Davis’ Deep Dives: No. 12 Duke basketball season preview 2021-22

Entering Mike Krzyzewski‘s final season, Duke basketball is recharged with Paolo Banchero and a supporting cast capable of doing significant damage.

Riley’s Ranking: 10th

Let’s start this deep dive with a throwback to 2003. When I was 10 years old, my sister dragged me to see The Lizzie McGuire Movie. Okay, okay, I went voluntarily. Disney Channel put out hits back in the day. But anyway, the plot centers on the title character, Lizzie, who graduates from junior high and embarks on a class trip to Rome. Once in Italia, she meets a famous pop star named Paolo, and the two hit it off. He invites her to rehearse with him, and they quickly fall in love. The rest of the film is largely irrelevant (spoiler alert: PAOLO IS A FRAUD!), but the general framework of the movie gives an apt analogy for Duke’s upcoming season.

Similar to Lizzie saying goodbye to middle school, Coach K will bid farewell to college hoops. Also akin to Lizzie, Coach K’s last ride will feature plenty of performances on big stages. And finally, just like Lizzie, Coach K, too, has found his Paolo.

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Yes, much of Duke’s success will depend upon five-star freshman Paolo Banchero. The 6-10 forward has virtually zero weaknesses in his game. For instance, he viciously finishes at the rim, scores out of iso in the mid-post, and protects the paint on defense. But most notably, Banchero showcases matchless perimeter skills for a big man. A guy his size should not be able to handle the ball like this:

In Banchero’s eyes, the Seattle hoops scene played a crucial part in developing his outside game. With competition like Isaiah Thomas, Jamal Crawford, and Zach LaVine, he couldn’t stay complacent as a one-dimensional post player.

If Duke’s scrimmage highlights give any indication, he’ll receive ample opportunity to initiate the Blue Devils’ offense. A former high school QB (he really does check every box), Banchero’s vision translates from the gridiron to the hardwood. He has even shown some ability to hit live-dribble passes. It may sound crazy, but a Zion-like impact appears within reach.

As is custom, Coach K brings in a couple more five-stars to team up with Banchero, one of whom is AJ Griffin. The top-20 wing pairs spring-loaded athleticism with potent iso scoring. Sadly, injuries completely derailed his final two high school seasons. Even more unfortunate, a knee sprain this offseason likely sidelines Griffin for the first couple of games. But if he can put those ailments in the rearview, he gives Duke another all-conference-caliber player. 

In addition to Griffin, top-25 big-bodied guard Trevor Keels will also occupy a crucial role on the perimeter. The DMV product moves exceptionally well without the rock, curling off screens to splash 3s. With his complementary skillset, he slots in perfectly next to Banchero and Griffin, two players who need the ball.

In addition to the frosh, Duke returns a group of solid veterans — a rarity in Durham. Sophomore 7-footer Mark Williams headlines this bunch, as one of the top breakout candidates in the country. After a sluggish start to his freshman season, the behemoth center found his footing down the stretch, commanding consistent minutes. In particular, Williams provided a nice complement to paint-averse Matthew Hurt, thanks to his monstrous dunks and putbacks.

Now, next to Banchero, the fit will look a bit different — but his game should only elevate playing alongside the incredible talent. The two could form the bedrock of the best interior defense in the conference. Additionally, they’ll benefit from massive Marquette transfer Theo John bringing physicality and rim protection off the pine.

On the perimeter, the Blue Devils also retain junior Wendell Moore, who closed the season in sneakily good fashion. At points last year, Moore vanished like the kids at the end of The Sandlot. (A four-game stretch in December, where he averaged 16.5 minutes and 1.5 points, sticks out as the nadir.) But in the latter half of conference play, he experienced a revival as Krzyzewski used him as a primary ballhandler. In a new role, Moore displayed some of the gifts that once earned him McDonald’s All-American honors.

But of all returners, sophomore point guard Jeremy Roach can most swing Duke’s trajectory. Similar to their Tobacco Road cohorts, the Blue Devils saw their five-star freshman struggle with running the offense in 2021. Turnovers and inconsistent shooting tarnished Roach’s play for much of the season. But those issues are par for the course for any first-year floor general. What really hampered Duke was his porous defense:

Image from Hoop-Explorer

Roach often looked a step slow on that end, giving up ground to his man, getting caught on screens, and taking unnecessary gambles. Perhaps a full offseason of training can help ameliorate some of these shortcomings.

On a positive note, the young guard did show signs of progress towards the end of the year, most notably on offense. In spurts, he flashed the ability to probe the defense and get to the hoop. It’s far too early to give up on him.

Though it boasts an enticing blend of youth and experience, the same questions that surround Duke every year still linger. Roach’s defensive lapses were not unique to him. As a collective, the Blue Devils often looked lost and disinterested in guarding the basket. However, with Banchero, Williams, and Moore on the floor, that seems destined to change.

Three-point shooting, on the other hand, appears to be a bigger concern. Though Banchero, Griffin and Keels all display solid shooting form, their shots may not translate immediately — it’s always tough to project how freshmen will fare from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, neither Moore nor Roach has ever been known as marksmen. (And it’s not like Joey Baker will get much burn, either.) A lack of shooters looks like the only threat to what otherwise should be a top-tier offense.

Still, the most intriguing storyline will be how the players respond to Coach K’s final year. Will it prove to be a distraction from the on-court product? Or will it lead to extra motivation that levels up their play? If it all clicks, this season could be what dreams are made of for college basketball’s most tenured coach.

TL/DR:

Projected starters: G – Jeremy Roach (So.); G – Trevor Keels (Fr.); G/F – Wendell Moore (Jr.); F – Paolo Banchero (Fr.); C – Mark Williams (So.)

Projected bench: F – AJ Griffin* (Fr.); C – Theo John (Gr.); G – Jaylen Blakes (Fr.); G – Joey Baker (Sr.)

Strengths: Paolo; interior defense; a blend of high-end talent and savvy experience on the roster

Weaknesses: Uncertainty at point guard; shooting

Best player: Banchero

Breakout player: Williams



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