Few teams in America go as deep as Duke. In fact, it's been well-argued that none at all can do so.
The talent level in Durham is off the charts, and watching it coalesce will be a fascinating ride. Some, however, will play more pivotal roles than others.
While the headlines surround heralded freshman Jabari Parker, there are plenty of other players on coach Mike Krzyzewski's roster who are capable of great performances. They'll all need to do just that for Coach K to hoist his fifth NCAA championship trophy next April.
This is not necessarily a ranking of Duke's best players, but a discussion of which Blue Devils will be most essential to the team's realization of its national championship ambitions.
Unless some personal or physical issues recur for Andre Dawkins, freshman Matt Jones may not see extensive minutes this season. If he does, however, he will capably fill the bench-gunner role to which Dawkins is returning after a year off.
Jones carries only 180 pounds on his 6'4" frame, trailing Dawkins by at least 30. Time spent in the weight room will serve Jones well. He has the quickness necessary to take opponents off the dribble if they press to take away his jump shot, but some extra muscle is essential for his finishing when he reaches the tin.
Where Jones can distinguish himself from Dawkins is on the defensive end. Dawkins struggled with defensive focus at times, and Coach K won't have much patience for a repeat if he's got a backup plan like Jones.
Jones' minutes can also escalate if Coach K decides that a small, gunner-heavy lineup will help the Devils run away from opponents. Dawkins has the build and athletic ability to play a few minutes as the backup small forward, letting Jones play the opposite wing. Together, the two could spread the defense like Moses parted the Red Sea.
Senior leadership, hustle and bulk. Those are the primary attributes that 240-pound Josh Hairston brings to Duke's table.
On a team dominated by slender underclassmen, Hairston is a decent fit. The Blue Devils are starved for inside presence this season, so Hairston will see some minutes in the post despite his 6'7" height.
The trick will be for him to stay in the game long enough to be truly productive. Hairston yanked down a career-high six rebounds in only 11 minutes against Delaware last January. Problem was, he fouled out in that span, too.
The song remained the same against Creighton in the NCAA tournament. Hairston pulled five boards in 10 minutes, but was quickly disqualified again. On the season, Hairston committed 85 fouls in 445 minutes, a staggering 7.6 fouls per 40. That's up from the six-plus average he amassed in his limited minutes as a freshman and sophomore.
If he can stay on the court, Hairston could prove to be Duke's most effective rebounder. He recorded offensive rebounding percentages greater than 10 in his first two seasons. Averages of eight points and six rebounds could be well within reach.
But again, that's if he can stay on the court.
Sticking with the theme of post presence, the closest thing Duke has to a true center is the 7-foot Marshall Plumlee. With only 49 minutes under his belt so far, the redshirt sophomore has a very long way to go if he seeks to live up to the legacy of his brothers, NBA first-round picks Miles and Mason.
Plumlee is the only player on the roster taller than 6'9" and one of only two heavier than 235 pounds. He runs the floor well for his size, but that's still no guarantee he'll be able to keep up with a fast break led by Quinn Cook with Rodney Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon on either wing.
A stress fracture in his foot that never quite healed and was re-aggravated over the course of the season derailed a season that was supposed to be his coming-out party. The few minutes he did play were meaningless garbage time.
Assumptions about what we will or won't see from Plumlee this season are based on a supremely small sample size. How the foot injury—and the additional surgery that was required in April—will affect his above-average athletic ability remains to be seen.
Coach K will, however, keep his staff hard at work trying to concoct a lineup that will operate with no true center, since foot injuries tend to have serious long-term consequences for players Plumlee's size. (See: Walton, Bill or Oden, Greg.) The Devils will be prepared to carry on without him if he can't stay healthy.
If he does, he'll only need to play 20 or so minutes per game, yank 5-7 rebounds and block the occasional shot. Scoring is plentiful elsewhere on this roster.
The only thing holding Andre Dawkins back from being this team's instant scoring option off the bench lies between his own ears.
