Marvin Bagley’s announcement that he will play for Duke this season changed everything.
On Wednesday, ESPN.com will roll out its preseason Power Rankings. Next week, the first AP poll of the season will be unveiled. A case can be made for a host of teams to be No. 1. Here is the case for Duke to have the top spot.
We know how this works. Marvin Bagley III will be a first-team All-American, and he’ll lead his team to the national title. That’s how it played out over the past six years with every recruit ranked No. 1 in the ESPN 100 who was 6-foot-10 or taller and who stayed healthy for, effectively, his entire freshman season.
Fine, replace “every” with “both.” If the 6-foot-11 Bagley plays a full season, he’ll be following in the footsteps of Anthony Davis and Jahlil Okafor.
Speaking of those footsteps, Bagley has indeed been called the best player to come out of high school since Davis. If he lives up to that praise, there’s a good chance the freshman will be showcasing his game at the Final Four in San Antonio come April.
In fact, at the risk of putting undue pressure on the young man, Bagley is the key variable. Assuming he turns out to be another Davis-slash-Okafor, that spells trouble for the rest of Division I. We know what we’re likely to get in performance terms from teammates such as Grayson Allen and from an elite (if young) group that includes Marques Bolden, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent, Jr.
Once Mike Krzyzewski fully embraced the one-and-done model following his 2010 national title, his team came to display some consistent traits that belied the roster’s fast-changing cast of characters. For starters, Duke’s likely to be strong on offense again this season.
The Blue Devils will, if recent history’s any guide, record an effective field goal percentage in ACC play somewhere between 52 and 56. Meanwhile, the offense will give the ball away on 15 to 17 percent of its trips down the floor.
At the same time, a Duke defense that respects precedent and tradition would be expected to finish conference play allowing points at a per-possession rate that’s quite close to the league average. (Last season, Coach K’s defense hit that bull’s-eye more or less dead-center.)
Throw a dart at the past five years, a span that has included everything from a national title to a humiliating first-round exit, and you’re guaranteed to hit a season in which all three of the above statements were correct. Conversely, what has changed from season to season over that time has been simply how many shots Duke takes.
That’s where Bagley comes in. Offensive rebounding isn’t the end-all, be-all for every team, of course (ask Baylor about last season), but for recent-vintage Duke, it has proven to be one useful, though not infallible, predictive tool.
The Blue Devils’ best showing on the offensive boards over the past five years, relative to each season’s ACC average, occurred in 2014-15. That team of course won it all, but if you’re Coach K, the intriguing thing is that the title came from a group showing in-conference numbers in defense, shooting and turnovers that were close to those later recorded by a less decorated 2016-17 team. Most of the difference between the two seasons came down to offensive rebounding.
Bagley doesn’t have to be the best offensive rebounder in the country. Nor does he have to single-handedly carry that responsibility for Duke. (The best shot-generating model Durham has seen in recent times was the one supplied by Okafor and Amile Jefferson working in tandem three seasons ago.) But it isn’t a stretch to say a 6-foot-11 freshman ranked No. 1 in the country might add value in the area of second chances even if, as will likely be the case with Bagley, said freshman tries an occasional 3.
True, you might hear this season that the Blue Devils’ defense is “terrible” or that “everything’s riding” on how well Duval or someone else plays point guard. Defense and point guard play really are crucially important, and anyway, I dare say this D will look terrible at times. (Most defenses look terrible on occasion, but somehow, when Duke does it, we elevate it to a national crisis.)
It’s just that I’ve come to expect a certain level of performance from this program during the regular season in both defense and point guard play. Those levels of performance can be characterized as “meh” and “quite good,” respectively (though Coach K’s team famously came on strong defensively in the 2015 postseason).
If either of those levels change, I’ll do my best to shoot the first flare and let you know. It would be a new wrinkle, certainly. In the meantime, both tendencies have been rather stubborn.
That is why there’s a case to be made that Duke is the No. 1 team in the nation. We’ve seen this movie before — in 2014-15. I can envision the same old, same old Blue Devil team — one with above-average shooting, good point guard play and so-so regular-season defense — being lifted by Bagley and, more specifically, by an increase in shot volume thanks to offensive rebounds. Also, don’t be surprised if Allen veers closer to his performance mean and reprises a sophomore season in which he made first-team All-ACC.
In short, the case for Duke hinges in large part on Bagley. If the freshman performs to the level many expect of him, the Blue Devils could well be the best team in the nation.