In my mind, consistency is the most impressive part of Mike Krzyzweski's tenure at Duke. There have been a lot of peaks for Mike Krzyzewski, who has won four national titles and been to 11 Final Fours, and precious few valleys. After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons, his teams have won at least 20 games in 27 of the last 29 seasons, missing the Big Dance only once. You become the NCAA's all-time wins leader not by hitting home runs, but by grinding out singles and doubles on an annual basis.
But if there's been a criticism of his program, it's that his players' success in college hasn't translated to the NBA. In the last decade, Duke has won two NCAA titles but had only two players (Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng) become All-Stars. That's an average recruiting class for John Calipari. Jay Williams' motorcycle accident and Kyrie Irving's youth skews that number a bit, but it's a revealing trend nevertheless.
Not having future NBA stars on his teams isn't a bug in Coach K's system, it's a feature of it. While the Blue Devils are rarely the most talented team in the country, the "secret" to his success is that they are almost always one of the most experienced. Most elite prospects go pro after one or two years in college, so Coach K targets prospects a level below, guys with NBA potential who still need 3-4 years of seasoning in the college ranks.
Even when he takes a one-and-done type player, like Deng or Irving, he makes sure to stock the rest of the class with "program" recruits. Guys like Shane Battier, JJ Redick and Kyle Singler, with the talent to be stars at the college level and solid veterans in the NBA, have formed the backbone of the Duke program. Since they don't have the talent to be lottery picks after one season, they're content to be groomed slowly in their four years at college, growing from role players as underclassmen to stars as upperclassmen.
That's a rarity in the college game these days, especially among elite programs. UCLA starts three freshmen this season; Kentucky starts four. Duke's three leading scorers, in contrast, are all seniors -- Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. And while all three are NBA prospects, only Plumlee has any chance of being taken in the lottery. In five years, this group of Blue Devils would almost certainly lose to the players on the Bruins' and the Wildcats' rosters. There just isn't nearly as much high-upside NBA talent. However, that doesn't mean they will lose to them this March.
Over the last decade, Duke's leading scorers have mostly been good, but not great, NBA players. In 2003, it was Dahntay Jones. From 2004-2006, it was JJ Redick, Daniel Ewing and Shelden Williams. In 2007 and 2008, it was DeMarcus Nelson. In 2009, Gerald Henderson. In 2010 and 2011, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. There isn't an All-Star in the group, but Jones, Redick, Williams and Henderson have all carved out solid NBA careers while Ewing and Nelson both had shots in the pros.
But because Duke is so successful, their players tend to be over-hyped beyond their abilities, which causes an inevitable backlash when they don't become NBA stars. Williams, a 6'9, 250 big man without the skill to be a power forward or the size to be a center at the next level, was taken No. 5 overall in 2006. Miles Plumlee averaged seven points and seven rebounds a game as a 23-year old senior, yet he was still taken in the first round by the Pacers last season. Austin Rivers was a one-dimensional 6'4 scoring guard, but a nationally-televised buzzer beater and a famous father sent him to the lottery.
Coach K maximized their skill-sets in college; it's not his fault NBA GM's couldn't see that they had already reached their ceiling. The most underrated part about his job is that it requires the skill-set of an NBA coach and an NBA GM. A college coach has to be able to win in the present while also building for the future. It doesn't matter how skilled a coach is tactically if they can't identify, retain and develop talent, and there's no one better at that than Coach K.
This year's team, which has been in the Top five all season, is no exception. Coach K has groomed Plumlee, Kelly and Curry for years so that they would be his senior leaders in 2012-2013. Just as importantly, he has two underclassmen with borderline NBA talent -- Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon -- next to his three seniors. Jabari Parker, his biggest recruiting catch since Irving, will probably be Duke's best player next year, but it will be Cook and Sulaimon's team two years from now, when Parker is in the NBA.
Coach K is 65 years old, but he's showing no signs of slowing down. One of the biggest reasons is that he never has to rebuild from scratch, never has to suffer through a season like Rick Barnes is having at Texas, where there isn't a single upperclassmen on the team. His time with Team USA, where he got to coach the best players in the world, has probably scratched any urge to try the NBA. But if he ever were to go to the next level, his success at Duke indicates he might actually be a better fit in the front office than on the sidelines.
