Duke basketball: Why this freshman class is different from the last

Duke basketball freshman Paolo Banchero (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Duke basketball freshman Paolo Banchero (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Unlike last year, these Duke basketball rookies look prepared to do battle.

I think every fan, coach, and player would agree that the 2020-21 Duke basketball campaign was a major disappointment. It was the first time in 25 years that the Duke Blue Devils were not selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament. It was the first time in seemingly forever that Duke spent most of the season ranked outside the AP Top 25 Poll.

While last year was a tough year all around, there is much greater optimism heading into the upcoming 2021-22 season. A big part of that is due to the top-rated freshman class the Blue Devils have this year.

Last year, the Blue Devils had plenty of hype surrounding their freshman class, per usual. They were one of the highest-ranked classes in the country and had six players ranked inside the ESPN Top 100. But the 2020 class struggled more than we’re accustomed to seeing from a group of freshmen wearing the Duke basketball uniform.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to those struggles was the lack of offseason the Blue Devil freshmen had in 2020.

In a typical year, newcomers arrive in Durham in June or early July to begin summer workouts and their first college courses. It provides them with extra time to adjust to the college lifestyle, get familiar with their coaches, and start preparing for the upcoming season. Last year’s freshman class had none of that due to the COVID restrictions.

There was no annual Blue-White scrimmage, Countdown or Craziness, or exhibition play. Plus, there was a much shorter offseason on campus, which took time away from being on the court and in the weight room. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski was also unable to spend time with his players until practice officially started in late September.

It is a steep learning curve going from high school to college, and last year’s class was behind that curve right from the beginning.

From a physical standpoint, last year’s class was severely lacking. Most of the freshmen were skinny and not ready for the speed and physicality of the college game. That was clearly evident in their non-conference games against older and stronger teams like Illinois and Michigan State.

As the season went on, the freshman looked more comfortable. But it’s not easy when you are trying to play catch up with every other team.

Last year’s class also did not feature an elite-level player who was ready to step right into the NBA. There was hope that Jalen Johnson would be that guy, but he struggled both on and off the court before quitting the team in the middle of conference play.

The Blue Devils didn’t have that one player that was just more talented than most other players. Guys like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Marvin Bagley, and Jahlil Okafor were those types of guys for the program in recent years.

Outside of Jalen Johnson, Duke did not have any of its players drafted this past July. This class was expected to have several guys stick around for a couple of years, rather than a class like 2018, where almost everyone was a projected lottery pick.

Out of the six players recruited in the 2020 class, just two remain in Durham: Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams. As we know, Jalen Johnson quit on the team, Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman both transferred out, and DJ Steward prematurely declared for the 2021 NBA Draft.

A totally different story in store this Duke basketball season

Once again, there are high expectations for the incoming Blue Devils, but it seems like this year’s class will be more capable of fulfilling those expectations. For one, this year’s class has been able to go through a full offseason, being in the gym, working with the coaches, and getting adjusted to the college experience.

That full offseason will allow them to be better prepared for the beginning of the season.

Physical maturity is also one of the biggest differences with this year’s freshman class. All four freshmen have bodies that are ready for ACC competition. They are all listed well over 200 pounds, with Paolo Banchero coming in at 250. Duke will be a much stronger and more physical team this year than in 2020.

Last year, Duke’s freshmen looked like freshmen. That won’t be the case this season.

Another reason why this year’s class is different is star power. It obviously remains to be seen, but Paolo Banchero is one of the favorites to be the first overall selection in next year’s draft. AJ Griffin is another player who NBA scouts have been intrigued by, although he is currently nursing a knee injury that will sideline him for the next couple of weeks.

There is also Trevor Keels, who has been impressive so far in the preseason.

Next. Projected Duke starters without AJ Griffin. dark

Duke has multiple players who seem to be league-ready, which should mean that they will make a major impact on the court this season for the Blue Devils.