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 betting 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. We love Grayson and await his return.
2. Antonio Vrankovic. Antonio has the size and coordination, but lacks quickness and leaping ability. Still, he can provide some solid relief minutes for either Marques or Carter. And with Duke's history of foot issues, those minutes may add up over the course of the season.
3. Javin DeLaurier. Watching him in action as a freshman, it became immediately apparent that Javin was all athleticism and no skills. He has no jump shot once the game starts, and his foul shooting was abysmal. On defense, his youth betrays him, and he has a penchant for picking up a plethora of fouls in short order. Unfortunately for Javin, the late addition of Marvin Bagley will severely cut into the minutes that he will need to get comfortable on the court. We are not expecting much, so any positive contribution will be a bonus.
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 the tools underneath. Given a real opportunity, we believe he can be a standout.