Let us acknowledge at the outset that Mike Krzyzewski (aka "K" or "El Greco!") has been a tremendous blessing for the Duke basketball program ... and that is an understatement. However, because of his prior successes and because of the natural tendency of the faithful to elevate and discourage criticism, Coach K has achieved a near-godlike status that precludes any critical comment. In any event, we will examine briefly both the positive and negative about the man.
The great genius of Coach K has been his extraordinary ability to sell or, put more elegantly, to inspire. That broad characterization covers two vitally important aspects of the game: recruiting and motivation. With regard to the former, K has had a "kill rate" (i.e., success in signing a desired recruit) over the years that is second to none. While that success may have slipped a bit in prior years vis-a-vis that recruiting machine by the name of John Calipari, the phenomenal success of the Duke program is primarily attributable to its recruiting. The bottom line will always be that great players make great seasons.
Coach K's ability to influence also enables him to be a very effective motivator. His teams generally play hard and without any apparent internal dissension save an occasional Rasheed Sulaimon. Those who have watched a lot of basketball know that while raw talent is important, intensity and motivation are also essential for success.
Finally, he has by all appearances run a clean program that emphasizes character and academic achievement as well as athletic excellence .... and for that all fellow Dukies should be quite proud.
Despite K's manifest virtues and achievements, we would be less than honest if we closed our eyes to certain perceived deficiencies, to wit:
1. We do not believe that K is always an exemplary bench coach/tactician. Despite his admirable successes, we feel that he is at times prone to ill-advised decisions and counterproductive strategies. These have been, and will continue to be, cited in our individual game commentaries.
2. Rather than being the highly flexible and adaptive coach per conventional wisdom, K has often been (like most of the rest of us) very stubborn and resistant to change. One example: if one were to chart defensive possessions of some prior "defensively challenged" Duke teams, we suspect that points allowed by Duke may well have been lower on average when the team was playing a zone. Yet until recently, K could simply not bring himself to play a zone for more than one or two possessions at a time. Unfortunately, some Duke teams in recent years have not been particularly athletic -- that is, if athleticism is correlated with quickness. This lack of quickness, particularly when compounded by the team's prior philosophy of picking up opposing players at half-court, has made it all too easy for an opposing guard to blow by his Duke defender, forcing baseline help and, in turn, a dish and easy lay-up. That is a scene that has played out far too many times against legitimately quick opponents. The good news, however, is that we saw a real transformation in this attitude during the 2014-2015 season when Duke did utilize the zone extensively at times to very beneficial results. We didn't think K had it in him, so we do have to temper our criticism going forward.
3. Shocking as this assertion may seem, we feel that K is at best a mediocre judge of talent. While this may seem to conflict with the observation above about his recruiting talents, there is actually no contradiction. The fact remains that while Coach K has had great success in getting the kids he recruits, he is often (though clearly not invariably) recruiting the wrong kids. Indeed, he has a remarkable talent for consistently picking some of the most overrated of the highly touted high school players -- Eric Boateng, Jamal Boykin, Taylor King, Casey Sanders, Chris Burgess, Josh Hairston, and Michael Thompson to name just a few former players of recent years who would make this list. Now it is true that not every player will pan out in college as hoped; however, the weaknesses of these players were readily observable at the high school level (and were in fact observed by the publishers of this site). Conversely, one would be extremely hard pressed to identify any player recruited by K who was truly under the radar (i.e., not a McDonald's AA or the equivalent) and yet became a standout at Duke (and for goodness sake, please don't try to point to the likes of a Tyler Thornton). Again, however, we must end on a bright note -- since 2013/2014, K has markedly elevated his game when it comes to grabbing top players. Of course, these have been kids that were/are at the top of every recruiting chart, so no remarkable insight was required. But as long as K can continue to land the likes of that talent, secondary evaluation skills are moot.
