Duke Basketball: Reasons to Be Excited for Next Season

Glynn WilliamsFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2014

Duke Basketball: Reasons to Be Excited for Next Season

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    The time has come for Duke fans to stop dwelling on the team’s disappointing loss to Mercer and start getting excited about next season!

    The best part about being a fan is often the optimism that comes with anticipating next year. Without the reality that comes with watching actual games, we are able to focus only on the positive and create our own narrative for the next season. Who’s to say some rarely used freshman will not turn into an all-conference performer next season? Or maybe a career role player will pull a Casey Prather and suddenly turn into a star as a senior. The point is no one can prove you wrong for a couple of months.

    Fans must be wary because catching a case of the summer anticipation bug can have dire consequences. I am still trying to recover from spending the entire summer of 2010 watching Kyrie Irving highlights. The risk is high when you allow yourself to dream of next year, but an entire offseason of imagining an invincible, best-case scenario team is worth the risk of being horribly wrong and disappointed once the games start.

    Without further ado, here are the things Duke fans should be most excited about (whether they end up regretting it or not) for next season.

Little-Used Players Stepping in to the Rotation

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    Gerry Broome

    One of the great joys of watching college sports is following a player’s progression from year to year. The most refreshing type of improvement is when a player who barely saw the court the previous season becomes an important player. This often happens for a player entering his sophomore season.

    Duke has seen two players make this quantum leap recently in Quinn Cook (who went from 11.7 minutes per game his freshman year to 33.6 as a sophomore) and Amile Jefferson (12.7 mpg as a freshman to 22.7 last season).

    Duke has three candidates to make such a leap next season in Semi Ojeleye, Marshall Plumlee and Matt Jones.

    Out of those three, Ojeleye saw the least playing time, appearing in only 17 contests and averaging just 4.7 minutes in those games. Ojeleye is an exceptional athlete with good size and strength for his position. His size and ability to move make him a potential lockdown defender, and he may become Duke’s best dunker since Gerald Henderson.

    If Ojeleye can find a niche in the offense he could see a lot more of the court next season. He did knock down four of the seven three-pointers he attempted, a tiny sample size but promising nonetheless when you consider what else he brings to the table.

    Plumlee has already played two seasons and been at Duke three years, but he still has a chance to make a jump in importance. Duke is bringing in a heralded recruit at his position in No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor. Having Okafor on campus may actually result in more court time for Marshall.

    Last season Duke emphasized a run-and-gun offense and a pressure defense that did not require a traditional center. With Coach Mike Krzyzewski designing next year’s schemes around Okafor, many of the sets will call for a center to be in the game. No matter how good he is, Okafor will not play 40 minutes every game next season, and every big man gets into foul trouble at some point.

    Plumlee could play a very valuable role for the team next year spelling Okafor. He is not much of an offensive threat at this point (fun fact: Plumlee is 6-25 on free throws for his career), but he has shown good rebounding instincts and was third on the team in blocked shots despite his lack of playing time.

    Matt Jones is the most likely of this group of players to step into a major role. Jones played in 32 games as a freshman, including four starts while Coach K experimented with a 10-man rotation. Jones’ defensive instincts were very satisfying on a team that had so much trouble in that area, but he was unable to stick in the rotation due to his offensive struggles.

    Jones shot just 29 percent from the field, 14 percent from deep, and 56 percent from the charity stripe. This combination of advanced defensive ability and lack of scoring was surprising considering his high school scouting report. He was often compared to Andre Dawkins before last year, and if he can find his touch from deep he could be a force on both sides of the court.

A Consistent Season from Rasheed Sulaimon

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    Gerry Broome

    Coming into last season, Rasheed Sulaimon was viewed as a luxury for Duke. Everyone knew Parker and Rodney Hood would carry the offense, but not many teams had a player with as much talent as Sulaimon as its third option. After averaging 11.6 points as a freshman, Sulaimon started his season as expected, scoring 20 points in the opener against Davidson and 13 in the next game, against Kansas.

    He then proceeded to go through a mind-boggling slump. Over the next eight games Sulaimon averaged just three points per game on 20 percent shooting from the field. He reached rock bottom on December 3 against Michigan, when he was benched for the entire game. In the next game Sulaimon played five scoreless minutes despite his team earning an easy win over Gardner-Webb. 

    Fortunately for Duke, Sulaimon got his act together and became a key player. He even displayed some point guard skills during conference play as he recorded five or more assists six times.

