Duke Basketball: Priority for Each Projected Starter in 2014
For college basketball players, the offseason is a time to improve their games. Players are able to look back on the season in order to remedy their biggest weaknesses as well as look ahead to next year’s roster and anticipate how they need to change their game in order to take on a bigger role.
A new role on a team can mean a number of things for a player. From simply playing a few more minutes to blossoming into an off-court leader, a player’s ability to improve over the summer goes a long way to determining the team’s level of success during the following season.
For the Duke Blue Devils, many players will have new responsibilities next season due to the large amount of roster turnover the team is going through. Duke lost its two top scorers (Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood), its best perimeter defender (Tyler Thornton), its three-point specialist (Andre Dawkins) and its best bench celebrator (Josh Hairston).
Coach K will try to replace the losses by blending the top recruiting class in the country with a group of solid returning veterans. Here are the top things each projected starter will need to do next year in order to make the team better.
Tyus Jones: Be the Leader of the Offense
Freshman Tyus Jones is just arriving, not returning, but one of his jobs will be to fix a weakness of the 2013-14 team. Last year, Duke failed to live up to its lofty preseason expectations for a number reasons, especially the team’s lack of on-court leadership. This caused Duke to drop a lot of close contests as the team was often unable to get quality possessions as the clock wound down.
One reason for this was the limitations of Duke’s captains. Hairston failed to crack the regular rotation, Thornton was never much of an offensive threat and Hood just could not come through in the clutch consistently.
Duke’s offensive talent also hurt them in this regard as the team’s skilled one-on-one scorers often resorted to hero ball rather than running set plays in order to get open looks.
Duke may not have that problem this season with Jones running the point. Jones is known for his basketball I.Q. and poise, and he will be willing to make the right play rather than the selfish one at crunch-time. Duke fans got a preview of Jones’ clutch abilities when he stepped his game up late to help Team USA to a win at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. With the ball in Jones’ hands late in the clock, look for Duke to come out with wins in close games more often next season.
Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook: Consistency
Sulaimon and Cook started last season by combining for 41 points in a win against Davidson and ended the year as the team’s top two scorers in Duke’s upset loss against Mercer. In between, the players combined for two of the most inconsistent individual seasons in recent Blue Devil history. At times, both looked like all-conference players but in some games, it seemed as if the Monstars had stolen their abilities.
Sulaimon went through a horrible stretch of play at the beginning of the season and infamously received a DNP in Duke’s win over Michigan. He played his way out of his funk and ended the season well enough to be expected to do big things next year.
Cook played well, while Sulaimon struggled but played very poorly late in ACC play, making it easy to forget how good he was his sophomore season when he was named third-team All-ACC. Due to his own poor play and the arrival of Jones, many are wondering whether Cook’s senior season will wind up like Greg Paulus’ last year at Duke.
Because of his talent (and because Connecticut just showed everyone you can win a championship starting two point guards), I believe Cook can play a major role on this team as long as he can keep his head on straight. Sulaimon is sure to be a big contributor next year, but he will also have to do a better job of having a steady head on his shoulders in tough moments. Both players are often seen visibly frustrated on the court, and they both have a tendency to let poor play build upon itself and lead to even worse play.
As upper-classmen, the two will need to set positive examples for the younger players. They will have all the individual motivation they need, as Cook will be a senior and Sulaimon will be viewed as a potential NBA prospect. If these two can keep their frustrations to a minimum and always play hard for the team, Duke will have a better chance at a deep tournament run in March.
Amile Jefferson: Offensive Aggression
Jefferson was one of the bright spots for Duke all last season. After averaging less than 13 minutes per game as a freshman, Jefferson became a regular starter last year. He performed admirably playing out of position at center all season, was second on the team in rebounds and shot an astounding 64 percent from the field.
His shooting percentage may have been a little illusory as Jefferson averaged just 4.2 shot attempts per game. Most of his attempts came off offensive rebounds or finishing in transition. Duke’s perimeter scorers often ignored Jefferson when he was wide open on pick-and-rolls.
With the addition of Jahlil Okafor and a balanced offense, Jefferson should see more opportunities next season and should look to exploit them.
Last year, Jefferson was able to hold his own in boards against centers, but next season, he should be dominating them while going against power forwards who are his same size. In addition, Okafor figures to draw plenty of double-teams next year, and if teams double off of Jefferson, he should look to position himself for wide open layups. Jefferson also showed an ability to penetrate last season. If he can work more of that into his game for his junior year, he will be a major force.
Jahlil Okafor: Anchor the Defense
Like Tyus Jones, Okafor is a freshman who will be expected to repair a weakness in last year’s team. Duke’s small lineup last season left the Devils at a defensive disadvantage. Jefferson is not much of a shot-blocker, and with little rim protection, opposing players were often able to get layups after beating their initial defender off the dribble. Okafor, the number one prospect in the country, is known for being a skilled offensive player but will have to dominate on defense in order for his team to be a title contender.
Standing 6’10” and weighing 265 lbs, Okafor will be able to deter defenders just with his size if he makes the proper defensive rotations. If he can stop players from driving, Duke will have solid defenders like Jefferson, Sulaimon, Justise Winslow and sophomore guard Matt Jones, who will make the proper rotations behind him in order to prevent an open shot.
Last year, Duke was an exciting team with one heck of an Achilles’ heel. Next year, Duke may not score as often or as impressively as it did in 2014-15, but if Okafor can lead a successful defensive season, the team will have better results.