Three Questions: Duke is far from perfect but a clear favorite
Using our off-season Power Rankings as a guide, SI.com is asking three questions for each top-10 team in the country. After looking at No. 10 Xavier, No. 9 Arizona, No. 8 Virginia, No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 6 North Carolina, No. 5 Kentucky, No. 4 Oregon, No. 3 Villanova and No. 2 Kansas, here’s No. 1 Duke.
Is Frank Jackson the answer at point guard?
Well, Duke doesn’t really have a choice, but relying on the McDonald’s All-American Game MVP and the consensus No. 14 recruit in the country isn’t a bad plan. Still, the program convinced the touted Derryck Thornton to graduate early and (hopefully) fill the void left by Tyus Jones last season. This worked out so well that junior Matt Jones played out of position at the point and Thornton transferred. So the idea of handing the ball to a young-but-coveted guard isn’t foolproof.
Duke must hope the 6' 3" Jackson is more in the mold of Jones than Thornton, if only because it balances out the lineup nicely. Yes, Jones and Grayson Allen can initiate offense. Yes, Jayson Tatum, the nation’s consensus No. 3 recruit, probably has that capacity, too—and you almost want to root for that, if only for the ridiculous mismatches a 6' 8" point forward causes. Nevertheless, leaving each of those players to their natural positions, with only occasional run-the-show duties to spell the point guard, is the ideal. And that counts on Jackson being as good as everyone believes he is from the start.
When will the key frontcourt cogs be healthy?
Amile Jefferson playing in just nine games of the 2015–16 season before suffering a broken right foot robbed Duke of reliable frontcourt production and taxed the depth of the roster too much. In early June, coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters that Jefferson was healed, which means there won’t be a 6' 9" long hole where a veteran presence and solid rebounder (Jefferson averaged 10.3 boards per game before his injury) should be. There was less specificity about the readiness of Harry Giles, the nation’s No. 2 consensus recruit, who missed effectively his entire senior year of high school basketball with a torn right ACL—after missing his entire sophomore year with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Giles was still rehabbing twice a day in early June, per the report in the Raleigh News & Observer, and Duke wasn’t making any promises about how far along the 6' 10" forward would be at the start of the season.
With Jefferson, 6' 11" five-star freshman Marques Bolden, 6' 10" sophomore Chase Jeter and 6' 9" junior Sean Obi, there should be enough bodies along the frontline to allow Giles to come back slowly. Still, Giles is being hailed as a possible No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft; if he’s that talented, no one wants to wait too long to see it.
Is anyone going to defend?
Duke finished a 25–11 season ranked seventh nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com . . . and 107th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Jefferson had the best individual defensive rating—102.4. For reference, the best major-conference big man defensive rating belonged to Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku, at 84.9. Jones, who entered last year with a reputation as a top on-ball defender, posted a career-worst 110.9 defensive rating. So no one was really locking anyone down in Durham last season.
The abundance of talent and scoring options this season might mean that a guy like Allen, who led the way with 21.6 points per game while logging 36.6 minutes per outing, won’t have to exhaust himself on one end just to keep the team afloat. That may allow him and everyone else to deploy more effort on the defensive end. But then that also assumes there is top-notch defensive ability to be drawn out of players on the roster, which is no sure thing given the performance of a year ago and the unknowns of freshmen learning to defend at the college level. Chances are the talent will overcome any shortcomings. But surely Krzyzewski would sleep better knowing his team can get a stop when it needs one.