Back from a year's sabbatical in which he sought counseling for persistent grief related to his sister's death in 2009, Dawkins is set to return to the mad-bomber role he's capably filled since day one in Durham.
A career 40-percent three-point shooter, Dawkins is easily the most proven perimeter threat on the Blue Devil roster, but he will have Matt Jones nipping at his heels and potential stars ahead of him in Rasheed Sulaimon and Rodney Hood. Defense and overall focus will be the primary concerns for Dawkins if he hopes to maintain his playing time.
Another interesting aspect of Dawkins' season will be whether he tries to demonstrate a more diverse offensive game. While he has the athletic ability and build to successfully attack the rim, Dawkins has taken nearly 75 percent of his career shots behind the three-point stripe.
If he seeks out contact in the lane, he can average 10-12 points per game and establish himself as one of the nation's most dangerous sixth men. Or, he could struggle to stop the talented guards he'll face in ACC play and lose his minutes to Jones.
It's hard to decide which is more likely until we see both men hit the court.
What Tyler Thornton gives the Devils is depicted at left—an enormous dose of grit and hustle. A case can be made that he's one of the finest perimeter defenders in the ACC.
Despite all that, he's still firmly entrenched as the Devils' No. 2 point guard, not a serious threat to pass Quinn Cook unless an injury occurs.
Thornton led all Duke regulars in steal percentage, and his 3.4 ranked second in the ACC according to StatSheet.com. However, as much as Thornton took, he was just as generous a giver, ranking 10th in the league with a 25.8-percent turnover rate.
A capable shooter (39 percent from three last season), Thornton has simply been an unwilling shooter for much of his career. He's averaged exactly three shots per game over his past two seasons, putting up attempts on less than 10 percent of the possessions he's played.
Fans should expect more of the same out of Thornton this season: 20 or so minutes per game, dotted with some deflections, floor burns, a few head-scratching turnovers and the occasional late-game dagger if they're lucky.
Duke's coaching staff has an interesting puzzle to assemble with its pile of deadly shooters. Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood fits well into the crowd, especially after his season in residence to acquaint himself with Mike Krzyzewski's system.
Hood was a deadly mid-range scorer in Starkville, hitting 45 percent of his two-point jumpers according to Hoop-Math.com. He was a secure if unspectacular ball-handler, committing only 30 turnovers in 1,050 minutes.
Coming into this season, NC State coach Mark Gottfried gushed over Hood, listing him as a potential top-three NBA draft pick right next to new teammate Jabari Parker and Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. Before he reaches that level, though, Hood needs to prove that he can attack the rim and score through contact. He took a whopping seven field-goal attempts for every free throw as a freshman.
The universal assumption is that Parker and Hood will start alongside each other, with Hood pushing Parker to the 4. For that to happen, the coaches need assurance that he's evolved beyond being merely a jump-shooter. Duke already has a few of those.
Don't be surprised if Krzyzewski settles on Hood as a super-sub along the lines of former Tar Heel Marvin Williams or ex-Syracuse guard Dion Waiters. Both of them became top-four picks without ever starting a college game. There's no reason the same road won't get Hood where he wants to go.
If Duke had never secured the services of Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon would likely be a preseason All-American candidate. Athlon Sports' preseason yearbook, in fact, named Sulaimon to its third team this season, and it may not be a major stretch.
Sulaimon is a strong candidate to lead the team in scoring if he gets enough quality looks, and he compares very well to the incoming Hood.
Consider the numbers below, which illustrate how Sulaimon's debut season in Durham was marked by scoring every bit as efficient as what Hood put up at Mississippi State in 2011-12. (All numbers courtesy StatSheet.com)
Both thrived as secondary options behind talented inside-outside duos (Arnett Moultrie and Dee Bost for Hood, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry for Sulaimon). Sulaimon, however, was much more willing to attack the rim, as evidenced by the vastly superior FTA/FGA ratio.
Hood's 6'8", 210-pound frame provides greater positional versatility, capable of sliding from off-guard to power forward, but he never displayed much desire to scrap in the paint as a Bulldog. According to Hoop-Math, Hood took only 10 percent of his shots near the rim during his freshman year.
By comparison, shameless three-point chucker Curry found time to take 12 percent in the paint.
Duke fans are justifiable in their excitement over Hood's arrival, but fans and opponents alike need a reminder not to forget about the budding star who was already in their midst.
There may be no returning Blue Devil who needs to take a bigger step up than sophomore forward Amile Jefferson. He's bulked up to 215 pounds, which would be a great development if he was playing a perimeter role similar to that of Rodney Hood.
However, he's being expected to battle on the interior against ACC big men, some of whom will still have 40 to 50 pounds on him. Not that he hasn't already shown himself worthy against quality competition.
Jefferson pulled 10 rebounds against Georgia Tech in his fourth conference game. Two weeks later, he fell one board short of a double-double against Maryland, adding three blocked shots. Remember, this was a Maryland team with burly Alex Len, Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell patrolling the lane.
Jefferson would have ranked fourth in the ACC with his 12.7 offensive rebounding percentage. He made 67 percent of his shots near the rim per Hoop-Math.
So, he can play inside. The question is whether he can do so night in and night out for 25-plus minutes per game. Improving his mid-range shot (20 percent made according to Hoop-Math) and foul shooting (61 percent) will make him a sneaky, dangerous operator while surrounded by all of Duke's other weapons.
For all the accolades that have been bestowed upon freshman forward Jabari Parker, his ultimate importance to the Duke lineup may come in short stretches designed to truly showcase his versatility.
Duke's 247 Sports board and B/R's own C.J. Moore have both reported on an ESPN Insider story that has strangely disappeared from the site. In it, Blue Devil assistant Steve Wojciechowski tells ESPN that Parker could see stretches of time as Duke's nominal center.
A natural fit at the small forward position, Parker is expected to see the bulk of his minutes at power forward to accommodate Rodney Hood at the wing. Minutes with Parker at the pivot spot would make space for an unstoppable shooting lineup, likely allowing Andre Dawkins to join Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook.
In the ESPN story, Wojo claims that Parker now measures in at 6'9" and 245 pounds, the kind of size that can be competitive in the low post. The lack of scoring from the team's other post options—particularly Marshall Plumlee and Josh Hairston—could force the Devils to rely much more on their perimeter quickness to disrupt opponents at both ends.
Parker can provide a dangerous decoy to open the lane for the plethora of slashers he'll share the court with. While he may struggle defensively against skilled, bulky post players, the ACC has fewer of those players than last season following departures like Alex Len and Richard Howell. If Parker holds his own on the glass, that lineup of gunners may see longer tours together, daring opponents to make stops.
With all the supersonic wing players who will swarm the court this season, Cameron Indoor Stadium will resemble a busy airport. And the most important person at any airport is the air traffic controller.
Duke's ATC will be junior Quinn Cook, and he'll hold the key to where Duke lands this coming March.
Cook's 2.4 assist/turnover ratio and 29.0 assist percentage both ranked second in the ACC last season per StatSheet. In addition, Cook provided extra scoring punch from the point, carding a 49.1 effective field goal percentage and three 20-point games, as many as Rasheed Sulaimon.
If anything happened to Cook, Tyler Thornton would inherit his starting job. Thornton's defensive credentials are well-established and Kansas fans still mutter about that shot in Maui we linked a few slides back, but he's never shown the inclination to be a major scoring option.
Cook's ability to uncork a 20-point night is a primary reason that defenses will struggle to contain Parker, Hood and Sulaimon. If opponents are allowed to disrespect Thornton and offer more help elsewhere, Duke's Concorde offense will be forced to coast with a missing engine.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Coming soon: the 32 in 32 conference preview series.