Krzyzewski's inner circle can be a tough club to crack into.
It comes with success. Over the years as the victories piled up and the trophy case expanded, Mike Krzyzewski has been able to convince more and more elite players to come to Duke to ply their trade. Cameron Indoor Stadium has become one of the premier stages in the nation were many the best in college basketball come to showcase their talents in front of the Crazies and, on most nights, a national television audience. It has become almost commonplace for five to six McDonald's High School All-Americans to call Cameron home at any given time.
As the talent pool has swelled, however, Krzyzewski's bench has tended to contract. In the early 'K' years, the Duke bench was often nine to ten men deep. In recent years, however, no matter the preseason gushing about the upcoming team's depth being "greater than in year's past", Coach 'K' always seems to settle in on a rotation that routinely goes no deeper than seven to eight players.
Whether the result of injuries, transfers, or early departures for the NBA, the long bench just never seems to come to fruition. The seven to eight man "inner circle" just seems to be a number that he trusts and is comfortable with as each season wears on and games are on the line. The reality is that, even among the elite players that come to Durham, some are always more elite than others and earn their mentor's trust in crunch time. Duke fans should be thankful. Former Georgia Teach coach Bobby Cremins used to recruit five elite players and then suited up students pulled from the bleachers to give his stars a few seconds of blow each game -- or at least it seemed that way.
By in large, 'K' seems to favor a rotation with four guards, one of whom is a true point and one who can slide over into that role on a short term basis when needed. Inside, a three-man post exchange seems to suit him, preferably with at least two of three having a little to offer away from the basket -- the more the better, of course. Finally, when he can find one, he loves having a small forward with game enough for the three-ball and size enough to move inside to defend a post player, a Singler or Battier type player. The flexibility to go big or small as the game situation dictates seems his preference.
Once again, the preseason buzz is that this is one of Duke's deepest team's ever. The difference in this year's hype is that it may well be true.
Duke returns five givens from last year's 32-5 ACC Tournament Champion and Sweet Sixteen team. Junior shooting sensations Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins return in the backcourt. In the frontcourt, juniors Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee and lone senior Miles Plumlee, all 6' 10" or a fraction more, return to provide solid depth and experience. This group serves as the nucleus of this year's rotation.
Also, returning and competing for playing time are sophomores Tyler Thornton, a point guard, and Josh Hairston, who will try to earn minutes around the basket. Their prospects for playing time are significantly more tenuous and nebulous.
Added to this group is highly touted 2011 recruiting class, ranked No. 2 in the nation by all of the major recruiting services. Originally a four man class, this group was augmented in early summer when 2012 verbal commit Alex Murphy decided, a la Dawkins, to graduate early and enter Duke a year ahead of schedule.
In the interests of being realistic and saving a fluff slide, let's be up front here and acknowledge that freshman Austin Rivers gets the sixth slot in the rotation and is likely in the top five. Rivers is a five-star guard recruit who was arguably the No. 1 prep player in the land last year.
Rivers, like former Duke guard Gerald Henderson and current Dukie Seth Curry is an NBA legacy, being the son of former NBA point guard and current coach of the Boston Celtics, Doc Rivers. Rivers arrives at Duke a prodigious prep scorer with a complete and advanced skill set. that he will play a major on this year's squad is a foregone conclusion.
So with a six-man contingent already set, which of the other six scholarship players will be able gain Krzyzweski's attention and confidence and get the soon-to-be winning-est men's basketball coach to extend his vision down the bench beyond the sixth chair. And will enough of them wow 'K' for Duke to truly have the "deep wood" (acknowledging, of course, that modern "benches" are not in fact benches nor made of wood for that matter, but you get the idea) that is so often talked about during the preseason.
Let's take a look in order of most likely to least likely to extend Duke's bench.
Sophomore point guard Tyler Thornton is probably the lowest rated signee among the scholarship players at Duke. He was rated as a three-star prospect and was not ranked in the top 100 by either Rivals or Scout. He is part of Nolan Smith's DC Assault recruiting pipeline.
As a freshman, the 6'1", 195 pound Thornton saw action in 34 of Duke's 37 games, starting in three contests. He averaged just under 10 minutes per game. Of course, that he played as much as he did was largely a by-product of the toe injury to starting fellow freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who opted for the NBA draft after his first season.
Thornton is a true point guard, largely of the floor general variety. He is a jack of all trades but master of none. His strength is getting the team settled and into the offense. He does not need the ball to be effective, though he has shown flashes of being an opportunistic scorer. He is a smart and tenacious defender who dogs the basketball, will draw charges, will dig in and strip and steal the ball, and do all the little things, the important things that many do not notice to help his team win.
In Irving's absence, it became clear that Krzyzewski recognized and came to value and trust steadiness and dependability of his other, less spectacular freshman point guard. The coach played Thornton some key minutes during some big ball games, and it was apparent that Thornton's contribution was not lost on him.
It seems unlikely that Krzyzewski has somehow forgotten that, while some stars may shine more brightly than others, sometimes consistency, trust, and results are every bit as important in succeeding as a team as is talent -- and sometimes more so.
At least early in the campaign, look for Krzyzewski to look down the bench for Thornton when needing to substitute for one of his guards.
