Luke DeCock

Deep Duke has title as only goal – DeCock

Duke's Amile Jefferson speaks about the upcoming basketball season

Team co-captain is enthusiastic about upcoming season after injury last year benched him for the year.
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Team co-captain is enthusiastic about upcoming season after injury last year benched him for the year.

There isn’t a team in the country this season that could see a player the caliber of Harry Giles go under the knife a month before the opener and not miss a beat. There haven’t been many in the one-and-done era, period – maybe Kentucky, once or twice. For Duke, losing the services of the No. 1 recruit in his class just means more time for everyone else.

Given those resources, even with the first game still a month away, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would not countenance any pretense that this team is anything less than a title contender.

“The championship we want to win is the national championship,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday. “If we’re fortunate enough to win anything else between now and then that’d be terrific. But the goal is to win the national championship. I’m not sure how many programs have that goal. We do. So we’re going to try to conduct our season appropriately.”

A year after the Blue Devils sorely missed Amile Jefferson for most of the season, they’re overloaded with talent, so much so that getting all of it on the court may be their biggest immediate problem. Giles’ arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left knee Monday helps with that, at least for the moment. He’ll miss six weeks,

Duke starts with a core of Jefferson and Grayson Allen, brings back Matt Jones, Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter, and adds freshman swingman Jayson Tatum, guard Frank Jackson and big men Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier.

The championship we want to win is the national championship. If we’re fortunate enough to win anything else between now and then that’d be terrific. But the goal is to win the national championship.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

That’s a lot of bodies competing for playing time even without Giles in the mix, especially considering that while Krzyzewski has shown a great deal of coaching flexibility and adaptability even at this late point in his career, he’s yet to go more than seven or eight deep on a consistent basis. Reading Tuesday’s tea leaves, it feels like Jefferson, Bolden, Tatum, Allen and Jackson would be the nominal starters with Jones, Kennard and Jeter coming off the bench, at least until Giles is up to speed.

That leaves a couple candidates for the in-case-of-emergency role Jeter played last season – which isn’t to say someone has to be in the Jeter role, only that someone (or multiple someones) will inevitably and eventually find himself in that position. That was true even in Rio, where Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and DeMar DeRozan – any of whom would have been key players for just about any other country on the planet – all found themselves spare parts at times at the end of Krzyzewski’s bench. And it was true of Allen as a freshman, only for him to come out of nowhere at the end of the season and turn the tide at the Final Four.

Because of quantity and quality of the freshman class, comparisons to 2015 will be unavoidable, but they only go so far. This group should be more athletic and more versatile than that group – which distinguished itself by its quick adjustment to college basketball, Jahlil Okafor’s post dominance and the clutch play of Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow – and Krzyzewski acknowledged he should be able to do some different things with this team, positionless, NBA-concept kind of stuff. He just isn’t sure what, yet.

Krzyzewski is sure, however, he has the horses to get to Glendale, Ariz.

“We have talent,” Krzyzewski said “We’re not the only ones who have talent. We have a really good mixture of experienced and new talent. How that meshes is one of the key things. And health: Will we have all the talent available at the time when you have an opportunity to win a championship? … We have a team that, if we’re healthy, that’s a legitimate goal.”

Which brings things full circle to Giles, who is coming off a torn ACL in his right knee and tore the ACL in his left knee a few years ago. Whatever the Blue Devils get out of Giles will be a bonus. They have the unusual luxury of telling him to take as much time as he needs.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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