DURHAM — For more than a decade, Duke has been known for offseason roster turmoil. As the Blue Devils embraced the one-and-done era in college basketball, the team had to rebuild, seemingly from scratch, each year.
There’s scratch, and then there’s scratch.
Never has the returning player cupboard been as bare as it is this season. The Blue Devils return junior guard Jeremy Roach, guard Jaylen Blakes, who played sparingly as a freshman, and two walk-ons.
Max Johns, a transfer from Princeton who played four minutes in a loss to the Blue Devils in 2018, is fourth on the team in minutes played at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Even the coaching staff is in transition as Jon Scheyer takes over as the first new Blue Devils coach since Jimmy Carter was president.
The Duke roster attrition is mitigated, as it often is, by the nation’s best recruiting class. Seven freshmen are joining the team, led by five-star centers Dereck Lively and Kyle Filipowski, and five-star forwards Dariq Whitehead and Mark Mitchell. Four-star point guard Tyrese Proctor also promises to be a key contributor.
Duke also hit the transfer portal hard, adding Johns as well as Northwestern big man Ryan Young, Harvard forward Kale Catchings and Illinois wing Jacob Grandison, all grad transfers.
So the 2022-23 Blue Devils will be a mixture of old and young, but mostly unfamiliar, as they try to jell quickly.
“We have a lot of different guys in different places in their lives,” Young said, pointing out that he’s four and a half years older than Proctor. “I can’t even remember what it was like to be a freshman. It was so long ago. This is a unique team with different people at different stages of life, but everybody is on the same page, committed to one goal.”
The large number of new faces also means that roles are far from certain on the team, which has led to some spirited battles in the preseason.
“Depth is a great thing,” Young said. “We have a lot of guys and a lot of opportunities. There are going to be a lot of minutes — time in games and roles — up for grabs. It adds competition to practice. Early in the year, we’ll have a lot of uncertainty. It’s exciting for guys to be competing and playing their hardest to carve out time.”
Once the games start, however, the Blue Devils will be working together on one goal — to follow up last season’s Final Four appearance by bringing home a title in Scheyer’s first year on the bench.
“You lose eight of our 10 scholarship players, right, and so we brought in 11 new faces. Seven happened to be freshmen,” Scheyer said. “Brought in four transfers, and the balance I think when you look at the guys we’ve brought in, the way they complement one another, the fact that everybody we’ve brought in, they’re about the team first. Of course they have individual aspirations that they want to play beyond just at Duke, but I think that’s allowed them to push each other in practice.”
Duke also has several players who can play inside and outside, allowing the Blue Devils to create matchup problems on the floor.
“I think you look at the versatility of this group, we have a lot of guys that can defend multiple positions, really are positionless on offense,” Scheyer said. “That’s how we’ve played and that’s how we’ll continue to play.”
“This is a versatile team,” said Young, who, at 6-foot-10, is looking up at four 7-footers on the roster. “It’s the longest team I’ve been on.”
The progress of the team has been slowed in the preseason as several players — most notably Whitehead and Lively — have battled injury. Proctor, expected to share responsibility for running the team with Roach, also missed part of the summer playing international ball.
“I wasn’t here in the summer, and a couple other guys were in and out,” Proctor said. “But we’ve had a couple solid weeks with everybody here.”
Proctor sees the team’s chemistry and ability to communicate on the floor steadily improving.
“Early on, it was really quiet,” he said. “But as a group, over practice, we’ve come together.”
Scheyer appears to realize that it will take extra effort by the rookie coach to get such a disparate group to come together, and the players have noticed him putting in the work.
“How hungry Coach Scheyer is for a guy that’s already been to the top, that stands out,” Young said. “From a personal interaction standpoint, it’s been awesome to be coached by somebody who can be out there with us. I’ve had a lot of coaches, but none of them have been as active as Coach Scheyer is in drills with us on the court and playing with us, mapping things out actually in the drills with us.”
Duke struggled with outside shooting in its Blue-White scrimmage as well as — according to reports — the secret scrimmage with Houston, but Scheyer is more concerned about the other end of the floor.
“If you look at our championship teams in the past, it starts with defense, and that’s why it’s the first thing we hit on this fall,” he said. “That’s continued to be a priority for us. We can be an elite defensive team. We have the capability of doing that.”
Even if very few of them have done it yet while wearing Duke Blue.