After talking all spring about changes to the program, about figuring out new ways to teach defense, finding new approaches and reevaluating everything, the No. 1 reason Mike Krzyzewski expects Duke’s defense to be better this season isn’t any of that.
It starts with one guy: 6-foot-11 freshman center Jahlil Okafor – officially “Jah” in Krzyzewski-speak, one name, like a Brazilian soccer star.
“We should be able to protect the rim better,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday at ACC media day. “We’ll actually have a guy who’s accustomed to being in the low post defensively.”
That’s Okafor. Duke also has Marshall Plumlee in that role inside and more depth on the perimeter to go with the other philisophical changes, but there’s no downplaying Okafor’s role on defense. Or offense, for that matter, where Krzyzewski said Okafor has “great touch, not good touch” around the rim and showed an array of scoring moves during Duke’s “Countdown to Craziness” scrimmage.
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It isn’t often Krzyzewski publicly allocates this kind of responsibility to a freshman. Not even Jabari Parker got this kind of preseason polishing from Krzyzewski, although it wasn’t far off. No, not since Kyrie Irving has Krzyzewski spoken this highly of a freshman leading up to the season – and he’s just as comfortable placing the same pressure on Okafor as he did on Irving.
“One hundred percent,” Krzyzewski said. “Kyrie would tell you today, from Day 1, I was going to sink or swim with him. And the chances of sinking were minimal. And it’s the same thing with Jah. I don’t know how good we can be, but he’s going to be really good. I hope he obviously stays healthy.”
There’s the rub. Irving had a short tenure at Duke thanks to the toe injury that wiped out most of his season, but with him in the lineup to start the season, the Blue Devils were a dominant machine. And what Irving has done in the NBA since going first overall in the draft only serves to highlight what might have been had he remained healthy at Duke.
As impressive as Okafor was in Duke’s scrimmage, and as stout as Krzyzewski’s rhetoric is, Okafor will face tough competition for rookie honors. North Carolina has freshman Justin Jackson, a lanky wing who has already shown countless ways to score and has the potential to put up eye-popping numbers both on the break and in halfcourt sets for the Tar Heels.
Consider that nascent rivalry one of several interesting plotlines in the ACC this season. A few of the others: Can two impact transfers lift Miami into the ACC elite? Where does Louisville fit with its new neighbors? How will Virginia weather the departure of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell? Does Roy Williams has the pieces in place to win his third national title at North Carolina?
And perhaps the most telling of them all, can Okafor have the same kind of plug-and-play instant impact that Irving did four years ago, at least before his injury?
“Kyrie was that lead guard, that point guard. Jah, he is that inside player,” Krzyzewski said. “Both those guys are gifted at a high level. I’ve said from the beginning with Kyrie he was going to be great. Unfortunately he was injured, but he turned out to be great. Jah, same thing. I hope he’s as good while he’s with us. I’m just saying in the big picture, the kid has it. He has every aspect of it.”
Krzyzewski doesn’t talk like that very often about a freshman. As Irving showed, when he does, it’s wise to listen. Irving lost out to North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes in preseason rookie-of-the-year voting but very likely would have won the award had he stayed healthy. Okafor was the pick Wednesday.