense and rebounding. Coach K has also won a national title before with a similar setup. His 2009-10 team had three players average 17-plus points—Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—with two big bodies who cleaned up the boards and played defense in Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas.
The bad news for Coach K is that his options to fill those roles—Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston—are lacking in experience and production.
Let's take a look at what each big man brings to the table and who fits in best with this group.
Plumlee is the greatest unknown of the three. After redshirting as a freshman, he barely played last season because of a lingering foot injury. He had surgery in April to repair his left foot and Krzyzewski said at the time that they expected a full recovery.
The advantage that Plumlee has is his size and his genes. He's 6'11," and his brothers, Miles and Mason, have both been productive post players for the Blue Devils.
It was assumed that Marshall would take over Miles' role last season as the first big man off the bench. Instead, the foot injury sent him to the end of the bench.
In 50 minutes, he had 11 rebounds, three blocks, two points on 1-of-8 shooting and five turnovers. That's not much of a sample size, but it suggests he's a capable rebounder and shot-blocker and awkward on the offensive end.
Jefferson had the opportunity to show what he can do in an increased role last season when Ryan Kelly missed 13 games with a foot injury. During that time, Jefferson started in seven games and played 19.6 minutes per game. He averaged 6.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and had 11 blocks.
Those are decent numbers and would be acceptable for what Duke needs this year, other than the rebounding. Jefferson's advanced rebounding numbers were decent—he was the best offensive rebounder on the team, per KenPom.com (subscription required)—but he was average for his height on the defensive glass. Without Mason Plumlee on the floor grabbing a majority of those rebounds, maybe Jefferson's numbers will go up.
Jefferson is probably the best scorer out of the group. He scored in double figures in five of the 13 games that Kelly missed. His biggest issue was staying on the court. Against N.C. State, for instance, he fouled out in 12 minutes. On the season, he committed 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes.
If Jefferson is the backup, that might not be an issue. But if he is the starter, he's going to need to learn how to avoid fouling so often.
Hairston has the most experience out of the three and is the player that Coach K trusted the most last season.
While Jefferson went back to riding the bench once Kelly returned, Hairston was still a part of the rotation as the seventh man. From a numbers standpoint, Jefferson did outperform Hairston during Kelly's absence.
In 12 games—he missed one of the games Kelly was out—Hairston averaged 4.2 points and 2.1 rebounds in 16.2 minutes per game.
The advantage Hairston did have over Jefferson was his understanding of what Coach K wanted and where to be on the floor. Jefferson was more of an energy guy figuring it out as he went. Hairston knew what was needed; however, he is limited by the fact that he's only 6'7" and not as athletic as Jefferson.
Which Big Man Fits Best?
As far as measurables and what Duke needs out of its starting center, Plumlee is the best option. He has the size and the potential to play a Zoubek kind of role.
Zoubek was more seasoned in 2009-10, but he was also sort of an unknown. He had averaged only 11.9 minutes per game as a junior. He evolved as a senior into one of the best rebounders in the country. He led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and ranked 36th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage.
Who should be Duke's fifth starter this season?
In the final five games of Duke's national title run, he averaged 11.2 rebounds. He scored in double figures only once during that stretch, and that was just fine. He didn't need to score for the Blue Devils to be successful. The same will be true of Plumlee.
In an ideal world, Plumlee will be the starter with Jefferson backing up both Plumlee and Parker. He has the versatility to do that, and Hairston is also a worthy backup for Parker as long as he's playing alongside another true big man.
Plumlee's only fit is at center, and Plumlee as the fifth starter just makes sense. He can help protect Parker on the defensive end and simply set screens and look for putbacks on the offensive end. That's a role that should be easy to ease into.
All advanced stats used in this piece come from KenPom.com (subscription needed).