Duke has the talent to cope with Jabari Parker's departure, but other questions remain
Well, it was a nice little fantasy for Duke fans: Maybe Jabari Parker might be wired differently. Maybe the tears after a stunning NCAA tournament loss and a contemplative stay-or-go process meant he'd fight the current sweeping him away from campus. Instead, Parker declared his intent to enter the NBA draft after one season in an essay published Thursday on SI.com. It was no surprise. It was one-and-done according to plan.
All it meant was that the Blue Devils' faithful can move on to their next fantasy. Because Parker leaves, and in comes an overloaded recruiting class that makes the program a national championship contender again.
It features the consensus overall No. 1 player in the Class of 2014, center Jahlil Okafor. It features a consensus top 5 player in point guard Tyus Jones, whose chemistry with Okafor already is steeled, since the two were a package deal from the start. It features a consensus top 15 player in small forward Justise Winslow, who might not be a scorer on Parker's level but who can offer athleticism and rebounding while perhaps providing even more defensively. If point production from the wing is a concern, there's four-star shooting guard Grayson Allen, a top 30 prospect who somehow becomes an afterthought in a class teeming with talent.
If it sounds like Duke simply churned out another ready-made starting lineup of four McDonald's All-Americans, it's because that's what happened. These freshmen will have to answer questions about how quickly and effectively they can get up to speed (see: Kentucky, 2013-14), but they will have veteran assistance. Even without Rodney Hood, who also reportedly will leave for the NBA draft, Duke returns upperclassmen in Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. They will assume a good deal of the burden, from both a leadership and production standpoint. The roster and depth of talent should provide hope for even more success than the Blue Devils enjoyed the past three seasons.
Ultimately, Parker's return wasn't going to alter the most fundamental issues for Duke. The program must find a way to avoid another galling round of 64 defeat, after two in the last three seasons: Losses to No. 15 seed Lehigh in 2012 and then No. 14 seed Mercer this March sandwiched around an Elite Eight run in 2013. More subtly, Mike Krzyzewski will have to work through some profound staff changes after Steve Wojciechowski departed for the head gig at Marquette. With Chris Collins leaving for Northwestern a year earlier, Krzyzewski has lost two valued aides who spent a combined 27 seasons on the Duke bench. It stands to reason that a guy closing in on 1,000 career victories just might figure things out. But getting really good ideas from trusted voices is no small matter, especially if Duke makes a deep postseason run and faces similarly talented opposition.
In a sophomore version of Jabari Parker, a returning first-team All-America, the Blue Devils would have enjoyed a ridiculous failsafe against some of these issues. But the program won't want for talent in 2014-15. Nor will its expectations be in any way capped. And any of the big questions anyone has about Duke will still be there, even if Parker isn't.
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