Duke will look vastly different this year from the team that won the national championship last year with new freshmen faces ready to make their impact at the college level alongside several veterans hungry to make another run. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has the talent necessary to make another deep charge, but chemistry issues will have to be sorted out and teaching will need to be done with another young team.
Duke brings in six freshmen, including four five-star recruits and two three-star prospects. Among the five-stars are lengthy forward Brandon Ingram, point guard Derryck Thornton, big man Chase Jeter and sharpshooting swingman Luke Kennard. Key returnees include guards Matt Jones and last year’s tournament darling Grayson Allen, alongside talent up front in Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee. Sean Obi – a sophomore transfer from Rice – will be eligible to play this year after sitting out last season, and he should give Coach K another talented body in the frontcourt. So who are the top NBA prospects from this year’s fourth-ranked Duke team?
5. Matt Jones 6-5 200 SG Junior
Jones might end up being a better prospect than Grayson Allen – despite being a year older – as he’d produced more during the regular season before Allen took major strides in the NCAA tournament. The truth is, many prospects on this Duke team could’ve taken this final spot. Jones shot the ball better, made more plays defensively and played twice as much as Allen during the regular season for a reason. At 6-5 with a 6-7 wingspan, Jones looks the part of a prototype shooting guard at the next level. He shot the three at a 37.6 percent clip as a sophomore, a number that should continue to improve.
However, Jones struggles mightily finishing at the rim (51.7 percent — Allen shot 75.0 percent) while being a better mid-range shooter (33.3 percent). Overall, Jones shot just 41.0 percent from the field, which goes to show he has a ways to go offensively. Jones should have more responsibility as a junior, and he should be ahead of the talented Kennard initially because of his defense. It’s going to be a challenge for Krzyzewski to split up the wing minutes evenly, but the talent is there for him to use a variety of combinations to be successful.
4. Chase Jeter 6-10 240 PF/C Freshman
Jeter reminds me a bit of Al Horford at this stage in that he’s a big man with the size of a power forward but game of a center. As a freshman, Jeter obviously still needs a bit of development to realize his true potential, just like any young player. Horford averaged 5.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 22.8 minutes per game as a freshman, but two years later, he left as a top five NBA draft pick. Jeter has a similar ceiling as a skilled 6-10 big man still growing into his body and expanding his game at just 18 years old. Jeter is very skilled offensively, enough to potentially play both frontcourt positions for Duke this year.
With a 7-1.5 wingspan, Jeter’s a bit of a tweener up front when looking at his NBA outlook, but Horford has played at center with a 7-0.75 wingspan and has done just fine. Jeter is more smooth than explosive, but he should improve as an athlete as he grows into his body. He needs to develop a consistent jump shot so he’s able to play power forward comfortably down the line, which will help with his versatility. In a few years, don’t be surprised if Jeter is a lottery pick.
3. Derryck Thornton 6-2 175 PG Freshman
Thornton will have a bit of pressure on him as a freshman, with recently departed point guards Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook leaving Duke with nobody of experience at that position left on the roster. In comes Thornton, who reclassified to 2015 to start and lead the 2015-16 squad. The aforementioned five-star swingman Kennard might back up Thornton, which could mean he gets upwards of 32 minutes per game as the lead guard. Thornton is a big-time talent, but he likely won’t leave Duke until at least after his sophomore year, as there’s a bit of development to be done from a strength and defense standpoint.
Thornton is very quick and athletic, always looking for teammates as he maneuvers in the paint. Thornton, like most young point guards, still has to improve his jump shot while extending his range. But there will be plenty of minutes available for Thornton, and if he’s ready to accept the big responsibility, he could be a first-round pick as soon as the 2017 draft.
2. Grayson Allen 6-5 205 SG Sophomore
Allen came up big during the memorable tournament run last year, showing his ability to finish at the rim with authority. He displayed excellent athleticism, shooting ability and focus on the defensive end toward the end of the season. There were rumors Allen would be a first-round pick if he entered the draft, but he made the right decision to return for a second season in Durham. He has adequate size for an NBA shooting guard at 6-4.5 with a 6-6.5 wingspan, with excellent speed and athleticism in the open floor.
But Allen needs to show the consistency he gave during the end of the season throughout his whole sophomore season to reach late-first-round status in this coming draft. His lack of production throughout the season screams fluke, but it’ll be up to Allen to continue to focus on the defensive end of the floor as well as improving as a creator and shooter off the bounce. Allen has a high ceiling as a shooting guard, and scouts will certainly be watching as he improves during his second season in Durham.
1. Brandon Ingram 6-9 200 SF Freshman
Ingram is easily the top prospect on Duke with his combination of physical tools and shooting ability. At 6-9.5 with a 7-3 wingspan, Ingram has more than enough size and length for the small-forward position. He’s a smooth player, although video of him testing his vertical shows he has some explosiveness as well. The youngster has the ability to hit floaters off the bounce and finish at the rim in a variety of ways. Ingram has been described as “Kevin Durant-lite” by NBADraft.net, and it’s easy to see the comparison. The two have similar bodies and skill sets, which will give Ingram similar intrigue in terms of NBA potential.
Ingram stands out among a roster lacking the elite talent of the team a year ago. He still has a ways to go getting his engine revved up to the level it needs to be, and adding strength might also be a problem with his extremely skinny frame. Expect him to struggle initially but to eventually figure it out as he gains comfort with college basketball. The sky is truly the limit for Ingram as a basketball player, and if he shows what he’s capable of this season, he should be a top five pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.