It is easy to get caught up focusing on a recruiting class during the college basketball offseason, especially when it is as loaded as the one Duke is bringing to campus next year.
However, the only way the Blue Devils will challenge for an ACC crown or make a run at the Final Four in 2014-15 is with contributions from their returning players. While those upperclassmen may not inspire the excitement that Jahlil Okafor and the rest of Mike Krzyzewski’s recruiting class will in Durham, Kami Mattioli of Sporting News points out that the roster will be loaded with former McDonald’s All-Americans:
Like UK, Duke will have 9 McDonald's All-Americans in 2014-15: Okafor, Allen, T.Jones, Winslow, Jefferson, Sulaimon, M.Jones, Plumlee, Cook.— Kami Mattioli (@kmattio) April 25, 2014
Clearly, not all McDonald’s All-Americans deliver the same results once they reach college, but there is reason for optimism for the returning Duke players. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what to expect from the primary returnees.
Quinn Cook may be the most recognizable name on the list of Duke upperclassmen because he has been in Durham since 2011-12, but he may see a smaller role in 2014-15 than he was accustomed to in past years.
The Duke backcourt will be particularly crowded with the recruits and a handful of returning guards, and Cook lost some playing time last season because of his inability to contain dribble penetration on the defensive side. Sure, Cook can score and dish out assists on offense, but so can Tyus Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon.
If Cook doesn’t improve his defense as a senior, he could get lost in the backcourt shuffle.
Matt Jones is an intriguing guard heading into next season because he averaged less than two points and one rebound a game as a freshman, but he brings something to the table that the Blue Devils were missing last year.
Jones is an impressive perimeter defender because of his athleticism, versatility and length. If Duke has the same roster in 2014-15 that it did in 2013-14, Jones might see an increased role because of the team's overall defensive struggles.
However, Justise Winslow is also an impressive defender and has a higher ceiling on the offensive end than Jones. That doesn’t mean Jones won’t see some significant minutes off the bench, but he won’t start in the small forward position.
Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson
Of all the returning players, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson are the most likely to start and will play significant roles next season.
Sulaimon struggled early in the campaign this past season, but he showed noticeable improvement down the stretch when he saw minutes as a point guard. He has the potential to be Duke’s best three-point shooter, can play off the ball or fill in for Tyus Jones at point and has the chance to make opponents pay for doubling Okafor down low.
Who leads Duke in rebounding next year?
As for Jefferson, he is the best returning rebounder on the roster and provided consistent interior defense throughout the season. There is no reason to expect anything different from Jefferson on the defensive side of the ball unless it is improvement, and the rebounding will still be there.
What should excite Duke fans is the fact that we could see more offensive production from Jefferson because there will be so much focus on Okafor on the blocks. It will create space for Jefferson down low or even from the high post, which could lead to more points and even assists if he rotates the ball to one of the shooters.
Marshall Plumlee only averaged about one point and two rebounds a game last year, but he did show the occasional flashes of solid interior defense and offensive rebounding, which is something Duke missed a lot in 2013-14.
However, with Jefferson and Okafor on the roster, Plumlee will certainly be coming off the bench. Krzyzewski went small at times last season, so it may be a leap to simply assume Plumlee will be the first one to come in if Jefferson or Okafor get in foul trouble.
Still, Coach K hinted near the end of last season that Plumlee would see more time in the program eventually, via Laura Keeley of The News & Observer:
He’s a different player than his brothers. He’s a center. Mason and Miles played both positions, but Marshall wants to be a center, a protector of the basket. He wants to be a center, and that’s what he is. He’s athletic, though – all three Plumlee brothers are excellent athletes. It’s taken Marshall some time to get back to that athleticism.
We feel that he’s running and being the athlete he was before, about 17 months ago, right before he was injured at the start of last season. He is a good player, and he’s going to be a really good player.
The recovery from not playing and injuries, some kids never recover and get to the level that they should be at. Marshall has worked real hard, and he’s getting there. He’ll have more and more of a prominent role on our team now that he’s reached that level.
Look for Plumlee’s role to be determined on a game-to-game basis. The size of the opponent down low, the ability of versatile players like Winslow to play power forward and Plumlee’s overall production will all factor into his playing time.
There are simply too many talented players for everyone to receive significant minutes, but that is a problem every program in America wishes it had.
Follow me on Twitter: