ACC Burning Questions: Duke Blue Devils

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 2nd, 2016

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Will injuries stand in the way of Duke’s run at history and a sixth National Championship for Mike Krzyzewski? 

A large part of the charm and allure of college basketball is its unpredictability. Grand proclamations and bold predictions made in October rarely see themselves all the way through, and the well-heeled equity a team builds up during an elite regular season isn’t worth a darn when getting pushed to the brink in the NCAA Tournament. That said, with the roster that Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has assembled in Durham, there is very little doubt that his Blue Devils are the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets next April in Phoenix. And while a random one-game sample could derail the team in its quest for a second title in three seasons, it is a mortal lock that this squad will finish a tad higher than fifth place in the ACC standings last year. By its own astronomical standards, Duke’s 2015-16 campaign was a disappointment. Losers of 10 or more games for the first time since 2007, the 25-11 Blue Devils were unceremoniously extinguished by #1 seed Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen. And while Duke found its defensive deficiencies too difficult to overcome, the team returns a tremendous amount of perimeter firepower from the fourth most efficient offense in the country.

Grayson Allen led the way for Duke with 29 points. (Credit: Getty Images/ Jim Rogash)

Grayson Allen, one of the nation’s top returnees, will be bolstered with the nation’s top recruiting class. (Getty)

Grayson Allen is the headliner. The junior burst into our consciousness during the 2015 Final Four and translated that momentum into an explosive sophomore season. In averaging an impressive 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Allen earned first-team All-ACC and third-team All-American accolades. Combining with freshman star Brandon Ingram to form one of the country’s most dangerous offensive duos, Allen was college basketball’s 44th-rated offensive player, according to KenPom. His rare combination of elite athleticism with dead-eye shooting make him a consensus preseason All-America selection heading into his third campaign in Durham.

A pair of highly accomplished veteran wings will flank Allen on the perimeter. Senior Matt Jones returns after notching career-high averages in points, rebounds and assists, as well as undeniably serving as the team’s top perimeter defender. Sophomore Luke Kennard is building off what once was considered a conventional freshman season, initially struggling to adjust to the college game. His improvement and confidence steadily rose, however, to where the multi-faceted scorer ultimately finished among the top 100 nationally in offensive rating. A breakout second season is anticipated for the southpaw. While the importance of these three components should not be understated, the significance of Amile Jefferson‘s return to Durham for a fifth season cannot be overstated. After winning eight of its first nine games with Jefferson anchoring the lineup, Duke never really recovered after losing its interior defensive stalwart to a foot fracture. Not only did the Blue Devils miss his defensive prowess and leadership, but his proclivity to hit the offensive glass was a gaping hole — Jefferson ranks sixth on the school’s all-time list with 277 offensive boards.

The Blue Devils are thrilled to welcome Amile Jefferson back for a fifth campaign in Durham. (AP)

The Blue Devils are thrilled to welcome Amile Jefferson back for a fifth campaign in Durham. (AP)

Rare as it is in modern college basketball to return a core this talented and experienced, Krzyzewski doubled down by bringing in a boatload of impressive new talent. The crown jewel in a class chock full of diamonds is Harry Giles, one of the top players in the Class of 2016. Ready-made to succeed on both ends of the floor, the only concern regarding the 6’10” forward is his health. After getting his knee scoped in early October, Giles has now undergone three knee surgeries in the last four years. This medical history, along with what will be a surefire high lottery selection in next year’s NBA Draft, means Krzyzewski will take excessive caution in handling him. Joining Giles in next year’s lottery will be 6’8” combo forward Jayson Tatum. A gifted scorer and facilitator for his size, Tatum is also currently nursing a foot injury. Expected to be ready for the season opener, however, Tatum has the size and skill to be virtually unguardable at this level.

To round out the class, Krzyzewski added another pair of consensus top-15 players in guard Frank Jackson and big man Marques Bolden. Jackson, more of a combo guard than a natural point, will be handed the ball to run the team. A learning curve will certainly exist, but given his scintillating abilities with the ball and an army of embarrassing riches there for support, the transition should be smooth for the co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game. The 6’11” Bolden is the least ballyhooed of the bunch, but his size, along with returnee Chase Jeter, will undoubtedly be an asset in aiding Jefferson on the glass until Giles returns to health. Coming off a summer that earned him a third consecutive gold medal while captaining Team USA, Coach K trades the best collection of professional talent the country has to offer for the best collection of amateur talent around. The blend of quality, accomplished veterans and intoxicatingly talented newcomers has many pundits comparing this squad to the 2014-15 version at Kentucky, which came up two games short of an undefeated season and National Championship. And despite the gauntlet that is this year’s ACC, it is very much a realistic possibility that a healthy Duke team can put the finishing touches on a historic season five months from now in Arizona.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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