This choice will cause a little buzz. The player that is the next most likely to crack Krzyzewski's rotation is the "accidental" recruit, Alex Murphy. Murphy was a Duke verbal commit for the class of 2012. Having already completed the credits to graduate, however, the four-star small forward from St. Mary's School in Rhode Island decided leave high school early and entered Duke during the summer, in time to participate in Duke's summer practices and subsequent exhibition games in Asia.
The 6'8", 215 pound Murphy, whose brother Erik plays at Florida, reminds one of the now departed star, Kyle Singler, physically, but his game has been compared more to that of former Duke star and current NBA player Mike Dunleavy. He is extremely athletic and could possibly grow some more. He is first and foremost, as his performances have evidence thus far, a slasher who loves to attack the basket and finish at the rim. He has demonstrated a solid stroke to the three-pint line, but at present, his preference is going to the hoop.
Murphy is fundamentally solid and a quick study. His combination of size and driving ability makes him a commodity that Krzyzewski values and that no one else really rings to the table. At four inches taller than the projected starter at the three spot, Andre Dawkins, he offers that bigger alternative on the perimeter who still has guard skills.
Look for Murphy to work his way into the top eight, if not immediately, as the season progresses.
Sophomore post Josh Hairston is 'tweener. While being recruited he was listed as 6' 8" to 6' 9" but, upon arrival at Duke, he shrunk to his current height of 6' 7". He possesses the skills of a power forward, but they are packaged in a small forward's body.
As a freshman, Hairston saw action in 27 of Duke's 37 games, but his time was limited and usually came in mop-up situations. Experience, however, is experience.Hairston is a high energy player that plays the game with zest and passion. He has added about 25 pound since arriving on campus and certainly has the strength to hold his own with around the basket with other bangers.
Hairston's play is reminiscent of former Blue Devil, Lance Thomas, a key player on Duke's 2010 national championship team. He has shown the ability to move out to the short corner and high post and make 15 foot jumpers.
With his strength and high energy, Hairston could earn some time as the ninth man in the rotation, especially as an extra inside defender with fouls to give and a rebounder. How much he plays, however, may vary from game to game and will likely hinge upon the system that Krzyzewski adopts to most effectively use the assets that he possesses on this team.
Quinn Cook is a four-star point guard prospect from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, who is also part of the Nolan Smith DC Assault pipeline. He was the eighth-ranked point guard in the nation coming out of high school. During his senior season, Cook injured ligaments in his right knee that nagged him throughout. During prep for the Asia trip in Durham, the coaching staff felt that Cook was not yet 100 percent and "shut him down" so that he could fully heal by the time preseason workouts began last weekend.
The 6' 0", 175 pound cook is true, natural point guard. Like Thornton, he is a floor general, but with more athleticism, pop, and pizzazz. While a penetrator, creator and distributor first and foremost, he is a capable scorer when the opportunity presented or called upon to do so. He is best going to the basket, but has a rapidly improving perimeter game.
Between Thornton and Cook, Cook is the more talented and explosive. He is capable of pushing the Devils and breaking down defenses. As the season progresses, he learns, an he earns his spurs on defense, critical to earning Krzyzewski's seal of approval, he could well usurp Thornton's minutes.
Whether from the outset, mid-season, or next (if the knee continues to hamper, a redshirt could materialize), Cook is likely destined to be Duke's next great point guard.
Michael Gbinije is a four-star small forward recruit from Richmond, Virginia. He was ranked as high as seventh at his position and 29th among 2011 prospects.
At 6' 7", 205 pounds, he brings good size to the small forward position. In many respects, he is also considered a jack of all trades, not wowing necessarily at any single skill but very effective and productive at almost everything.
In the Asian exhibitions during the summer, he looked very tentative and did not see a lot of action. He is projected, however, to be a very good player for Duke who will most likely be a four-year guy. The prospects for his playing time this year has been muddled somewhat by the early matriculation of Alex Murphy who plays small forward also.
How much he is able to contribute is likely dependent upon a) the style of play that Krzyzewski designs for this team, b) his own learning curve and comfort level, and c) how other players on the roster progress.
If Cook, for instance, takes the bull by he horns and demands time at point, that development would likely lead to Dawkins and Rivers usurping more of the minutes at the three spot. If Murphy comes on fast, then he could be squeezed out for time at small forward, especially if Krzyzewski decided to use a big line-up with Ryan Kelly at three with any frequency at all.
As for the remaining freshman, 6' 11" Marshall Plumlee, he may be the odd man out this year and a prime candidate for an almost unheard of Duke redshirt. While the youngest Plumlee will likely be a fixture in the Duke low post for years to come, the bottom line is that he probably doesn't bring anything to the table this year that his two older, more experienced, and stronger brothers won't be able to deliver.
Who knows? Mike Krzyzewski, not beyond evolving and innovating when the mood strikes or the situation dictates, may decide to throw caution to the wind and adopt a pressing and running style of play, perhaps even platooning, to utilize all of this team's assets to wear down thinner opposing rosters. Maybe he will grow comfortable playing nine, ten, or more players.
But, I don't think so. Stretching to nine will be tough for him. When he looks down the bench and then looks back to the floor where potential 20 point plus per game scorers Curry, Dawkins, and Rivers are busy decimating opposing defenses, I think that he will find it difficult sit them down for any extended stretches of time. And who can blame him?
Good luck, young guns. Perhaps you should all ante up and buy him a pair of binoculars so that he can see you on the other end of the pines where you are busy honing your cheer-leading skills and biding your time.