Figuring out Duke basketball’s frontcourt this season

Duke basketball assistant Jon Scheyer (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Duke basketball assistant Jon Scheyer (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

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For the first time since the 2016-17 season, Duke basketball will be without a top-ranked frontcourt player expected to be a major offensive contributor. Duke went from Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. to Zion Williamson to Vernon Carey Jr. All of these guys were highly rated and NBA-ready big men coming into college.

Another year of Duke basketball also means another year of roster turnover. It does not appear that Duke has a lottery-pick-caliber player in its frontcourt. The 2020-21 Blue Devils will likely be more of a perimeter-oriented team. Expect to see more small-ball and wing players at the four-spot this year. Duke is stacked both in the backcourt and on the wing, but it is very unclear right now who will emerge as the man in the middle this season.

The only frontcourt player to return from last year’s squad is Matthew Hurt. Hurt had a solid freshman season but never was able to really find his groove. He did lead the team in 3-pointers made and gave Duke a much-needed outside shooting presence. Hurt clearly showed that he can be an accurate 3-point shooter, but the rest of his game hadn’t caught up yet to his shooting.

Hurt is also not a traditional type of big man. Last year he spent most of his minutes hanging out on the perimeter.

A season ago, Hurt started in most games for Duke but only played around 20 minutes per game. There were numerous times when Hurt got pulled early in the second half of games and never returned. He struggled defensively, both guarding the perimeter and protecting the paint. He also didn’t rebound the ball at a high clip. Despite being 6-foot-9, Hurt averaged less than four rebounds per game.

Matthew Hurt was a five-star recruit coming out of high school for a reason. He has the guard skills to play on the perimeter, and he has the height and soft touch to be effective in the high and mid-post. Hurt didn’t have the strength or physicality to play the five-spot a year ago, but he does look noticeably stronger. Just by looking at brief practice clips, you can tell that he has spent considerable time in the weight room this offseason.

In an article I wrote a month ago, I mentioned the importance of Hurt getting stronger and being able to play the five. It would allow the Blue Devils to play five out and create a lot more space for their guards and other perimeter players.

If Hurt can be an inside threat, as well as develop some playmaking ability, he could be very difficult for opposing teams to defend, especially if he gets used for setting ball screens. When in ball screens, Hurt was mainly used to pick and pop, meaning he would fade to the perimeter for an outside shot. If Hurt can also be a threat rolling to the rim, Duke’s offense could really open up.

Duke also welcomes in 7-foot freshman Mark Williams. Williams is the nation’s No. 6 incoming center, according to ESPN. He certainly has the height and length to be effective and contribute right away, but judging from his high school highlights, he doesn’t seem like a guy Duke will be throwing the ball to in the post and expecting to produce offense.

Williams should be more college-ready than a lot of other bigs, given he graduated from IMG Academy, which has better facilities and coaching staff than many Division I colleges.

When looking at Williams’ stats as a high school senior, the numbers don’t really jump out at you. That said, it should be taken into consideration that Williams was on a very talented high school team filled with Division I recruits. I doubt that Williams will be an offensive star for the Blue Devils this season, but they will certainly need his rebounding and rim protection.

The Blue Devils also have brought in graduate transfer Patrick Tape from Columbia. How Tape will fit into the rotation and contribute this season is a huge mystery. He is coming off a redshirt season where he did not appear in any games due to injury. He also comes from a school that is not exactly a basketball powerhouse. Typically you hear about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton out of the Ivy League, but never really Columbia.

My hope is that Tape does not turn out like Sean Obi. You have to be a real Duke basketball fan to know that name. Obi transferred into Duke from Rice leading into the 2014-15 season. Like Columbia, Rice is not exactly known for having a stellar hoops program. After sitting out due to redshirt his first year, Obi never was able to get in the regular rotation. He never played meaningful minutes in a Duke jersey.

I doubt that it will be the exact same for Tape. Why would Duke go out and get a guy for one season to never have him play? I doubt that Tape will be a centerpiece of the team, but given his size, experience, and athleticism, he should be able to get some meaningful playing time.

Other options down low for the 2020-21 Duke basketball team

Hurt, Williams, and Tape seem to be the only traditional frontcourt players on the Duke basketball roster. Freshmen Jalen Johnson, Jaemyn Brakefield, and Henry Coleman all have the size to be frontcourt players, but all seem to have more perimeter-oriented playing styles.

Coleman may be the one exception, though. He is a little undersized at 6-foot-7 but has the body and athleticism to play the four-spot. If the Blue Devils want to go small, which I imagine they will, Coleman could possibly slide to the five.

Given its personnel for the 2020-21 season, Duke will be playing some very guard-heavy lineups. This team will look to play fast, get out on the fastbreak, shoot a lot of outside shots, and play high pressure and aggressive defense.

The Blue Devils won’t likely be playing through a big man like they did each of the past three seasons. Both Williams and Tape seem to be more defensive bigs who will likely be responsible for setting good screens, rolling hard to the rim, protecting the paint, and cleaning up on the glass.

It will be interesting to see who emerges for Duke as the go-to scorer or primary offensive option.

Hurt seems to be the only true frontcourt player who will be able to provide a consistent scoring punch. He did well with his post-up opportunities a year ago. Granted, he didn’t get too many touches down low playing alongside Vernon Carey Jr.; rather, Duke needed Hurt to play on the outside to clear more space. But Hurt should be able to post up more this year. If Hurt becomes a post threat, he could become the squad’s best all-around offensive player.

Since the Blue Devils will be playing a faster pace and more perimeter-oriented style this season, I would expect Hurt to get the starting nod at the five. I believe Williams and Tape will both come off the bench and play in a more limited role. However, both Williams and Tape should play more minutes against bigger teams to provide Duke with more help with rim protection and rebounding.

I would also expect to see Henry Coleman play some minutes at the five. And if Duke wants to go really small, Jalen Johnson or Jaemyn Brakefield could spend time there as well.

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