4. Self-confidence taken to an extreme is little more than arrogance. While we hesitate to apply that adjective to Coach K, we are concerned about the implications of his hiring practices. Specifically, while most wax rhapsodic about his election to hire his former pupils as assistants, we find it rather troubling. In essence, K is signaling that he has nothing of substance to learn from the experiences of other programs. And yet we know for a fact that such is not the case -- Duke's zone defense, which had been thoroughly undisciplined in prior years, improved considerably following K's Olympic association with Jim Boeheim. Surely no coincidence. So why not, for example, hire a graduate of Tom Izzo's program to learn some effective rebounding techniques and drills? We want to emphasize that we are very happy that the former players are being given a chance to break into coaching, and we believe that they will be a credit to that profession. However, even their maturation would be better served if K helped them do that at another school.
We realize that many reading these comments will misconstrue the relative weight given to K's perceived deficiencies. In point of fact, we simply believe that our heresy requires more detailed explanation than our praise. By any rational objective metric, Michael Krzyzewski has been a great coach. However, his was not an immaculate conception; much like the rest of us, traces of clay may be found on his feet. Of course, for as long as K manages to maintain this remarkable recruiting train that has been on track for the last three years, any of these minor deficiencies will be of little practical consequence anyway.
The following is an honest appraisal of the key scholarship players on the 2016/2017 roster. They are being offered at the start of the regular season and may be updated as circumstances warrant.
1. Grayson Allen. We were sky-high on Grayson at the start of his freshman season, and a constant critic of El Greco! for keeping him firmly attached to the bench. We therefore felt completely vindicated when Grayson put the squad on his back against Wisconsin to win the national championship. That stellar play continued through his sophomore year; indeed, Grayson shot the ball from long-range at an even better clip than we had anticipated. His dismal junior year was therefore a crushing disappointment. While some blame a lingering foot issue and others his temper troubles, we would point to his forced role as more of a point than a scoring guard. With the advent of Mr. Duval, we are hoping that the Grayson of old will reappear ... the kid who will drive to score (not pass-off) and who will keep defenses honest by hitting threes as well. However, early returns are mixed as his outside shot seems to come and go with a vengeance. The one thing never lost is his tremendous ability to dish effectively -- he has been the best passer on the team for three years.
2. Antonio Vrankovic. Antonio has the size and coordination, but lacks quickness and leaping ability. Given Duke's surfeit of good bigs, it certainly appears that his minutes will be limited to garbage time unless major foul trouble strikes. Of course, with Duke's history of foot issues, anything is possible, but it looks as if Vrank will simply be along for the ride this season.
3. Javin DeLaurier. Watching him in action as a freshman, it became immediately apparent that Javin was all athleticism and no skills. He had no jump shot once the game starts, and his foul shooting was abysmal. On defense, his youth betrayed him, and he had a penchant for picking up a plethora of fouls in short order. The good news is that Javin seems to have matured during the off-season, at least on the defensive end. The downside is that he has absolutely no offensive skill, and poor hands to boot (a pass to him is always a risk). The key to his game is simply hustle and hops -- getting the ball for Duke and blocking opponents' shots. He will see a fair amount of minutes in that role as Duke's seventh/eighth man, though he will remain an offensive liability while on the floor.
4. Jack White. Unlike his McDonald AA compatriots, Jack came to school completely under the radar. Even so, we kind of liked what we saw at the outset. He does have a beautiful soft jump shot and can hit from long. He also looks good at the line. He has a solid frame, and does seem well-coordinated. The one thing that seems to be missing is quickness. Like all not in K's favored seven or eight, Jack was relegated to the bench for the enirety of his first year, and more of the same is likely in order. Too bad, because we think this kid merits some court time.
5. Marques Bolden. Marques is somewhat of a rarity for Duke -- a true post player who does not have illusions about being a three point shooter. We were very high on him coming into his freshman season, and his performance at the outset was auspicious. However, a quick foot injury led to a truly miserable season, most of which he watched from the pine. We were most unhappy with K for denying him the necessary PT, and his confidence suffered as a result. Without the sit-out requirement, he would no doubt be wearing a different uniform this season, but we are delighted he is still in Duke blue. The kid has the size and some nice tools underneath. Even so, his foot and hand quickness do not exactly overwhelm, and his play tends to be very erratic. He will be getting PT, albeit as a back-up, and it is now time for him to step up and show he is deserving.
