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, and 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 2017-2018 season when Duke did utilize the zone extensively to very beneficial results.
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 or Jordan Goldwire). 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. Vernon Carey Jr. Vernon is a true big body and, aside from perhaps Tre, the most important player on this year's squad. We say that because he will have to perform at a high level for this team to entertain real championship hopes. From what little we have seen, Vernon may well be up to the challenge on the offensive end. He showed us great footwork and a lovely shooting touch in the Blue-White game. But it is in other areas that we are concerned. He will have to complement the offense with solid defensive efforts inside and will have to hit the glass as well. It is there that real concerns arise. We have the sense that his athleticism and his intensity significantly trail his skills. What's more, he showed himself to be injury prone last season, and that is also a great reason to worry. If Vernon can't play at a high level and actually stay on the court, things may spiral downward for this team.
2. Matthew Hurt. Matthew has come to Duke with the reputation as a scorer, and early training sessions have enhanced that reputation. However, every glimpse we have had of him (admittedly few) have shown us a kid more often off than on. Consistent scoring from Matt will be essential for the team this year given the lack of a dominant talent on the squad. At the least, we do love the kid's stroke at the free throw line ... he appears to be virtually automatic. He also seems willing to go to the glass, though his rather thin frame makes it difficult for him to dominate there. The keys for Matthew will be shooting at a forty percent plus clip from long and getting to the stripe; if he can do those, we will be most pleased.
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. Nor is he an accomplished ball handler or passer, and his hands leave a lot to be desired. On defense, he is often quite undisciplined, ready to leave the floor at every opportunity. As a result, he draws an inordinate number of foul calls. The key to his game is simply hustle and hops -- getting the ball for Duke and occasionally blocking opponents' shots. Warranted or not, he has become a favorite of K's, and that, together with Duke's lack of a dominating center, is guaranteed to assure Javin a lot of minutes. Too bad half of those need to be on the offensive end of the court.
4. Jack White. Unlike his McDonald AA compatriots, Jack came to school without a lot of press. But from the beginning, we have liked what we have seen. Indeed, we would have been more generous in his early years with his PT than his coach had been. He has a solid frame, plays with effort and intelligence, and is well-coordinated. He was particularly impressive during the early part of his junior season, and was justifiably rewarded with a lot of PT. Unfortunately, the wheels came off the bus once conference play started, and a long season ending funk ensued. We have high hopes for Jack in his final season, though we must realistically see him as the "glue guy" rather than as a kid who will light it up.
5. Wendell Moore Jr. Wendell is one of those smooth and solid players who will make few mistakes and do all the little things a team needs. He's a tweener in size, and should really be viewed as a shooting guard. But he is, sadly, a shooting guard with a very poor jumper. Nevertheless, he has a nice handle, and has the ability to take it quickly to the hoop and almost invariably complete. He also has a solid reputation on the defensive end. Rightly or wrongly, we expect K to give him a lot of minutes this season.
6. Alex O'Connell. We fell in love with Alex when we 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. In his first two seasons, 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 has never received enough PT, which led to our dubbing him "Poor Alex". Duke will need his outside stroke this year, and we can only hope that he finally gets the court time he deserves. We are well aware of the criticisms of his defense, and we do acknowledge his deficiencies in that regard. But those deficiencies are blessedly not due to any lack of quickness or athletic ability; instead, they are due to bad habits -- Alex will routinely take his eye off the player he is guarding and is also too prone to gamble defensively. These issues could easily be addressed quickly by a savvy coach (the reader is left to complete the syllogism).
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, particularly with his long-range jump shot when he has an open look. Nevertheless, with the big front-court guns now gone from Duke, Justin may be called on to fill in at crunch time for the team. We are hoping that four years of maturity will pay dividends.
8. Cassius Stanley. Coming into the season, we are positively intrigued by Cassius. His athleticism is off the charts, and he has shown us a decent handle and a soft and successful mid-range jump shot as well. What remains to be seen is whether that jumper can be extended outward with any consistency. If it can, and if Cassius can play disciplined defense, this kid could be a revelation. But we will temper our expectations until we see what the regular season brings.
9. Joey Baker. Last year was bizarre indeed for Joey. After the decision was made to redshirt the kid, he sat on the sidelines for virtually the entire year. Very late in the season, however, with Duke struggling with front court injuries, the redshirt status was jettisoned, only to see Joey play for about thirty seconds a game. It was almost incomprehensible. The fact is that Joey was able to show very little on the court. While he is well-coordinated, he does not have the quickness and sheer athleticism that allows shots to be created. He is more a kid who has to rely on a consistent jumper. But in his limited minutes, that jumper has not been there. Frankly, we do not expect to see a lot of PT for Joey this season barring injuries, though we would love to see him step up.
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, the results have been mixed. His forte is clearly on the defensive end, and he was given extensive minutes at the tail end of last season to exhibit those skills. However, he has always been a simply terrible jump shooter; indeed, he really has no offensive game. Nor has he exhibited any real passing skills, and his ball handling is so-so. K likes him and he will therefore see a lot of minutes. Like a number of his compatriots, he will have to earn them all on the defensive end.
11. Tre Jones. Despite the lofty rankings of some recent back court recruits, Tre is the first true capable point guard the team has had since his brother departed, We really like this kid as a point. The ball handling, passing, and floor vision all seem to be there, and he plays without turning the ball over. It is exactly what the team needs. And he is, to boot, an extraordinary talent on defense.. There are but two issues. One is that we rarely see him drive and dish, a very surprising anomaly. But even more significant is that lack of a jump shot. Tre was simply dreadful from the outside last season, and it hurt the team since no one else could make up the deficiency. Let's hope for better this year.