With all five starters either graduating (6’5″ Grayson Allen) or declaring for the NBA Draft (6’10” ACC Player-of-Year/1st Team All-American Marvin Bagley III, 6’6″ sg Gary Trent Jr., 6’10” Wendell Carter Jr. and 6’3″ pg Trevon Duval), Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski will travel to Canada with a virtually revamped front-end of the rotation.
Duke does return 7’0″ senior Antonio Vrankovic (1.0 ppg in 14 games this past season) and a pair of juniors: 6’11” Marques Bolden (3.9 ppg/3.6 rpg in 13 mpg) and 6’10” Javin DeLaurier (3.4 ppg/4.0 rpg in 14 mpg) as their interior players for next season. As well 6’6″ rising sophomore Alex O’Connell who averaged about 10 mpg and 3.3 ppg is scheduled to return. All have been reserve players during their Duke careers as Coach K rode his five starters heavily all season: Bagley, Allen, Trent Jr., Carter Jr. and Duval averaged a collective 161 minutes per game with Carter Jr.’s penchant for foul trouble a factor in giving Bolden and DeLaurier double-digit per game minutes off the bench.
But fear not for the perennial national championship contenders, Blue Devils attracted the U.S.A.’s No. 1 recruiting class, featuring the top three players in the class of 2018, including 6’7″ small forwards R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, 6’6″ power forward Zion Williamson and 6’2″ point guard Tre Jones.
Also peculiar for long-time followers of Coach K’s legendary program is the amount of zone defense deployed recently – especially this past season – by the Devils, potentially a function of a freshman-laden group that struggled to understand (or more to the point – in the AAU era – never were previously taught) the basic tenants of help defense, close-out angles, off-the-ball rotations and, even more simply, ball screen “d”.
Add in a sprinkle of the general lack of perimeter shooting in the contemporary college game compared to era’s past and also possibly the need to shield his starters from foul trouble and a long-time “man or bust” defensive coach – who toiled under legendary man-to-man “d” coach Bobby Knight at Army as a player and at Indiana as an Assistant Coach (one season 1974-75) – transforms into his best Jim Boeheim imitation.
And the problem for traditional die-hards is that it worked ! (if you measure by wins; other measures will be arbitrated next season in the NBA when opponents develop defensive scouting reports around the graduating Duke players).
Long-time college fans identify Duke as a “slap-the-floor, clap-your-hands” pressure man-to-man team since Krzyzewski took over the Blue Devils in 1980 from Bill Foster but Coach K began sprinkling in zone “d” during their National championship run in 2015, even playing a handful of possessions in zone in the national championship game that season against Wisconsin. But it wasn’t until February of this past season when a “dreadful” defensive performance resulted in an all-night review by the coaching staff and decision to commit to a zone for his freshman-laden group. And the transition was virtually immediate: one estimate had Duke playing 95% of their defensive possessions after mid-Feburary in a 2-3 zone: purists were ignored & Duke became a Syracuse-like zone team !
With another crop of five freshmen coming in expected to see the majority of the minutes – and the Canadian trip their very first action as Duke Blue Devils – it will be interesting from the get-go to witness whether or not Coach K believes this group can take to his traditional man-to-man concepts quickly or, based on last season’s experience, get his group ready to play heavy doses of zone from the start of the season in order to survive.
Our bet here is that in the games in Canada, Coach K comes out in man to gauge how well his kids understand the notions – some of which in a traditional college program can take players a couple or more years to really solidly understand – in any program. In any case, what Duke does defensively presents an interesting sub-plot to one of the more widely anticipated visits by a U.S. Division 1 program to Canada in the history of the summer tours.