Unlike last year, these Duke basketball rookies look up to a fight.
I think all fans, coaches and players would agree that the 2020-21 Duke basketball campaign has been a major disappointment. It was the first time in 25 years that the Duke Blue Devils were not selected to compete in the NCAA tournament. It was the first time in ages that Duke had spent most of the season outside the Top 25 in the AP poll.
While last year has been a difficult year, there is much greater optimism as we approach the upcoming 2021-22 season. Much of this is due to the Blue Devils’ highest rated freshman class this year.
Last year the Blue Devils got a lot of hype around their freshman class as usual. They were one of the highest ranked classes in the country and had six players ranked in the ESPN Top 100. But the 2020 class struggled more than we’re used to seeing from a group of freshmen wearing the Duke basketball uniform.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to these struggles has been the lack of an offseason that Blue Devil freshmen had in 2020.
In a typical year, newcomers arrive in Durham in June or early July to begin summer training sessions and their first college classes. This gives them more time to adjust to the college lifestyle, get to know their coaches and start preparing for the season ahead. Last year’s freshman class had none of these due to COVID restrictions.
There was no annual Bleu-Blanc scrum, countdown or madness, or exhibition piece. Also, there was a much shorter offseason on campus, which took some time to be on the court and in the weight room. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski was also unable to spend time with his players until the official start of training at the end of September.
It’s a steep learning curve from high school to college, and last year’s class was behind that curve from the start.
From a physical point of view, last year’s course was sorely lacking. Most of the freshmen were skinny and not ready for the speed and physics of college play. This was clearly evident in their non-conference games against older, stronger teams like Illinois and Michigan State.
As the season progressed, the freshman seemed more at ease. But it’s not easy when you’re trying to catch up with all the other teams.
Last year’s class also didn’t feature an elite-level player ready to step straight into the NBA. There was hope Jalen Johnson would be that guy, but he struggled both on and off the pitch before leaving the team midway through the conference.
The Blue Devils didn’t have this one player who was just more talented than most of the other players. Guys like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Marvin Bagley, and Jahlil Okafor have been those kind of guys for the show for the last few years.
Other than Jalen Johnson, Duke didn’t have any of his players drafted last July. This class was to have several guys stay for a few years, rather than a class like 2018, where almost everyone was a projected lottery pick.
Of the six players recruited into the 2020 class, only two remain in Durham: Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams. As we know, Jalen Johnson has left the team, Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman have both transferred, and DJ Steward has declared himself prematurely for the 2021 NBA Draft.
A totally different story in store this Duke basketball season
Once again, expectations for the next Blue Devils are high, but it looks like this year’s class will be more capable of meeting those expectations. For one thing, this year’s class got through a full offseason, being in the gym, working with coaches, and adjusting to the college experience.
This complete offseason will allow them to better prepare for the start of the season.
Physical maturity is also one of the biggest differences with this year’s freshman class. All four freshmen have bodies ready for ACC competition. They all weigh well over 200 pounds, with Paolo Banchero coming in at 250. Duke will be a much stronger and more physical team this year than in 2020.
Duke freshmen last year looked like freshmen. This will not be the case this season.
Another reason this year’s class is different is star power. That obviously remains to be seen, but Paolo Banchero is one of the favorites to be the first overall selection in next year’s draft. AJ Griffin is another player who has puzzled NBA scouts, although he is currently healing a knee injury that will sideline him for the next two weeks.
There’s also Trevor Keels, who has been impressive so far in the preseason.
Duke has several players who appear to be league-ready, which should mean they’ll have a major impact on the pitch this season for the Blue Devils.