Once the celebration from Duke’s national championship win subsided and NBA draft entry decisions were made, Mike Krzyzewski and his staff turned their attention to next year’s roster.
The initial projections caused some pause.
"There was part of us wondering 'I don't know if we will be as relevant,’" Kryzyewski said Wednesday at the annual K Academy, a five-day Duke basketball fantasy camp for men aged 35 and older.
But that changed quickly for Krzyzewski into a thought of, "we'll have a chance to be pretty good," after the Blue Devils secured commitments from two five-star prospects, point guard Derryck Thornton and forward Brandon Ingram.
Never miss a local story.
"There was some nervousness and uneasiness," assistant coach Jeff Capel said Wednesday. "But we also trusted the work we had put in before that. It wasn't like it just happened at the end. Brandon, that had been a 2-3 year thing. With Derryck, it had been a year. And so, we trusted them and trusted the work we had put in and felt like we had the best situation for those guys. And we felt like they would see it."
So while Duke lost four starters from last year’s team — Quinn Cook, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow — the Blue Devils are gaining four top-25 recruits: Ingram (No. 3, according to ESPN), forward Chase Jeter (No. 11), Thornton (No. 17) and shooting guard Luke Kennard (No. 24).
To be sure, the staff will be careful not to compare this year’s incoming freshmen with last year’s class, which helped Krzyzewski win his fifth NCAA title. There isn’t the tight USA Basketball bond that Okafor, Jones and Winslow shared, making them close before the arrived on campus. But there is still talent and potential with this year’s group.
"With these guys coming in, we know they are really good players," Capel said. "They are very talented, and they are going to play. It's just that we don't exactly know what role or what shape our team is going to take yet. And that's exciting. It's exciting to see and get a feel for when we get them here and get them in workouts and figure out who they are."
It’s a safe bet that Ingram, the highest-ranked recruit, will have the opportunity to make a substantial immediate impact. Both Capel and Krzyzewski spoke highly of him Wednesday.
"Brandon will have a huge impact on our team," Capel said. "We don't know exactly what that is going to mean, but when you have someone as talented as he is and unique—that's the key word for him, he is just very unique. Really, he is a 6-foot-10 guard. That's what he is. He can handle it, he can shoot it. He has got to get stronger, obviously, but he has been able to have success. And he is a big-time worker, so we have no doubts that that is going to happen, him getting stronger."
Thornton, Duke’s other spring commit, will graduate early with the class of 2015 and enroll at Duke in the fall. And as Krzyzewski point out, he is the age of a typical senior (he turns 18 May 30).
"He is talented enough to do it. And he's very mature," Krzyzewski said of Thornton. "We feel good about him. We just have to show the same confidence in these guys that we showed in the other guys. And we will."
Capel also gave a strong positive evaluation for Kennard, the other newcomer to Duke’s backcourt.
"Luke is a big-time scorer," Capel said. "He scores so well that his basketball IQ, his passing, those things are overlooked because you've got a guy that averages 40 points a game. You probably don't think he's passing that much, but Luke is a guy that doesn't need the ball that much, either. The ball doesn't get stuck in his hands. He either shoots it or he moves it. He's strong, strong-minded — that's where football comes in — he's tough."
Duke will look different next season, but the Blue Devils won’t have to worry about having the talent to be relevant.
"We'll have firepower," Krzyzewski said. "It will be different in that we don't have that one guy inside, but we have big guys. And we should be able to score the ball. Brandon is such an outstanding player and scorer from a lot of positions. Obviously Grayson is a kid that is going to attack and get fouled. Luke can shoot. Matt (Jones), Derryck is a really good point and a pass-first guy. We're just going to be young."