Duke Basketball’s 2020-21 reloading project poised for title contention

There are very few programs in the nation as accustomed to roster turnover as Duke basketball. Ever since embracing the recruitment of “one-and-done” prospects, the Blue Devils have lost several key pieces each offseason only to return as a top-ranked team the following year. Concerning this upcoming campaign, there are a few solid pieces returning to Durham but Coach K is also welcoming his traditionally high number of newcomers to the program. And, once again, Duke will enter the year slotted in the preseason Top 10. The system works, regardless of whether or not people want to admit it. 

This season’s reloading project, though, is one that I am high on due to its roster balance. There might not be a Zion-level star gracing the court, but there shouldn’t be any glaring weaknesses either. Poor 3-point shooting, for instance, has been among Duke’s kryptonites for the past few years. With potential breakout returners and incoming snipers, that should be remedied. Duke will also feature a bevy of playmakers capable of leading a highly efficient offensive unit. 

Teams with most returning minutes for ’20-21
All-Breakout Team
Big Ten power rankings

Experienced? More than you’d think.

Duke might not be driven by experience, but it will boast four returners and a graduate transfer big. Perhaps at the forefront of this group, Wendell Moore Jr. and Matthew Hurt will be entering for their sophomore campaigns as former Top 30 recruits. With a full year of collegiate experience under their belts, they could take significant leaps as full-time starters. 

Beginning with Moore, he should fill the “lockdown wing defender” role that is growing in importance with each year. While go-to scorers make headlines, having an elite antithesis to those players can be equally important. Moore boasts an excellent combination of agility and strength, which allows him to cover multiple positions on the floor. He should be fully healthy for his sophomore campaign and could develop into a two-way threat. Moore averaged 7.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game a year ago.

Hurt is far more offensively inclined, on the other hand. A 6-foot-9 sniper with ball skills, Hurt is the type of floor-spacing big that any team would like to have. While inconsistent as a freshman, he still managed to post respectable averages of 9.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting 39.3 percent from beyond the arc. Certainly not bad, at least not for the amount of criticism he received.

The key for Hurt will be adding much-needed strength to hold his own underneath as a defender and rebounder. If he can make improvements in those areas, he could be in for a major breakout campaign. Hurt’s potential to be an offensive star is obvious. When playing at the “4”, he will look to form a formidable starting frontcourt alongside graduate transfer Patrick Tape (or possibly freshman Mark Williams). 

A 6-foot-10 senior that previously took the court with Columbia, Tape represents an anomaly in Duke’s typical reloading efforts. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski rarely traverses the transfer market, but he did so to lure this experienced big man. Tape might not be a “star” down low but he is a proven talent fresh off averaging 11.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game for the Lions last season on 66.7 percent shooting from the floor. He rarely forces the issue and will play plenty of minutes at the center spot.

Defense and shooting off the bench? You bet.

Off the bench, key returning reserves Jordan Goldwire and Joey Baker will be back in Durham. These two bring vastly different playing styles to the court but can be equally impactful while on their games. With Goldwire, Duke has the luxury of bringing lockdown defensive guard off the bench. He makes life miserable for opposing guards and there are very few in the nation better on the perimeter. Goldwire also shot a respectable 35.4 percent from 3-point range last season and will bring senior leadership to the roster. 

Baker, on the other hand, will be entering this season as the team’s reserve sniper. He only averaged 12.1 minutes per game in 2019-20, but he made those minutes count by connecting on 39.4 percent of his 71 3-point attempts. He is now in his third season with the program and should take the next leap into a steady role after spending much of his first two years seeing inconsistent playing time. With Duke’s abundance of playmakers this year, Baker should find his fair share of open looks from the perimeter. 

Diaper Dandies? Duh.

While these “veterans” all seem poised to fill valuable rotation spots this season, Duke’s season will be determined by its freshmen. The six-man class, despite not featuring any Top 10 prospects, will arrive in Durham ranked at No. 2 by Rivals and No. 3 by 247Sports and will face plenty of expectations. Most notably, Duke expects to compete for the national championship every single year. Many of these freshmen will not be in Durham long, so they will need to prove their hype quickly.

