Amile Jefferson walked onto Duke’s campus three years ago and into a team loaded with veterans, one of only two freshmen on a roster with seven juniors and seniors. Those were the old days.
Now, he’s one of only two seniors on a team with seven freshmen and sophomores as Duke retools on the fly for the third straight season with the core of the national-championship team gone.
In his fourth year at Duke, Jefferson might as well have played on four different teams.
“It’s been pretty dynamic,” Jefferson said. “That’s our game today, with guys leaving early and things like that. ... We’re not a stagnant team that’s going to do the same thing every single year. That’s not what we do here.”
For the third straight year, Duke is starting over. Not from scratch, but close. All the stars – Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Quinn Cook – are gone. Only four players of note are left from last season, only one who started against Wisconsin in the national title game.
From the veteran-laden team that lost to Louisville one game short of the 2013 Final Four to the 2014 team built around Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to last year’s freshman-fueled national champions, Duke at least has some practice at retooling on the fly.
“I like all that stuff,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s kind of like what we do with the U.S. team. I like it and our guys like it. It keeps them fresh. You’re not running the same stuff over and over.”
This is how college basketball has changed, even at Duke, where the previous title team, in 2010, was built around a core of players who developed into stars together, and most of that same group might have won a second title in 2011 if Kyrie Irving had stayed healthy.
It’s our job as returning players to adapt. Every year is going to be different. I’ve been on two different teams both my years here. Third year, nothing has changed.
Over the past three years, the varying skills of Parker and Okafor and all the others required divergent philosophies on offense. The roster turnover demanded new ways of building chemistry on defense. And now Duke has had the ultimate success doing it, not that it makes it any easier this season.
“You don’t have time to grow up over four years anymore,” redshirt senior Marshall Plumlee said. “We’ve got to grow up together right now and really hit our stride when the season starts, because the time together is short.”
This group might be more of a two-year project than a one-shot deal. Of the five new recruits, only Brandon Ingram has the aura of a one-and-done, and even he’s rough enough around the very talented edges that a sophomore season isn’t out of the question. Even after gaining 23 pounds in three months, he still has only 190-something pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame.
Derryck Thornton will start at point guard, but even he was expecting to be a senior in high school at this time. The others will all need time. The makeup of this class is similar to a year ago, but in terms of talent and polish it’s a long way away.
Even the veterans are, to a certain degree, uncertain quantities. You know what you’re going to get from Jefferson, but Grayson Allen has to sustain the level he reached after a meteoric March rise and Plumlee showed glimpses of dominance but has never been asked to play this large a role. Krzyzewski called Matt Jones a “very important guy,” but he’s also stepping into much larger shoes.
Collectively, it’s a very perimeter-oriented group. Duke will spread the floor and let Allen and Ingram and Jones attack the basket, a complete departure from the post focus Okafor provided a year ago.
“It’s our job as returning players to adapt,” Jones said. “Every year is going to be different. I’ve been on two different teams both my years here. Third year, nothing has changed.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock