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 2018/2019 roster. They are being offered at the start of the regular season and may be updated as circumstances warrant.
1. Zion Williamson. Zion is a wonder. For a kid of his considerable bulk, he has an agility and athleticism that is rarely found in any player. He is virtually automatic with a lane to the hoop, and contact does little to faze him. He also has remarkable ball handling and passing skills for a player with his size. The downside will almost surely be the outside stroke and performance at the charity stripe. We are just hoping that he can manage a 70% ratio at the line, though early returns are not positive -- but at the least, it may create foul issues for the opponents' starters.
2. Antonio Vrankovic. Antonio has the size and coordination, but lacks any athleticism, quickness and leaping ability. Given the deficit of bigs on this year's squad, he will be getting more PT than is otherwise warranted. His willingness to play hard will win plaudits, but that lack of athleticism may render him rather ineffectual against tough competition.
3. Javin DeLaurier. Javin is all about effort and athleticism. He has no jump shot, with a penchant for missing the hoop entirely on those blessedly rare outside shots he tries, and his foul shooting has been abysmal. On defense, he is quite undisciplined, ready to leave the floor at every opportunity. The key to his game is simply hustle and hops -- getting the ball for Duke and occasionally 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 have generally liked what we have seen. He has a solid frame, plays with effort and intelligence, and is well-coordinated. We were disappointed, however, in his jump shot last season after showing some promise as a freshman ... if he can make some real headway in that regard this year, he will be a major factor for Duke.
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. 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. The result was a rather dreary sophomore campaign, and very early returns this year are not promising. We can only hope that the bright prospect we saw at the high school level can magically reappear.
6. Alex O'Connell. We fell in love with Alex when we first saw him play in his first Blue/White. It was much the same as our initial reaction to Grayson Allen, although Alex is not comparable physically. Last season, 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. Unfortunately, he did not get enough PT last year, which led to our dubbing him "Poor Alex". Duke will desperately need his outside stroke this year, and we can only hope that he finally gets the court time he deserves.
7. Justin Robinson. Justin sadly has to go through life with one moniker ... David's Son. Though relegated to being strictly a garbage time kid, he has occasionally shown a few 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 more for a lesser 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. R.J. Barrett. The number one rated kid in his class with a history of successful international play, but still not a complete player. The athleticism and jumping ability are there, and he is a very capable ball handler. But like Zion, he struggles from long and at the line ... and he does not have Zion's bulk to deflect opponents. He also clearly loves to shoot the ball. He will score a lot of points no doubt, but whether all the attempts are in the team's best interest may be problematical. We will anxiously wait and watch.
9. Cam Reddish. Another top rated prospect with real questions in our eyes. Cam certainly has the basic talent and skills, though we suspect that is outside shot has been overly hyped by the likes of Mr. Bilas. The problem we have is based on what we saw in the high school all star games -- Cam avoided mixing it up with his peers as if he were quarantined. If that was an accurate glimpse, then he will be of marginal value against the toughest opposition ... which is exactly where this team will need him.
10. Jordan Goldwire. Jordan is Duke's "insurance" point, there to be a back-up for Duke's starting point guard du jour, 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. While Jordan may mature into a more solid player over the years, stardom is the one thing that we would least expect.
11. Tre Jones. Based on what we saw at the high school level, we really like this kid. We expect him to be the point guard that Duke has truly lacked ever since his elder brother left campus. The ball handling, passing, and floor vision all seem to be there. The only issue, as it is for this squad generally, is whether he can manage any consistency with the jumper. If so, he will be huge.