Duke basketball: The curse of a stacked recruiting class

Good times on the Duke basketball recruiting trail sometimes lead to agony.

“Everything has a price, Johnson.”

Those words were spoken to me when I was 19 years old, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and newly arrived at my first Air Force duty station in Okinawa, Japan.

I didn’t think much of that message at the time. But teenage Matt discovered the lesson my supervisor was driving at immediately, for my previous night of debauchery and fun led to one of the worst wake-up calls, announcing surprise weekend duty, ever recorded.

The universe made me pay a price for my fun. And while I look back on that night with no regrets — at least I think I don’t have any, as the details are hazy for some reason — perhaps looking back I should have drunk some more water and gone to bed earlier.

Duke basketball program with its own precarious game to play

Instead of bargaining with the party gods, the Blue Devils must barter with the recruiting gods. Instead of pondering what the appropriate amount of habu sake is, Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff are pondering how many one-and-done talents to bring into Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Common logic would say the number should be as many as a person can snag at one time. And with the talent of incoming freshmen these days, it’s hard to argue against letting handfuls of future lottery picks walk through the door.

Ever since the NBA implemented the one-and-done rule in 2005, requiring top high school prospects to complete at least one year away from said schools, only two teams featuring said elite prospects as the team’s core have won a national championship.

The 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats and your very own 2014-15 Duke Blue Devils stand alone as the only freshman-centered squads to have found a way to cut down nets in April. An overwhelming majority of teams in recent years have won with battle-tested steady upperclassmen.

March Madness is all about consistency, and guys who have been there before tend to have an easier time making it six straight games without a dud.

This doesn’t stop all coaches from going after top recruits each year, though.

Many coaches of veteran-laden teams will look at the camera with a straight face and say they don’t look for elite players, just the right ones. If you believe that, I have a timeshare you would just love.

The aforementioned Kentucky and Duke title teams, combined with teams like the 2018-19 Blue Devils, are what most coaches want. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones, and Cam Reddish were must-see TV every time they laced up, and any program would surely welcome that spotlight.

And while top-of-the-line recruits give you a chance to win every year, it brings up an interesting paradox: Is it worth bringing in instant pros at the risk of existing player development?

Take the next version of the Blue Devils as an example. Duke basketball fans are excited to see three — quite possibly four — top 20 recruits come to Durham. But have the commitments from Paolo Banchero, AJ Griffin, Trevor Keels, and maybe Patrick Baldwin Jr. already put a dent in future Blue Devil titles?

When freshman DJ Steward announced last week his surprise decision to go pro, it led several people to correctly guess that incoming freshman guard Trevor Keels was coming to Duke.

It’s not that Steward wanted to leave, or that he’s necessarily ready for pro basketball, but he likely knows that Keels is a pro-ready guy who probably would have eaten up a significant portion of his minutes and attention.

It’s an interesting situation that only a handful of elite programs find themselves in yearly, but you have to think Coach K is right in taking any elite prospect who wants to wear the Duke Blue.

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Because even though it takes a rare group of freshmen to lead a team to glory, the talent and spotlight brought by those freshmen will certainly provide a fun ride.

And just like teenage me, most of us just want to be entertained, even if it means pain tomorrow.