The most promising Duke basketball freshman from last season

Duke basketball (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

A Duke basketball big man could have a ridiculously high sophomore ceiling.

Six Duke basketball rookies, who each ranked inside the top 60 on the 247Sports 2020 Composite coming out of high school, arrived back in August. All but one managed to stick it out until the end of the unusually unsuccessful season for the program (13-11 overall record, no NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1995). And four are still with the Blue Devils.

Well, four remain for now, anyway.

Of course, the highest-ranked of the original bunch, Jalen Johnson, left in February as a projected 2021 lottery pick in order to get ready for the fulfillment of his NBA goals. Then earlier this month, Jaemyn Brakefield announced his intention to transfer.

No worries.

In hindsight, neither of those two former Blue Devils was the most encouraging freshman talent on the 2020-21 squad — at least not when taking into account the whole picture.

Simply put, the ultra-athletic Johnson seemed to try and force an “I” into “team” before then ditching the team; meanwhile, Brakefield consistently exhibited a reliable motor and outside stroke early on but sputtered down the stretch.

So which Duke basketball newbie did show the most promise?

With only two 2021 signees to date in five-star forwards Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin, most Duke basketball fans are counting on four freshmen becoming sophomores: point guard Jeremy Roach, shooting guard DJ Steward, power forward Henry Coleman, and center Mark Williams.

ALSO READ: How the 2021-22 Duke roster looks right now

As for which of these probable second-year Blue Devils ought to be generating the most buzz among a fanbase that has nothing better to do these days than to daydream about what will hopefully be brighter days in Durham next season, the answer isn’t exactly obvious.

Nevertheless, one of the four does hold a slight edge in this regard. That man is Mark Williams.

Sure, DJ Steward was the only Dukie to wind up on the 2021 ACC All-Freshman Team after leading the conference’s freshmen in scoring at 13.0 points per game. That said, as an undersized two-guard who knocked down only 34.1 percent of his 3-point attempts and averaged 2.0 turnovers per outing, he has plenty of work to do before becoming a top ACC Player of the Year candidate.

Moving on to Duke’s primary floor general, Jeremy Roach admirably tried to fill some unfillable shoes (see: 2020 ACC Player of the Year Tre Jones). Yet similar to Steward, he regularly piled up silly turnovers and shot only 31.3 percent from deep; plus, he was only a so-so distributor, particularly early on in the season when the college game looked way too fast for his liking.

And when talking about Henry Coleman, it’s worth mentioning he might be the most intelligent and passionate Blue Devil. Furthermore, he seems to have the best chance of any in his class to stay at Duke until he graduates. Relatively speaking, though, his limited skill set doesn’t exactly scream future superstar.

That brings us back to Mark Williams.

True, the 7-foot tree with ridiculously long branches did inexplicably ride the pine for much of his first two months as a Blue Devil and averaged only 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds for the season. However, Williams emerged in early February as a full-time starter and bonafide post weapon on both ends of the floor.

Next, the former five-star recruit continued to consistently impress all the way until Duke’s season came to an unfortunate COVID-related end following two crackerjack wins in the ACC Tournament.

According to the official Twitter account for Duke basketball stats, at the time of the Blue Devils’ season-ending news on March 11, Williams was the conference’s March leader in total points (74) and field goal percentage (77.5) while ranking No. 3 for the month in total rebounds (30) and No. 6 in total blocks (five).

Also, remember that in the No. 10 ACC seed’s last game, Williams’ 19 boards  — to go along with 23 points, one steal, and one block in a 70-56 victory over No. 7 seed Louisville — broke the one-game tournament record for a freshman that Virginia legend Ralph Sampson had set in 1980.

Advanced footwork. Unselfish play, including solid screens. Buttery touch around the rim and off the glass with either hand. Quick decisions with the ball in his hands.

The list goes on: supreme shot-blocking, halfcourt alley-ooping, loud yelling, crisp passing, instinctive rebounding, etc.

All in all, Williams was a significant source of both encouragement and thrills for the Blue Devils when they desperately needed something to feel good about.

Now, answer this…

With the Blue Devils likely to feature both Mark Williams and freshman-to-be power forward Paolo Banchero — No. 3 overall on the 247Sports 2021 Composite — is Duke basketball in line to enjoy the nation’s premier starting frontcourt?

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If nothing else, considering how fine-tuned Mark Williams played while dominating inside toward the end of this past Duke basketball season, it’s quite promising.