Leading the way for this group is five-star forward Jalen Johnson out of Wisconsin. A well-rounded prospect with no major holes in his game, Johnson has “star” written all over him. With superb court vision and a well-built 6-foot-8 frame, he is a big playmaker that can create for himself or others out of just about any set. He can control tempo, bury pull-up jumpers, or dominate from the high-post. Quite simply, if anyone on this Duke roster is fit to be an “offensive hub”, it is Johnson. 

A potential ACC Player of the Year contender, Johnson will be at the center of everything for Duke. Not only is he a superb individual performer, but his playing style is conducive to putting up big numbers. Johnson’s court vision, passing ability, and relentless aggressiveness at his size should lead to open looks for teammates. There should be no doubt that he is among the best scorers on the roster as well.

Joining Johnson in the projected starters will be Jeremy Roach, a five-star guard entrusted with replacing Tre Jones (NBA Draft). Considering Jones was about as rock-solid as they come for the Blue Devils with his steady leadership on both ends of the floor, this is an unenviable task. After watching Roach play, though, it’s easy to be excited about how he can make up for Jones’ departure. Roach is an outstanding on-court leader with great playmaking instincts and tenacious defensive play. He understands how to break down a defender and is a capable perimeter shooter as well. There are not many freshmen “do-it-all” point guards, but Roach just might be one.

DJ Steward will then slide into the backcourt rotation that also features Roach, Moore, and Goldwire. The five-star Whitney Young (IL) product is as an elite sniper that is hardwired to score. Duke has had its perimeter scoring woes over the past few seasons, and Steward is the type of shooter that the program has been missing. Additionally, if opponents take away his 3-point shot, Steward is no slouch when it comes to attacking the basket or burying at mid-range. Defenders cannot surrender even a sliver of separation in this matchup.

In the frontcourt, Mark Williams joins the fray with aspirations of competing for a starting spot as a freshman. Regardless of starting, you can bet on Williams as a critical piece of Duke’s rotation this season. The 7-footer finished his high school career tremendously well and forced recruiting services to give him five-star consideration – he should only continue to build on that momentum. Williams epitomizes the term “rim protector”, rebounds at a high rate, and can finish above the rim offensively as well. He is not a go-to post scorer, but his playing style fits with this roster quite well. 

Lastly, Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman fill out Duke’s highly-regarded recruiting class and it’s hard to determine exactly where either will fit in the rotation. Considering both are Top 50 prospects that would be go-to star forwards at most programs in the nation, the inability to find an obvious role for them in Year 1 is a testament to how deep this roster is. If they can find stable minutes, Brakefield is an athletic stretch while Coleman is built to be a paint mismatch.

HOF Coach + Depth + Balance + Shooting? Yup.

Despite having this absurd amount of talent and a Hall of Fame head coach, though, Duke somehow seems to be entering this season flying a bit under-the-radar. Of course, the program is still garnering headlines, but there doesn’t appear to be nearly as much buzz as normal. Is this is due to their lack of a Top 10 incoming freshman or two? Perhaps, but I’m willing to bet on Duke.

While the Blue Devils will surely be included in most, if not all, preseason Top 10s, they are not being discussed in the same conversation as the likes of Gonzaga, Baylor, and Villanova. And while all of those teams feature similarly loaded rosters, would it really be a shock for Duke to join that group of top title contenders? I don’t think so. 

Duke simply has all the makings of a title contender. With the potential breakouts of Moore and Hurt, the experience of Tape and Goldwire, the playmaking of Roach and Johnson, the shooting of Steward and Baker, and the versatility of Williams/Brakefield/Coleman, the Blue Devils will have counterpunches for anything opponents throw at them. As long as Coach K can find the appropriate balance for all of these players to succeed, Duke will be a tough out.


Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business.