How is it that the Duke basketball team that dropped its first postseason game to Mercer is expected to contend for a national title this year after losing both Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to the draft?
You can thank Mike Krzyzewski’s recruiting touch and loaded incoming class for that.
The Blue Devils will feature four freshmen this year, and three of them may just hear their names called in the next NBA draft lottery. Clearly, the first-year players will be particularly important, but each will be asked to do something specific to help the team improve upon last year’s disappointing end.
With that in mind, let’s delve into the key for each freshman’s 2014-15 season.
Jahlil Okafor: Interior Defense/Rebounding
Duke struggled tremendously in the rebounding and interior-defense departments last year, so Coach K responded by bringing in a potential future No. 1 pick to man the middle.
Jahlil Okafor is a tremendous low-post scorer who mixes in an array of moves on the block, but the most important thing he can do for the Blue Devils is rebound and protect the rim. Duke finished an abysmal 116th in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last year and was a lowly 193rd in the nation in total rebounds per game.
Okafor’s presence alone should and will drastically improve both of those numbers.
Okafor could very well lead the ACC in rebounding next year because of his strength and ability to out-muscle opponents down low for position. He is also an impressive shot-blocker, although he can give the Duke defense a much-needed boost just by challenging shots at the basket.
Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com pointed out that ESPN’s Chad Ford thinks Okafor will have big things in store after dominating for the Blue Devils this season:
The NBA may fall in love with Okafor’s offense, but it is his rebounding and interior defense that will appeal the most to Blue Devils fans.
Tyus Jones: Assist-to-Turnover Ratio
Point guard Tyus Jones is perfectly capable of scoring on his own thanks to the combination of a high basketball IQ that allows him to know when and where to attack the lane and a sweet stroke from deep.
Still, there is so much talent on this Duke team that Krzyzewski simply needs the point guard to distribute the ball and run the show.
The Blue Devils offense was a well-tuned machine most of last season, but the one thing that could hold it back this year is turnovers. For as talented as Jones is, he is still a freshman who could be prone to some early mistakes.
Duke is going to look to run with the sheer number of athletic wings it has on the roster, so Jones will be tasked with making split-second decisions in the open floor throughout the year. As long as he makes the right ones and limits the turnovers, the Blue Devils should be an offensive juggernaut.
For those wondering whether the freshman Jones will find a spot in the starting lineup, Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports had the answer, via Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
I think the chemistry they have is just going to be a huge advantage for Duke. It’s going to be one of the best point guards in the country, and the best big man in the country, and I think Duke immediately becomes maybe the national title favorite for next season.
He’ll be a senior next year, but it won’t be much of a contest [with Jones]. Cook will have experience, and I think they’ll find ways to get them both on the floor, but I think Tyus Jones will start immediately.
Justise Winslow: Lockdown Defense
Remember Duke’s defensive struggles from a year ago that we discussed with Okafor?
Well, it was more than just interior defense at fault. Perhaps the biggest culprit for the loss to Mercer was the perimeter defenders' inability to stay in front of the ball-handlers. Anytime the Bears needed a critical basket, they would simply drive past Quinn Cook and company and get it (without much opposition at the rim).
That is where Justise Winslow fits in.
He is athletic and versatile enough to play anything from point guard to power forward on the defensive side, and his impressive wingspan, lateral quickness and length at 6’6” means he can stay in front of opponents and dart into passing lanes.
While he will certainly help out in the rebounding department, Winslow will be most valuable as a defensive weapon that Krzyzewski can unleash on guards or stretch forwards. Don’t be surprised when Winslow is guarding the opponent’s best player down the stretch of games, regardless of position.
Grayson Allen: Scoring Spark
For as much potential as the Duke offense has for the 2014-15 campaign, there will likely be a handful of games when it struggles to find the basket.
The ACC season is long and grueling, and there will be some mid-week contests that the offense is bogged down. Those matchups could very well come immediately before or after critical showdowns, such as the time last year when the Blue Devils lost to Wake Forest in the midst of a five-game stretch that had two contests against North Carolina and one against Syracuse.
That’s where Grayson Allen needs to step in.
Allen uses his speed and athleticism to get out and finish in transition, but he also has an impressive three-point stroke in his arsenal. Expect Coach K to use him as an offensive spark plug off the bench in those contests that Duke needs a lift, much like he did with Andre Dawkins last year.
If nothing else, Allen’s rim-rattling dunks should fire up the Cameron Crazies with energy that will immediately transfer over to the team.
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