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Joe Boozell | | August 24, 2018

The Duke Blue Devils are clearly talented, but let’s break down how the pieces fit

Kansas beats Duke, 85-81

There are plenty of talented college basketball teams, but not all of them have pieces that mesh together cleanly.

On paper, Duke was more talented than Villanova last year. But the Wildcats’ players complemented one another perfectly, whereas the Blue Devils looked clunky at times. Talent is important, but it’s not everything.

Mike Krzyzewski has assembled another incredible roster in Durham, but how will the players fit?

Let’s break it down by answering some key questions.

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What will Duke’s starting lineup be?

It’s an educated guess, but Duke’s likely opening night starting five will be Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Marques Bolden.

People have questioned the fit of Reddish, Williamson and Barrett together, but those concerns feel overblown. You can have too many point guards, or too many bigs. But too many wings? If anything, you can never have enough wings; those three will be switchable on defense and can create their own offense.

Bolden and Jones are the players to watch here — especially Bolden. He’s struggled in his first two years in Durham. He showed signs of life as a sophomore, averaging 3.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12.9 minutes per game. But is he good enough to man the center spot on a national title winner?

Bolden needs to become an ace rim protector and grab a bunch of offensive boards in order to justify a starting spot, because he’s not going to help Duke’s already-iffy spacing. Williamson, Barrett and Reddish need open driving lanes, and playing Bolden with them plops a big defensive body in the paint to muck things up.   

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It’s fair of Coach K to give Bolden every opportunity to succeed. But if he doesn’t, Duke has other appealing options.

Is Duke’s best lineup going to feature Williamson at center?

The short answer: probably. 

The long answer: Williamson is absolutely capable of playing center at the college level, and if he does, that allows Duke to play another shooter who will let the offense breathe. A lineup of Jones, Alex O’Connell, Barrett, Reddish and Williamson checks every theoretical box.  

O’Connell nailed 49 percent of his 3s last year, and while he’s thin, he’s not a sieve on defense. Williamson and Reddish have the size to man the four and five spots, but they’ll be exponentially more athletic than opposing frontcourts. Jones and Barrett are capable of initiating the offense, as can Williamson when grabs and goes.

The best college basketball lineups have this in common: they’re big, but don’t sacrifice offensive spacing. Take 2017-18 Villanova for example: Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman were traditionally-sized big men. But they could shoot and handle, so the Wildcats were able to play five out.

The Jones-O’Connell-Barrett-Reddish-Williamson group gives Duke the best chance to mimic that. We’ll see how willing Coach K is to use those five together.

Where does Javin DeLaurier fit in?

DeLaurier is an excellent defender who can play either frontcourt spot. A possible starting five: the first group that was mentioned, but DeLaurier swapped in for Bolden. DeLaurier is fast enough to switch onto guards and provides some rim protection. He always knows where to be on that end. DeLaurier ranked second among Duke regulars in defensive rating last year behind Wendell Carter.

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But his offense leaves much to be desired. DeLaurier averaged 3.4 points in 12.7 minutes per game last year; opponents mostly stopped paying attention to him by the end of the season, making life harder for guys like Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen.

DeLaurier is going to get minutes in some capacity. But Williamson at center feels like Duke’s highest-ceiling lineup, unless he or Bolden has learned how to shoot 3s in the offseason.

Will Jones be able to shoot consistently?

Jones is a pure point guard, but he’s one of many Blue Devils capable of initiating the offense. Duke’s not lacking in shot creation, but it could be lacking in shooting.

Jones has been a bit inconsistent as a shooter on the prep circuit, but his jumper is trending upward. And we know how good his brother Tyus was for the Blue Devils. He’s used to having the ball in his hands, but in order to really excel on this Duke team, Jones is going to need to be effective off the ball.

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Barrett is capable of running the team if necessary. Jones will still be the guy who brings up the ball most possessions, but he’ll become a real asset if he can shoot about 38 percent from 3-point range. In the Jones-O’Connell-Barrett-Reddish-Williamson lineup we mentioned earlier, that would give Duke four shooters surrounding the most physically dominant player in the sport.

Good luck guarding that.

The verdict:

In theory, Duke has one lineup with no glaring weakness — provided Jones isn’t a shooting liability. Those lineups are almost impossible to find around the country, and it’s a reason to be optimistic if you’re a Duke fan.

But Duke can’t play that lineup 40 minutes a game, and probably won’t, given that it’s a bit unconventional. DeLaurier, Bolden and Joey Baker (and perhaps Jack White) are going to get minutes. Those lineups do have some fit concerns (spacing issues with three guys who need space in order to fully thrive).

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Krzyzewski juggles this rotation. Duke certainly won’t be boring in 2018-19.

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