    The odd thing about Sulaimon’s season was how well he shot from outside. For the season he made just over 40 percent of three-pointers and just below 40 percent of two-pointers. As a frame of reference, the team combined to shoot 39 percent on threes and 51 percent on twos. Sulaimon has a tendency to penetrate past his defender only to shoot extremely off-balance layups and floaters, which often led to fast breaks for the opposition.

    The presence of Jahlil Okafor could help Sulaimon remain consistent. He played very well as a freshman when the offense ran through Mason Plumlee. Sulaimon is a great shooter on kick-outs and also has a pretty mid-range jumper.

    Next year he will be able to spot-up for open shots and drive more selectively. If Parker and Hood both declare for the draft, Sulaimon will be Duke’s most talented perimeter player, which should cause him to less drives. Last year’s team had plenty of talent, but if Sulaimon can deliver consistently all season, next year’s team projects to have better offensive balance.

Size

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Duke’s lack of size, interior depth and rim protection were well documented throughout the past season. Once next season begins, the script will officially be flipped.

    Jahlil Okafor is listed at 6’10" and 265 pounds. His presence alone will transform Duke from a tiny team to a squad whose starting lineup has NBA-caliber size. Standing 6’9" and weighing 210 pounds, Amile Jefferson was a small center in the ACC but will make for a big power forward next season. Jabari Parker, who tied for first in the ACC in rebounds per game last season, would likely start at the small forward if he decides to stay in school.

    Even if Parker leaves, Duke will have a pair of big wing players in 6’7” Ojeleye and 6’6” freshman Justise Winslow. The Devils also return 7-footer Plumlee. Marshall did not play much this past season, but he showed flashes of being a productive player. With Okafor in the fold, Plumlee will be able to play with maximum energy any time he enters the game.

    Having a number of capable bigs will provide Duke with a number of advantages.

    None of Duke’s frontcourt players will have to worry about foul trouble with so much help around them. Remember the first Syracuse game when Parker and Jefferson fouled out and Rodney Hood became the de facto center? That is very unlikely to happen next season.

    The biggest benefit of size will be the change in Duke’s defense. This season the Devils were a year-long punchline on the defensive side of the ball. Players are going to get beat off the dribble at any level of basketball, but Duke had no one to swallow up those mistakes last year, and many opponents simply strolled down the lane for layups. Okafor’s mere presence should scare potential drivers off next season as he uses his big body to occupy space in the middle of the paint.

    Duke’s biggest weakness should turn into one of its most formidable strengths, leaving fans less frustrated and Duke haters looking for a new angle.

Rivalries: Old and New

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Duke-Carolina is arguably the greatest rivalry in all of sports but the matchups between the two programs have not been quite as marquee recently. Carolina has been a No. 8 and No. 6 seed in the last two NCAA tournaments, and Duke has now gone three straight seasons without earning a No. 1 seed.

    The games have still been exhilarating, but next year the rivalry will once again feature two national title contenders. Bleacher Report’s Super-Early Top 25 for next season has Duke at No. 5 and UNC at No. 4. Both teams will feature a mix of elite veterans and stellar freshman next year.

    Marcus Paige vs. Rasheed Sulaimon? Yes please. The No. 1 and No. 3 recruiting classes in the country according to ESPN? Don’t mind if I do. Roy Williams wearing a goofy plaid blazer? Just more ammo for Duke fans if we win. These two teams should return to the top of the conference next season and the rivalry will be as strong as ever.

    Conference expansion may be a confusing, unwanted reality check for fans but it will bring some great battles on the hardwood with it.

    Duke played two classic games against Syracuse this past season with each team winning on its home court after controversial calls/non-calls. The Orange will lose their two best players in senior C.J. Fair and freshman Tyler Ennis, but programs like Syracuse never stay down for long. The history of both teams and the personal relationship between Coach K and Jim Boeheim make Duke and Syracuse an exciting new rivalry.

    Duke will also have to deal with Louisville and Rick Pitino’s vaunted full-court press at least once a season starting next year. Louisville will lose star guard Russ Smith and shooter Luke Hancock, and forward Montrezl Harrell may enter the NBA draft after exploding in the second half of last season. Regardless of Harrell’s decision, Louisville and Duke will be a sight to see next year, with added intrigue because Louisville knocked Duke out of the tournament in the Elite Eight on its way to a championship just two seasons ago.