6. Alex O'Connell. We fell in love with Alex when we first saw him play in the Blue/White. It was much the same as our initial reaction to Grayson, although Alex is not comparable physically. He showed that delicious combination of skill and athleticism that we are always looking for but rarely find. He has great quickness, is a good ball handler, and is an excellent shot. Don't let his appearance deceive ... this kid is a player. The question is whether K will give him the PT that he deserves.
7. Justin Robinson. The poor kid who has to go through life with one moniker ... David's Son. Though relegated to being strictly a garbage time kid, he has actually shown flashes during his very limited minutes on the court. We cannot help but wonder why he has chosen to remain at Duke because it appears that he could play regularly at a different program. We can only suppose that he is one of those rare kids who harbors no pro ambition. Suffice it to say that Justin's contribution this season will solely be on the practice floor.
8. Wendell Carter, Jr. We had seen Wendell several times before his matriculation, and had never been extraordinarily impressed. However, we are becoming increasingly captivated by him. Wendell has a good body, reasonable quickness, nice hands, effective moves underneath, a willingness to mix it up, and, above all, the discipline to play to his strengths. Intelligence on the court is of vital importance to us -- while Wendell did try to force the action a bit at the outset, he seems to be making better offensive decisions. He has become a tremendous factor on the glass and as a shot blocker, and is a nice secondary scoring option. The one early problem has been picking up silly fouls, which have hurt both Wendell and his team. He simply must learn to play smarter for his potential to be realized.
9. Trevon Duval. Trevon came to Duke with a high national ranking, though our limited exposure to him left us a bit unsure. In general, we have been happy with his performance. He has tremendous athleticism, and he is able to take it to the hoop better than any Duke guard since Kyrie. The problems are twofold. First is the fact that he is still immature in a position that demands maturity. We trust that maturity will grow as the season progresses. The second issue is much more problematical ... the kid has absolutely no outside shot, and his free throw shooting is also rather iffy. This means that he will not be keeping defenses honest on the outside, rendering that wonderful driving ability less effective.
10. Jordan Goldwire. Jordan is Duke's "insurance" point, there to be a back-up for Trevon as well as a long-term source of continuity for the program. So far, we have been less than wowed. We have not seen much quickness, skill, or smarts from his play. Indeed, we have felt that his court time early on has been excessive. While Jordan may mature into a more solid player over the years, stardom is the one thing that we would least expect.
11. Jordan Tucker. This is an interesting case. Heavily recruited by Syracuse, Jordan opted for Duke. Of course, that was prior to the Bagley signing. We can't help but suspect that Jordan is now regretting that decision since he has disappeared deep into the Duke bench. Indeed, he has only played briefly in one game. We cannot help wondering if a redshirt is being considered. Yet the odd thing is that when we did get a chance to watch him a bit pre-season, we were somewhat impressed. He appears to be a good athlete. And while his shot was not going in, it was just missing and his stroke seemed good. We can't help feeling that the kid has real potential. It just won't become manifest this year ... or perhaps ever should he remain at Duke.
12. Marvin Bagley III. So, was all the hype well-founded? Probably so, particularly considering he left high school early to play at Duke. The kid does have freakish elevation and is a pretty good ball handler. Although his body has not completely filled out, he is more than willing to pound underneath, and his height and hops make his extremely productive there. The problem is that the scoring skills do not extend out beyond a few feet. Although he fancies himself an outside shooter as well, he is not ... and his struggles extend mightily to the foul line. He is also often lost on the defensive end, finding himself out of position. If he can somehow gain the discipline to play exclusively to his strengths, he would be awesome. The problem is that he is very unlikely to receive that message from K. Even so, he is still a major force for Duke and will likely lead the squad in both scoring and boards. We just wish that he who giveth so much did also not taketh away.