No Jabari Parker, No Problem: Duke Still a Legit Threat to Win It All in 2014-15

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No Jabari Parker, No Problem: Duke Still a Legit Threat to Win It All in 2014-15
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

On Thursday afternoon, the news finally broke that Jabari Parker will be taking his talents to the NBA, as he explained his decision-making process to Sports Illustrated's Jeff Benedict.

While debates immediately started raging about whether Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid or he should be the top draft pick on June 26, those of us on the college end of the basketball spectrum are left to wonder how this will impact Duke for the 2014-15 season.

With Parker, Duke would have been the overwhelming favorite to win the 2015 national championship.

On April 9, Vegas Insider had listed Duke just a hair behind Arizona as the favoriteand that was before the announcements that Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson were leaving for the NBA. Had the odds updated after their decisions and before Parker's, there's no question Duke would have been on top.

Even without Parker, though, Duke will still be better than it was in 2013-14 and remains a strong candidate to win it all.

There aren't many teams that can lose a possible No. 1 overall draft pick and actually improve, but having the No. 1 recruiting class—and one of the top coaches in the gamecertainly helps.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images
Justise Winslow (left), Jahlil Okafor (middle) and Tyus Jones (right)

Duke has four McDonald's All-Americanswho will also be playing in the Jordan Brand Classic on Friday nightand most crucial among them is the top overall recruit, Jahlil Okafor.

Shooting has never been a problem for Duke. On a fairly annual basis, the Blue Devils take and make more three-pointers than most teams in the country. And that won't be any different this year. Between Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Matt Jones and the incoming Grayson Allen, there will be no absence of three-point attempts in Durham.

But quality interior play? That's what tends to come and go for the Blue Devils, and that's why Okafor is the key to their success.

Anchored by Shane Battier and Carlos Boozer, they won the national championship in 2001. Over the next few seasons, with Sheldon Williams and, to a lesser degree, Shavlik Randolph, they were a staple in the Sweet 16.

But outside of 2010 when Brian Zoubek suddenly became a legend over the latter half of his senior season, things haven't gone so well for Duke in the paint.

Mike Krzyzewski keeps ending up with guys like Lance Thomas, David McClure and Josh Hairston who play a lot of minutes but accomplish very little in the box score, while Josh McRoberts and Pick-a-Plumlee disappoint in the paint on a far-too-regular basis.

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With Okafor and Amile Jefferson in the post, though, Duke could be built for some kind of special run.

As Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton wrote about Okafor earlier this week, "He’s a classic center, polished in the post and active on the glass. Duke should be able to create a formidable inside-out game with the perimeter players surrounding Okafor, when defenses inevitably collapse in the lane."

In high school, Okafor has been about as unstoppable as Wilt Chamberlain. That will certainly change as he starts facing players who can actually stack up with his height and weight, but Okafor is the first true, quality center that Duke has had in nearly a decade.

Heck, Parker was playing center for the bulk of the 2013-14 season. He led the team in both blocks and rebounds, but he'll be a small forward in the NBA.

Okafor is a luxury that Duke fans simply aren't used to having.

And let the record show that Parker's replacement is plenty capable of playing high-level basketball. Justise Winslow has gotten lost in the shuffle with Okafor, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen in this year's recruiting class, but he is one of the highest-rated small forwards in the country.

It's far too early to forecast with any degree of certainty whether Winslow will be a starter come November. My completely uninformed guess is that Coach K will go with a rotation of Tyus Jones, Sulaimon, Winslow, Jefferson and Okafor with Cook, Allen, Matt Jones, Semi Ojeleye and Marshall Plumlee as the first five guys off the bench.

What a ridiculous dilemma to have, though, right? Both Winslow and Allen are rated as top-25 recruits by ESPN, but they might not even start for Duke. Meanwhile, guys like James Blackmon Jr. (Indiana) and Rashad Vaughn (UNLV) who rank in between those two Blue Devils will be expected to carry the bulk of the scoring load for their new teams.

However, what Duke really needs to improve from last season is its defense.

The Blue Devils offense was one of the most efficient in the country. According to KenPom.com (subscription required), only Michigan was more efficient with the ball in its hands during the 2013-14 season.

But the defense was atrocious. Duke ranked 116th in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is just the second time in the last 12 seasons that it finished outside the top 40and the other time was in 2012 when the Blue Devils were eliminated in their first tournament game by Lehigh.

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They blocked just 7.4 percent of the opposition's two-point field-goal attempts, which was by far their worst rate in the past 12 years and less than half the rate they registered in 2005. And as a result, opponents shot better than 50 percent from two-point range against them.

Not only will Okafor help them immensely in the paint, but Winslow might be the best on-ball defender in this year's recruiting class.

Even if Winslow is merely replacing the minutes that Andre Dawkins received last season, the upgrade on the defensive end of the court will be about as stark as going from playing video games on a Super Nintendo to a PlayStation 4.

Look, I won't lie to you and say that Duke is going to be better because Parker is going to the NBA. The Blue Devils would have been printing 40-0 T-shirts if he had come back for another year in college.

But if you think his decision to leave is going to keep Duke from competing for an ACC championship, you're in for a rude awakening.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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