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Duke’s 11th-hour addition is a game-changer

August 17, 2017 Columns No Comments

Before the 11th hour – literally – you could question the Duke basketball team for 2017-18. It made plenty of sense; a look at the team’s roster left about as many questions as answers.

But now? At this point, you could put the Blue Devils as one of the ACC favorites and in the national title discussion.

Marvin Bagley III is that good. And he’s heading to Durham.

Duke had a nice collection of talent ready to take the floor this season, as you can expect. They return Grayson Allen and Marques Bolden, to begin with, and added the likes of Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter and Jordan Tucker. That group is certainly not lacking talent, especially when you add depth in the form of Javin DeLaurier. But it wasn’t without questions.

Bagley takes care of any remaining talent question. He gives them a producer inside at both ends, as he can score inside and dominate the glass and also protect the rim. Besides that, he has great ball skills for his size, which could make this team especially dangerous in transition when you add his rebounding in. He was the best prospect in the class of 2018 by a wide margin and will still be considered the best in 2017. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that for his entire high school career, he’s been the best prospect in high school regardless of class.

Teams headed by freshmen can win it all, but they have tended to be a bit hit-or-miss. The biggest factor there is who the upperclassmen are, and that’s where the questions come in for this team.

Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones were certainly not All-Americans, but they were certainly important for this team last year. They were veteran emotional leaders, the kind that a lot of championship teams have, and they had their big moments. Jones, for example, led a second half surge that turned around a home win over Miami in which the Blue Devils were clearly outplayed in the first half and dominated the Hurricanes in the second half. Their departures are not trivial.

Bagley certainly helps there, as he’s a great teammate, but his team did not do well in the Nike EYBL despite his dominance. Duval won both an EYBL and Under Armour Association title during his high school years, so he has something to hang his hat on.

The veterans, though, often make or break a championship team led in talent by freshmen. Kentucky won their national title in 2012 with help from senior Darius Miller. Duke won in 2015 with senior Quinn Cook, junior Amile Jefferson and redshirt junior Marshall Plumlee all playing key roles. Even the 2014-15 Kentucky team that ran the table until the national semifinals had more than just sophomores who bypassed the NBA Draft a year earlier – they had junior Willie Cauley-Stein as well.

Against that backdrop, who from the current Duke roster figures to provide that? There is only one who even remotely qualifies. Allen is certainly capable, and he seemed to be just that for a while last season. He was playing through nagging injuries, making big plays and doing what was needed to win. Then he had another tripping incident, which drew a one-game suspension from coach Mike Krzyzewski. That means there is a question as to whether or not he can be that leader.

Allen could end up being just that, but his history suggests that is hardly a given. Do the freshmen provide the big intangibles? Maybe, but that’s counting on a lot.

We will find out pretty quickly how this team comes together, as Duke plays a demanding non-conference schedule as usual. They open with Elon, who should contend in the CAA, and just a few days later take on Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Chicago. They will also play in the stacked Phil Knight Invitational in Portland (opening with Portland State, then Butler or Texas and any of Florida, Stanford, Gonzaga or Ohio State), go to Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and later take on Northeast Conference contender Saint Francis.

All of that comes before the ACC gauntlet that will include a few others who should challenge for the ACC title like Louisville. By then, though, we’ll have an idea of whether or not this team will have more than just talent going for it.

Duke was already going to bring back a pretty good team. With a big 11th hour addition, the Blue Devils will be back in the national title conversation once again.

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