Five takeaways from Coach K as Duke begins basketball practice

Having fallen one basket short of the Final Four in each of the past two seasons, Duke begins practicing Tuesday in its annual quest to return to the top of college basketball.

Entering his 40th season as Duke’s head coach, Mike Krzyzewski returns one very important starting guard to build his freshman-dominated team around.

Point guard Tre Jones decided quickly after last season ended he wouldn’t be joining classmates Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish by declaring for the NBA draft after one season at Duke. So Krzyzewski has a sophomore backcourt ace to lead his team, a luxury in the one-and-done era.

The importance of Jones’ presence on this year’s Duke team can’t be overstated.

“If we’re going to be real good,” Krzyzewski said Monday, “he’s got to be real good.”

Jones’ status as alpha dog is but one area of interest for this year’s Blue Devils. There are plenty of others.

Here are five thoughts on this year’s Blue Devils after Krzyzewski and the players met with reporters on the team’s media day on Monday at Cameron Indoor Stadium:

1. Defense is the thing for Duke

While going 32-6 last season, Duke had the nation’s sixth most efficient defense, according to Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistics. Opponents scored .893 points per possession against the Blue Devils.

Krzyzewski demands more of that from this year’s team, especially with an elite on-ball defender like Jones in the lineup again.

“I think we can be pretty good,” Krzyzewski told the media Monday, “if we can make sure that we start it with defense, and offense will come from the defense.

”Duke needs to force steals and block shots to fuel its transition offense. Last season, Duke led the nation in blocked shots per game (6.8) and finished No. 5 in steals per game (9.1).

Because of that, Duke scored 1.2 points per possession, No. 7 in the country in offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, despite making only 30.8 percent of its 3-pointers (No. 328 out of 351 Division I teams nationwide).

“Hopefully we can play really good team defense,” Krzyzewski said, “because we’ll have more guys capable of playing, I think, at the level we need to in order to win.”

Among the freshman, Krzyzewski said 6-9 forward Matthew Hurt is ahead of his classmates defensively thus far.

“Matthew is probably ahead of everybody,” Krzyzewski said. “He can guard a perimeter and big. He really has great concentration already on the defensive end.”

Krzyzewski expects 6-5 small forward Wendell Moore to be a solid defender and is confident 6-5 wing Cassius Stanley and 6-10 center Vernon Carey will as well.

2. A healthy Tre Jones

Among the reasons Jones returned to Duke is because he needed surgery on his right hip. The 6-2 guard had a similar procedure on his left hip prior to last season and now has had both sides corrected.

While he was rehabilitating, he was held out or limited in the team’s offseason work before being cleared in late August.

But now he’s feeling good and is eight pounds lighter than last season.

“Quicker, more athletic,” Krzyzewski said Monday of Jones.

Jones also missed two January games last season with a separated shoulder after he was injured early in a 95-91 overtime home loss to Syracuse.

“I’m excited to be back healthy,” Jones said.

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3. A leaner, meaner Vernon Carey, Jr.

A year ago, the big news on Duke’s campus was 275-pound Zion Williamson and his freakish athleticism.

Freshman big man Vernon Carey, Jr., played at a similar weight at NSU University High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and in the Nike EYBL summer circuit. Since arriving at Duke this summer, Carey said he sought to “drop some pounds and keep on getting stronger.”

He’s accomplished that, saying Monday that he’s 15-20 pounds lighter and fluctuating between 255-260 pounds.

“I just move quicker and I’m jumping higher,” Carey said. “I’m just more athletic.”

Duke will ask Carey to be a strong post defender as well as providing points and rebounds. If he accomplishes all of that, he’ll likely be at Duke for just one season.

4. Roster balance could mean depth

Last year’s team had two clear supernova-type players in Williamson and Barrett, who each averaged 22.6 points per game before both being top-three NBA draft picks.

While Carey and Hurt could very well be one-and-done players, the Blue Devils’ roster is more balanced talent-wise this season, Krzyzewski said.

“We are going to play more guys,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s not as much separation with anybody. Maybe Tre. But it’s close. There’s not a Zion and RJ. Those guys were just ahead of the game.”

Jones, Hurt and Carey appear to be three sure starters for the Blue Devils. Senior captains Jack White, a 6-7 small forward and Javin DeLaurier, a 6-10 forward, will have important roles that may or may not include starting assignments.

Stanley and Moore join a crowded group of shooting guards and small forwards that also include 6-7 sophomore Joey Baker and 6-5 junior Alex O’Connell. Junior guard Jordan Goldwire earned playing time with his defense last season as Krzyzewski liked to spring a press on opponents that included Goldwire and Jones on the court together.

So that’s 10 players for Krzyzewski and his staff to mix and match as they see fit.

“Across the board we are balanced,” White said. “Everyone can help us out in a different way. We all have noticed that in practice with days where one guy will go off and then another day, another guy will go off. It’s how it’s been going but everyone is doing a great job and everyone feels that we have that balance as far as competitiveness. That just helps us get better as a team and guys get better individually. Anyone can step up and do their thing at any moment.”

5. Shooters can separate from the pack

All of those guards and small forwards will be vying for key minutes. The ability to hit shots from the outside, an area where the Blue Devils struggled last season, will allow a player to earn more playing time.

Krzyzewski mentioned that when discussing Baker.

“He can really shoot the ball,” Krzyzewski said. “He can carve out playing time by how hard he works, and if he can put that ball in.”

O’Connell hit 37.5 percent of his 3-pointers in limited minutes last season, and played particularly well in Duke’s three games against Syracuse’s zone defense. Moore and Stanley are unknowns so far.

The NCAA adopted a deeper 3-point line of 22 feet 1 ¾ inches, matching the distance used in international play, hoping to open up play in half-court situations. That could help Duke if it can hit a respectable percentage of them.

“I think there will be more room to drive, and we always like to drive, so that might help,” Krzyzewski said, “but, you know, you’ve got to hit some shots so they play you out there.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.