Amile Jefferson says the most noticeable difference in Duke’s roster this season can be seen daily in practice. There are talented players everywhere, enough to field a couple of starting lineups.
On paper, and without injuries, Mike Krzyzewski could field the deepest roster of his 37 seasons at Duke. As many as 10 players could see significant playing time if Krzyzewski elects to go that route. History says he will not for various reasons ranging from injuries to inexperience to varying talent levels.
For the greater part of his Hall of Fame run in Durham, Krzyzewski has relied on a six- and seven-man rotation to win 970 games and five national championships. Thirty of his 36 teams have primarily used six or seven players to post outstanding season after outstanding season. Five teams went eight players deep, and only the 1997-98 club used nine players for significant minutes.
Already it is looking like injuries could cut into Krzyzewski’s depth during the upcoming season. Highly touted freshman Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum are sidelined, the 6-foot-10 Giles by knee surgery and the 6-8 Tatum with a foot ailment.
Even without those two, it appears the graduate student Jefferson, senior Matt Jones, junior Grayson Allen, sophomores Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard, as well as freshmen Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, Frank Jackson and Jack White will – or could – be contributors.
“We’re still formulating our identity. I think our guys are getting used to playing with a bunch of different lineups,” Jefferson said Wednesday at the ACC’s media day. “To me, I think we have at least eight guys, maybe nine, who are starters.
“So, right now, the identity of our team is to have more than five starters, to have more than five guys think of themselves as starting players because they are that good. It doesn’t matter who coach puts on the floor to start the game, all of our guys have to be ready.”
Jefferson was the primary reason Duke was limited to a six-man rotation much of this past season. Jefferson missed the bulk of the year with a right foot fracture leaving 92 percent of the minutes played to Allen, Jones, Kennard, Brandon Ingram, Marshall Plumlee and Derryck Thornton.
Loaded with talent
Over the final month of the 2016 season, Duke practiced only one hour of what Krzyzewski calls “contact,” or full scrimmage, because there were not enough bodies available to do so. By comparison, with many more available players, Duke conducted two hours of “contact” practice on Tuesday alone.
Right now, there would be eight guys who I think at any one time could start. That doesn’t mean the other guys couldn’t play.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
For the first time in his days at Duke, Krzyzewski also has a full allotment of 13 scholarships on his roster. Previously, his teams counted 11 or so scholarships, and added a walk-on or two to full-scholarship status.
It is likely that Krzyzewski has never said the following during the preseason:
“Right now, we have 11 guys who can play. That helps us in practice. Then you’re playing against good people. We had a scrimmage yesterday with ACC officials. So when one team is playing against the other, the other team is good, no matter who you have.”
This Duke squad also is loaded like no other before with McDonald’s All-Americans. Eight players on the current roster were McDonald’s All-Americans, and only an injury a season ago prevented Giles from joining the group.
Even with rosters stocked with top-level talent, Krzyzewski has tended over the years to whittle his roster of usable players down to six or seven, and it is difficult to argue with his success in going that route. Using 500 minutes as the minimum for being considered a significant contributor to a team, four of Krzyzewski’s national championship squads relied primarily on six players. Only the 1991 NCAA champs went seven players deep.
Perhaps his two deepest teams came in 1998 and 1999 when they combined to go 69-6 with the likes of William Avery, Shane Battier, Elton Brand, Chris Burgess, Chris Carrawell and Trajan Langdon playing both seasons. The ’98 club lost in the regional final to Kentucky using nine players throughout the season, and the ’99 Blue Devils that went eight deep fell to Connecticut in the national championship game.
“There’s a point of differentiation that you have to come to through watching your team play,” Krzyzewski said of evaluating his team throughout a season. “Right now, there would be eight guys who I think at any one time could start. That doesn’t mean the other guys couldn’t play. So you hope you would always have that, or that they would think that way.”
In that respect, Krzyzewski said this team could be similar to coaching the U.S. national team over the past 11 years, where managing minutes for every player is a coaching concern. If history tells us anything, though, it will not play out that way. In all likelihood, by the time Duke is contending for another national title in March, Krzyzewski’s rotation will be down to anywhere from six to eight players.