Duke Now

Five pressing questions and answers for Duke basketball heading into next season

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) and associate head coach Jeff Capel yell signals to the team as Duke beat Notre Dame 88-66 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C., Monday, Jan. 29, 2018.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) and associate head coach Jeff Capel yell signals to the team as Duke beat Notre Dame 88-66 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C., Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It's possible that Duke could have a brand new starting five next season.

This season, Duke had four new starters and senior Grayson Allen. But Allen will soon graduate. Freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, who will likely be a top three pick in the NBA Draft, announced his intentions to declare for the NBA Draft last week. And freshman point guard Trevon Duval made his announcement that he was heading to the NBA Draft on Wednesday.

Freshman forward Wendell Carter Jr., while he has not declared, is projected to be a top 10 pick in the draft also. Gary Trent Jr., who averaged 14.5 points per game during his freshman season, also is expected to declare.

That would leave Duke with no returning starters. So what will the Blue Devils do?

The good news for Duke is that it again is bringing in the top-rated recruiting class in the nation, as it has done in three of the past four years.

Duke has the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 9 recruits in the Class of 2018. They include R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and Tre Jones.

Duke also lost its associate head coach Jeff Capel III, who is the new head coach at Pitt. He was Duke's lead recruiter. Duke has since promoted Nate James and Jon Scheyer to associate head coaches and hired Chris Carrawell as an assistant coach.

All this newness leaves questions that need to be answered.

Here are five pressing questions heading into Duke’s season.

Who are Duke's key returnees?

Duke’s key returners include sophomore forward Javin DeLaurier, sophomore center Marques Bolden, sophomore forward Jack White, sophomore forward Justin Robinson and freshman guard Alex O’Connell.

DeLaurier, Bolden and O'Connell should make the biggest impact. They played the most minutes off the bench for Duke.

Bolden averaged 3.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and one block in 12.9 minutes played. He missed five games with an MCL sprain, but he has showed a lot of improvement since his freshman season. He saw his minutes increase toward the end of the season and had some pretty good games, particularly on defense.

DeLaurier, similar to Bolden, also made an impact for Duke defensively. He also has improved since his freshman season. He missed four games with a hamstring injury but played in every other game. He also started five games for Duke.

DeLaurier averaged 3.4 points per game and four rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game.

O'Connell played all but one game -- St. John's on Feb. 3. He also started one game and averaged 3.3 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the 3-point line.

The fact Duke does not have a returner who averaged more than four points is a cause for concern, though. While Duke returned only one key player last season, the player -- Allen -- had averaged 14.5 points per game during his junior season.

Can Duke land more recruits for the 2018-19 season?

It's possible.

If everything goes as expected, Duke is expected to lose five scholarship players next year, which would leave it with one scholarship left. Schools are allowed to have 13 scholarship players on roster.

Duke will add four scholarship players with Barrett, Williamson, Jones and Reddish. So Duke would have one left. That could open the door for E.J. Montgomery, whom Duke has made a push for recently.

Montgomery, who attends Wheeler High School in Marietta, Ga., is a 6-10, 200-pound forward. He was a McDonald's All-American and is ranked No. 12 in the country overall, according to 247sports' Composite Rankings. He has Duke among his list of options, along with Clemson, Kentucky and UNC.

The regular signing period for basketball recruits starts on April 11 and ends on May 16. By that time, Carter and Trent will have announced their decisions on whether they will declare for the draft.

Who will be the leader next season?

Having a leader is key for any team. They typically have played significant minutes. They've been through experiences that they can relay to younger players. That person is typically a senior and one Duke possibly will not have next year.

Brennan Besser, who will be a redshirt junior next year, will be the closest thing. But he has not played significant minutes.

Allen, Duke's lone senior last year, took on that role, and he was big for Duke. Its freshmen always looked to Allen for advice.

Players this past season described Justin Robinson as one of the vocal leaders. He may be a leader next year again. DeLaurier and Bolden, who will both be juniors and played the most minutes last season, could be the others.

Can Alex O’Connell step up as a scorer?

O’Connell showed potential this season. He shot 49 percent from behind the 3-point line and 48 percent overall. He has athleticism, too. He was at times compared to Allen, although both will say their games are not similar.

But while he showed the potential to score, he never really had any big scoring outputs. He scored a season-high 13 points against Wake Forest on Jan. 13. He averaged just over 10 minutes per game and 3.3 points.

Every team needs a great shooter, and O'Connell could be one of those guys if he plays up to his potential. But he'll have to be a lot more aggressive than he was during his first season.

Duke's staff likes his length defensively, too.

Could Duke go zone again?

It's too early to tell. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's teams historically have been known for playing man defense. It's how he developed his program. But Duke decided to go primarily zone in February toward the end of the season because its man defense just wasn't working. Krzyzewski felt like his players communicated better defensively when playing a zone.

Duke's defense shot up to a top 10 defense in the country by the season's end.

With players who come and leave after one year, it can be difficult to develop continuity and therefore learn a man-to-man defense. It's a difficult defense to learn in itself.

And without the presence of senior leaders to help the younger players learn man, it's possible you could see Duke's new players slapping the floor in a zone again. But we won't know until those players step out on the court.

Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander
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