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 prior to the commencement of league play 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. As league play is about to begin in earnest, Vernon seems up to the task. He has been particularly effective on the offensive end, with some nice post moves and a soft touch. He has also exhibited more true athleticism than we had anticipated. What's more, he has generally resisted the common temptation of Duke bigs to drift to the outside to launch jumpers, even though he has shown an ability to hit from long. The key for him will be whether his defensive efforts will match those on the other end, and here the jury is definitely out. The other issue is stamina -- thus far, he has been unable to play for extended minutes. Nevertheless, Vernon is clearly the best and most advanced of the current freshman crop.
2. Matthew Hurt. Matthew has come to Duke with the reputation as a big time scorer. However, every glimpse we have had of him has shown us a kid more off than on from the outside. His ability to drive for scores is also highly problematical -- when he puts the ball on the floor, turnovers often result. He is also a dreadful passer. While he is a fluid athlete, sheer quickness is unfortunately not one of his virtues. The one clear advantage he does have is his height, allowing him to get boards and score over smaller mismatched opponents. But against tough taller competition, his lack of physical bulk neutralizes that height. Matthew has been effective at times, though those instances have generally occurred against also-ran opponents. Whether he can become a consistent force this season is questionable.
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. He is also generally unable to stop capable opposition. 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. He is essentially a stopgap for those minutes when Vernon is on the pine.
4. Jack White. Unlike his McDonald AA compatriots, Jack came to school without a lot of press. Initially, we liked what we saw. 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 fairly 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. To date, he has not regained the shooting touch that he had at first exhibited, and he has been of little value on the offensive end. What's more, Jack is yet another of those Dukies whom you do not want to see putting the ball on the floor. So it is really on the defensive end where he has to make an impact.
5. Wendell Moore Jr. Wendell is one of those players whose success at the high school level does not really translate well to the college game. 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. Really, he is a one trick pony on offense, and that trick is driving to the hoop. Of course, that requires an open lane to be successful, and that is something that Wendell has generally not had. The result has been an inordinate number of turnovers. We do not expect Wendell to contribute much on the offensive end, so it will have to be on defense where he makes his mark.
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. Alas, like his compatriot Mr. White, things went downhill quickly during the latter part of last season. That once vaunted jump shot almost completely disappeared and has never returned. He has also had a disturbing tendency on the defensive end to take his eyes off his opponent and to gamble excessively, leaving him vulnerable to back door plays. On a team with a paucity of jump shooters, a consistent shot, together with his sheer athleticism, would have outweighed these issues. But with that consistent shot gone, Alex will have to fight for any time.
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 and his ability to block a shot or two. Nevertheless, unless Vernon goes down, Justin will largely be watching from the pine.
8. Cassius Stanley. Coming into the season, we were positively intrigued by Cassius. His elevation is off the charts, and he has a soft jumper that works from long range. The real problem is ball handling. He simply does not have the ability to dribble drive to the hoop without being in severe danger of coughing the ball up. Therefore, despite his ability to hit occasional jump shots, he has not been able to score effectively for this team. He continues to tantalize, but the impact has not been forthcoming.
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. While this season started in a similar fashion, Joey has simply forced K to reevaluate by demonstrating that he is without a doubt the best jump shooter on this squad … and nobody else has even been close. He also plays with great effort on the court, which effort is required to compensate for a lack of pure athleticism. On a squad that generally cannot shoot the ball, Joey is a godsend and deserves a healthy allotment of court time.
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. In prior years, the results were, to be charitable, 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 had no offensive game. However, his overall performance has continued to improve, and he is now playing at a level that we had not seen originally. We had never been fans, but we are definitely warming up.
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 the 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. While the shot seems to have improved a tad over the summer, he remains anything but a threat from long. Still, he has developed a nice mid-range game and that, combined with his defensive efforts, make him one of the best points around.