Duke Basketball: Debating the Blue Devils

Duke is always one of the most polarizing teams in the nation, and this year is no different. Jamie Shaw & Brian Rauf debate the Blue Devils.

In a new series for Heat Check CBB, we take a closer look at teams causing the most disagreement within our staff. We begin with one of the country’s most polarizing teams: Duke. In our most recent poll, one of our voters had Duke as low as No. 16. Another put the Blue Devils as high as No. 2.

For this first go-round, Heat Check CBB national writers Jamie Shaw and Brian Rauf put on the gloves and go toe-to-toe on Duke. First, Jamie will explain why he thinks the Blue Devils will contend for a national title in Coach K’s final season. Then, Brian will explain why he’s not buying the hype.

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Jamie Shaw on why Duke will contend for a national title:

1. Duke’s freshmen are special.

While many outlets had him ranked as the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2021 class, Paolo Banchero will be the most impactful college freshman this season. Standing 6’10” and weighing 250 pounds, Banchero has a unique skill set. He can guard down a lineup, switching onto wings or walling up in the post. Offensively, Banchero has a high IQ and can initiate offense from all over the floor. His ability to create could prove to be an invaluable asset.

If there is a question for Duke, it is at point guard. Sophomore Jeremy Roach is slated to be the starter, with 3-star freshman Jaylen Blakes backing him up. On the plus side, Banchero allows Coach K to get creative with how the team gets into their offense. That will make Duke that much more dangerous.

Banchero is not the only projected one-and-done Coach K recruited. AJ Griffin (6’6”, 222 lbs.) was the No. 16 player in the Rivals150 2021 rankings. Griffin, son of current Toronto Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin, is a physical specimen at the wing. He is a true bucket-getter with straight-line athleticism. He also has deep range and consistency with his shot. There is a good chance Griffin could lead this Duke team in scoring.

Freshman guard Trevor Keels (6’4”, 221 lbs.) was the No. 22 prospect in the 2021 class, per Rivals.com. Keels is a great glue piece who can fit in a lot of roles and situations. He can handle, shoot and pass the ball with ease. Expect all three players to play big minutes and to have a major impact on this year’s Duke team.

2. The emergence of Mark Williams is important.

Williams ended his freshman season on a tear; the seven-footer went for 23 points and 19 rebounds against Louisville in his final game of the year. The center was given a larger role for the final eight games after Jalen Johnson left school. Over his final six games, Williams averaged 16.7 points along with 7.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.

In just 15 minutes per game last year, Williams showed strong defensive acumen. He was one of only four players in the ACC with a defensive rating under 97.5, a DBPM over 3.5 and a block percentage over 9.5%. He was also the only player in the country to post a PER over 30 while shooting over 66 percent.

This season, Duke will have Banchero replacing Matthew Hurt at power forward. This could be a good thing for Williams, as Hurt was one of only nine players in the ACC who had a usage rate over 22% and a defensive rating over 104. While not the shooter Hurt was, Banchero should be a significantly better rebounder, passer and defender. In a college game where dominant big men can still deliver wins, Williams is set to take a big step forward.

3. It’s Coach K’s farewell tour.

This Duke team is playing for something special in 2021-22, as they will always be remembered as Coach K’s last team. Each player on this team was highly recruited out of high school and chose to play for “The Brotherhood” in Durham. This year more than any other, the spotlight will be on the Duke program, both past and present.

Anyone who was a part of Mike Krzyzewski‘s 1,170 wins and five national titles — from team managers to top draft picks — will be invested in Coach K’s last go-around. Without a doubt, every venue the Blue Devils visit will be packed wall-to-wall, and the crowds will be at full volume. The team will have even more media coverage than usual following their every move, trying to get a piece of the story.

Duke has recruited some elite players in recent years. The team’s scholarship players boast an average ranking of 35.5, per Rivals, and six players on the roster were McDonald’s All-Americans. Many of the teams on Duke’s schedule do not have any McDonald’s All-Americans or top-35 recruits. These gifted young players chose to play for Duke, knowing full well that they were also choosing the spotlight. In Coach K’s final season, this team will band together. With 40 years of Duke basketball behind them, the Blue Devils will be on a mission to give Coach K one last chance to cut down the nets.

Brian Rauf on why Duke may not be serious contenders:

1. Will they get consistent point guard play?

This was one of the biggest weaknesses for the Blue Devils last season and it limited their offense. The hope was that Jeremy Roach would step into that starting role as a freshman, but he really struggled and ended up with a significantly higher turnover rate (22.7) than assist rate (16.8).

Duke moved him off the ball and limited his time in favor of senior Jordan Goldwire, who transferred to Oklahoma for his fifth year of eligibility. Roach is going to be forced into the starting point guard role again with only four-star freshman Jaylen Blakes behind him. That does not exactly bode well for the Blue Devils.

Now, Roach has likely progressed from his freshman to sophomore season, and having a full offseason program for the first time can’t hurt. But the most important position on the court — point guard — is also Duke’s biggest question mark.

2. Lack of perimeter shooting

The lack of a consistent outside threat is another issue from last season that still hasn’t been addressed. In fact, it’s only gotten worse for Duke.

The Blue Devils were a poor three-point shooting team in 2020-21, ranking 100th nationally in three-point percentage (35.2). Now, they have to replace their four most accurate perimeter shooters from that group. Matthew Hurt, Jalen Johnson, DJ Steward and Goldwire were the only players on Duke’s roster to shoot better than 32 percent from deep, and each one of them is now gone.

Considering that freshmen AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels aren’t knockdown shooters, either, Duke is a team that could struggle mightily from deep. If that happens, a disastrous consequence could be that opposing defenses clog the lane and make life tougher for Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams inside.

3. Is Duke’s defense going to be better?

Duke ranked 79th in adjusted defensive efficiency a year ago and gave up at least 70 points in all of their losses, including six in which they allowed over 80 points. That 70-point mark was a telling barometer for the Blue Devils, as they were just 3-11 overall when allowing their opponent to cross that threshold. Compare that to a perfect 10-0 record when they held opponents under 70 points.

Part of that dynamic last year was due to Duke’s lack of offensive firepower, which might be an issue again, especially if three-point shooting remains a weakness and if Coach K can’t find a reliable point guard.

It should also be pointed out, however, that Duke played a bigger lineup last year because their best players (Johnson, Hurt, Moore, Williams) were in the frontcourt. That lineup limited their defensive versatility, and opponents took advantage on the perimeter (Duke was 268th in three-point defense). This year’s team is going to play big again with Banchero, Williams, and Marquette transfer Theo John all serving in significant roles. Banchero is certainly a defensive upgrade over Hurt, but there are still question marks about Duke’s perimeter defense and how they can (and likely will) be exploited by smaller lineups.

This Duke team is still extremely talented and it will be fun to see how Coach K puts all these pieces together. At the same time, this group still has some very real limitations. That gives the Blue Devils a clearly visible ceiling, one which will fall short of any dream scenario of ending Coach K’s career with another national title.



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