On December 23rd, 1856, in Durham, North Carolina, Washington Duke celebrated an early Christmas gift: his second wife Artelia gave birth to James Buchanan, his second-born. Washington could not know that the child would have had a prominent role in the history of American industry as well as in basketball history.
At 65 years of age Mr Duke decided to leave his tobacco industry in the hands of his two sons, Benjamin and James “Buck” (likely a short for Buchanan), who showed from the very beginning to be a much better businessman than his elder brother. In five years, he turned the family business into one of the biggest enterprises in the nation by securing the monopoly of cigarettes sales.
Searching for “James Duke” on Google will tell you that he had business both in the tobacco industry and in energy production. Yet, Buck’s heritage is much bigger, because that kid born just before Christmas decided he had to leave a long-lasting mark of his presence on earth. That’s why he decided to donate a large amount of money to a Methodist university founded in 1838 in North Carolina, which took his name in 1924, turning it into one of the most decorated, representative and followed teams in college basketball: Duke University.
Along the years the Blue Devils surprised the nation on multiple occasions with astonishing performances and won the tournament five times. Expectations were raised to incredible heights, the same expectations surrounding the 2016-2017 team. Fans of coach Mike Krzyzewski‘s team are ecstatic over arguably the most talented roster ever, a consequence of the most successful recruiting season in the university history.
This is not an overreaction. Let’s consider a few sample cases, before the season even starts. Since 2007, only two teams managed to recruit the first player in Espn ranking and another one included in the top 5. Kentucky did it in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Duke did the same in 2015 with Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Both teams won the title, of course.
And then there are the 2016-2017 Blue Devils, who will play both Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum, first and third player in the 2016 Espn ranking. As if it was not enough, since 2007, only four times a team had four top 20 players. And the 2016-17 Duke is one of them. Coach K. will have an embarrassing amount of talent to rely on and an experienced and talented core who already won a title in 2015. The mix will make for a versatile team that could potentially come up with a specific game plan for every opponent.
So, one of the oldest and winningest university in college basketball, arguably the best freshmen class ever playing with a core that already won a title, surrounded by one of the hottest, loudest and annoying student section in Division I, the Cameron Crazies. But there’s more: Duke will rely on the best and arguably most “clutch” player in college, guard Grayson Allen. The potential Player of the Year is public enemy number one for all defenses in the nation and a handful for any wing who will have to face him.
If defenses were already collapsing when he only had one great sidekick (Brandon Ingram), it is hard to predict the kind of hell he is going to unleash with two talents like Giles and Tatum; shooters like Frank Jackson and returning Luke Kennard and Matt Jones; and athletes like Marques Bolden, Chase Jeter and Amile Jefferson. Sure, Allen is likely to be the one to have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line, but he will be surrounded by plenty of options on offense.
Let’s see how these talents can mix together.
There are four guards at roster: Grayson Allen, of course, and Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Frank Jackson. They are all good shooters, including freshman Jackson, who proved defenses will have to respect him from distance in preseason, a perfect fit for coach K.’s perimeter-oriented offense. Jones will also bring defense and experience (he was part of the team that won the championship in 2015) while Kennard is very good at getting to the free-throw line. Preseason showed the only issue might be the absence of a true playmaker, which might be trouble against aggressive defensive schemes like Louisville’s or when attacking the zone, with Syracuse coming to mind. But as of now, this seems like splitting hairs.
The wing rotation will be mainly Jayson Tatum, with Kennard, who will play a few minutes at the small forward spot, and Giles, who might play at the three in ultra-big lineups. Besides Allen, offensive production will depend on Giles and Tatum, and the two of them would need a more in-depth analysis. But if they will be healthy (big if, more on that later), they will be no-brainer lottery picks. Tatum is smooth and agile, he can run the floor in a couple of seconds in huge strides and can score in plenty or ways. Giles has a similar skill-set, but he adds to the mix his imposing frame and length. They are both a bit raw but they have the offensive (and defensive) potential to be the very best.
In the frontcourt, beside Giles at the power forward spot, the roster includes Amile Jefferson, who will bring his share of experience, defense and rebounds; Chase Jeter, much improved according to coach K., and two freshmen: Texan Marques Bolden and Javin Delaurier. Jeter and Bolden both have similar profiles, with the former being longer and thinner, while the latter is bigger. They are both the prototype of the modern mobile center, both can be aggressive on defense and effective on the boards. Bolden finished his first preseason game with five blocks, proving he can be an elite rim protector. Delaurier should come off the bench, allowing the starter to rest.
As of right now, the only obstacle between Duke and dozens of wins is bad luck. Giles began the season with a third knee surgery and will be sidelined early on. Tatum suffered an ankle sprain, which should not prevent him to be on the floor on opening night but will not be at his best. Bolden will miss the first two games of the season because of a left lower-leg injury. Nothing serious, not yet (unless there are undisclosed consequences with Giles knee), but the team chemistry might be late to come.
Injuries aside, the Blue Devils will be a super-team. Coach K.’s motion offense will get them points, while defense will probably rely on athleticism and length, taking the 38-1 Kentucky team as a role model: nine players are 6-5 or more, can switch on any pick and can rebound from the weak side. Coach K. has all the tools to get his sixth title and to satisfy James Buck’s wish from the 20s: make sure the name Duke was associated with the idea of dynasty and even more, with the idea of winning.