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Shot-creation: An extremely athletic 6'11, 235 senior, Plumlee has worked diligently at expanding his post game in his time at Duke. He came in purely as a raw run-and-jump dunker, like his older brother Miles, but he's become a Wooden Award candidate thanks to an expanded offensive repertoire. But while he has a drop step and a running hook shot, he still doesn't have great touch around the basket. More importantly, his thin frame and high center of gravity will make it hard for him to establish post position at the next level, where he'll need a quality PG to create shots for him. (Averaging 17 points on 59 percent shooting)
Outside shot: His line-drive shot will never be all that aesthetically pleasing, but it has steadily improved, particularly from the free-throw line. He would make himself a far more effective NBA player if he can consistently knock down a 15-20-foot jumper under duress. (Shooting 59/0/66 on percentages this season)
Defense: He doesn't have a great wingspan, but his incredible leaping ability allows him to be a great rim protector at Duke. Plumlee is an absolute freak athlete for a guy with his size and his lateral quickness could allow him to blow up pick-and-rolls at the next level. The one concern is his relative lack of bulk, as his frame doesn't look like he'll be able to add much weight. A healthy Andrew Bynum would eviscerate him on the low block. The good news for Plumlee is that Bynum isn't healthy and there aren't many true low-post scorers like him left in the NBA. (1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals a game)
Rebounding: The most impressive aspect of his game. Plumlee's combination of size, activity and athleticism allows him to be an absolute force on the glass in college. With Ryan Kelly spending most of his time on the perimeter in Duke's four-out system, the Blue Devils depend on Plumlee controlling the paint. However, at the next level, will he have the bulk to block out guys like Derrick Favors and Andre Drummond? One reason Plumlee can dominate in the ACC is the best players from his recruiting class have long since left for the NBA. (Averaging 11.5 rebounds a game)
Passing: Plumlee is a surprisingly good passer. Duke is at their best when he's getting doubled in the post and he can wheel into the lane and find the open man. He's already had multiple games with at least three assists. While he won't command as much defensive attention at the next level, his ability to move the ball and find the open man from the 5 position will still be very useful. (Averaging 1.9 assists on 2.9 turnovers a game)
Best case: Marcin Gortat
Worst case: Andris Biedrins
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
Shot-creation: A skilled 6'11, 230 senior forward, Kelly is a classic stretch 4. He's a mismatch nightmare at Duke, but he doesn't have the quickness to create his own shot on the perimeter or the bulk to score out of the post in the NBA. (Averaging 13 points on 47 percent shooting)
Outside shot: Kelly is a pure shooter who will almost never miss an open shot from the perimeter. There aren't many guys more efficient from beyond the three-point arc than they are from the field. His ability to run the pick-and-pop at 6'11 will give him a shot in the NBA. (Shooting 47/52/79 on percentages this season)
Defense: He's not the most athletic guy in the world, but Kelly makes up for it with his length and basketball IQ. There's no way he'll be able to hold up defensively for 35+ minutes a night in the NBA, but he might be able to survive on a second unit. (1.7 blocks, 0.7 steals a game)
Rebounding: As you would expect from a big man who plays so far away from the basket, Kelly isn't a great rebounder. Unfortunately, the guys with his skill-set who tend to be the most successful in the NBA (Ryan Anderson, Troy Murphy) also had the physicality to clean the glass as well. (Averaging 5.4 rebounds a game)
Passing: Kelly doesn't rack up too many assists in Duke's system, but it's always impressive when a big man averages more assists than turnovers. He's comfortable handling the ball on the perimeter and his ability to space the floor and hit Plumlee with entry passes is a huge part of what they do. (Averaging 1.5 assists on 0.8 turnovers a game)
Injury Flag: Kelly is out indefinitely after injuring his foot for the third time in 11 months, the same injury that kept him out of last season's NCAA Tournament. Injuries to the lower extremities are always a huge concern for big men, especially if it becomes a recurring thing. There's no way to know from the outside, but it doesn't look good.
Best case: Matt Bonner
Worst case: Europe
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Seth Curry: A pure-shooting, 6'2, 185 senior combo guard, Seth has a lot of his older brother Stephen's game. However, he's not nearly the distributor his older brother is, which gives him a much lower ceiling at the next level. He's dealing with some type of mysterious leg injury that prevents him from practicing, so it's a little unfair to judge him on his lack of explosiveness. As it is, he's not a guy who can afford to be giving away any quickness. There are guys with his skill-set who've made it in the NBA (Daniel Gibson), but there are a lot more who haven't. The pre-draft season, particularly his workouts and physicals with team doctors, will be huge. (Averaging 17 points, two rebounds and one assist on 48/46/82-percent shooting)
Rodney Hood: A transfer from Mississippi State who is sitting out this season, Hood might have the most NBA potential of anyone on Duke's roster. He's an athletic 6'8, 210 swingman who shot 36 percent from beyond the arc while averaging twice as many assists as turnovers in his one season in Starkville. Coach K doesn't often have guys with his talent in Durham. Hood and Jabari Parker could form a special tandem next season.
Rasheed Sulaimon: Sulaimon, a 6'4, 185 freshman shooting guard, has walked onto campus and carved out a key role on Duke's team, which isn't easy. He's a good athlete, but he's undersized for his position at the next level and will need to have a fully polished game before he even thinks about the NBA. Three things to look for from Sulaimon down the road: can he run the point for stretches? Can he defend bigger wings or smaller guards? Can he become a more efficient offensive player? (Averaging 11 points, four rebounds and two assists on 40/38/76 shooting)
Quinn Cook: A 6'1, 175-pound sophomore point guard who has come into his own this season. Like Sulaimon, he'll be undersized and unathletic for his position at the next level, but he might have a good enough feel for the game to make it as a reserve. Cook has been given a ton of offensive responsibility this year. The key for him going forward is his consistency. One guy he should watch a lot of tape on is Eric Maynor. (Averaging 11 points, four rebounds and six assists on 44/41/85 shooting)
Amile Jefferson: A well-regarded 6'7, 190-pound freshman forward who has been thrust into a bigger role after Kelly's injury. He plays with a lot of energy and he's not asked to do much this season, but he might be worth watching over the next few years. (Averaging four points and three rebounds on 54/0/53 shooting)
Marshall Plumlee: A 6'11, 235 redshirt freshman center who has yet to see the floor in his first two years at Duke. He has a good combination of size and athleticism. Beyond that, who knows? But if Miles, his oldest brother, can be drafted in the first round, it seems like any big man with a pulse from Duke can get a shot at the next level.