College basketball’s ‘Wild West’ offseason nothing new for Duke

The Blue Devils have rebuilt their roster after losses to the NBA and transfer portal

Duke added Marquette transfer Theo John to its frontcourt to go along with the Blue Devils’ regular influx of top-tier incoming recruits. (Matt Slocum / AP Photo)

When it became clear that the NCAA was planning to loosen regulations on transfers following the basketball season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sounded the alarm, warning that it would be “like the Wild West.”

It turns out Coach K was dead-on with his prediction. Players are entering the transfer portal like cowboys pushing open saloon doors. By some estimates, more than one in every four college players are expected to change teams before next season. Rosters are turning over like never before, and no team is immune.

In other words, the rest of the sport is getting a taste of what Duke goes through every season.

The NBA Draft is usually the culprit in scrambling Duke’s roster, as Krzyzewski has gone the one-and-done route to construct rosters, then gut and remodel them, for more than a decade.

This year is no exception, with sophomore Matt Hurt and freshman DJ Steward announcing their plans to move on to the pros after the season, costing the Blue Devils their top two scorers. (No. 3 scorer, Jalen Johnson, opted out to go pro in the middle of the season.)

It’s the third year in a row Duke has lost its top three scorers to NBA early entry and the fifth year in a row the Blue Devils have seen their leading scorer go pro.

This year, Duke has also seen players depart due to the transfer portal, with freshmen Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman, super senior Jordan Goldwire and grad transfer Patrick Tapé all leaving.

Duke even lost an assistant coach, with Nate James earning the shot at running his own program at Austin Peay.

Krzyzewski is used to filling holes quickly in the aftermath of offseason turmoil, however, and in this crazy offseason, it’s business as usual at Duke.

In quick succession, Duke made four moves to help the Blue Devils reload for next season.

In perhaps the least surprising development, the coaching vacancy was filled by Nolan Smith, who has been a member of Krzyzewski’s staff in a variety of roles since 2016, including special assistant and director of basketball operations.

“Nolan is a rising star,” Krzyzewski said. “To get him on the court with our players on a day-to-day basis will mean so much to our program.”

Coach K then set about filling the holes on the roster. The first player added to the roster came via the recruiting trail.

Duke beat out Virginia and Villanova to land one of the top remaining 2021 recruits available when combination guard Trevor Keels announced he’d be a Blue Devil. Keels is a former teammate of rising Duke sophomore Jeremy Roach. Both played together at Paul VI High in Fairfax, Virginia. Keels is a five-star recruit and one of the top shooting guards in the country. He was named a McDonald’s All-American and is the No. 19 recruit in the class, according to 247Sports’ rankings.

Keels joins No. 3 overall recruit Paolo Banchero and No. 7 A.J. Griffin to give the Blue Devils a trio of McDonald’s players.

On Tuesday, Duke also landed point guard Jaylen Blakes. The 6-foot-2 New Jersey native was teammates with Duke walk-on Keenan Worthington at Blair Academy — the school from which former Blue Devils standout Luol Deng was recruited. Blakes is a four-star recruit according to 247Sports’ composite rankings and is the nation’s 16th-ranked point guard in the Class of 2021.

Blakes averaged 18.1 points and four assists as a junior but was limited to just two games his senior year because of canceled games due to COVID-19. He wasn’t offered by Duke until April 12 and chose the Blue Devils over Boston College, UConn, Georgetown and other schools.

Duke is also still holding out hope of landing shooter Patrick Baldwin Jr., who is strongly leaning toward playing for his father, who coaches Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

While waiting for the final recruiting domino to fall, Krzyzewski has gone to the transfer portal to fill the remaining holes.

First, Duke raided an in-state team, landing four-year Davidson player Bates Jones.

Jones came off the bench for the Wildcats, starting five of his 96 games played over four years. He averaged 1.7 points for his career, 2.6 as a senior in 12.7 minutes per game. Jones also averaged 2.6 rebounds as a senior and 1.9 for his career. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder will provide depth and size for the Blue Devils.

Jones is using the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted all players this year and will be a “super senior” with the Blue Devils.

The Jones family is very tightly entwined with Duke athletics. His sister Ruthie starts for Duke’s women’s soccer team as the goalkeeper. His older brother, Daniel Jones, was Duke’s starting quarterback for three years before leaving school after his junior year to be drafted in the first round by the New York Giants.

A day later, Duke added another big man, landing Marquette’s Theo John. The 6-foot-9, 245-pounder played center for the Golden Eagles and former Blue Devils player and longtime assistant Steve Wojciechowski, who was fired after the season. John played four years for Marquette, starting 89 of 124 games. He averaged 8.0 points and 5.0 rebounds as a senior, blocking 1.5 shots per game. John was named Marquette’s Most Improved player two years in a row and was among the national leaders in blocks per game as a sophomore. He finished third in the Big East in blocks as a senior.

Then Krzyzewski straightened his 10-gallon hat and hopped onto his horse, the old gunslinger once again navigating the wild west and getting his man.