DURHAM — Duke entered this season with just one returning player who had logged significant time for the Blue Devils — Jeremy Roach. He entered the season with 545 of Duke’s 566 returning points (Jaylen Blakes had the other 21).
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they had a large freshmen class joining Roach. Those first-year college players have already combined to score 522 points on the season. They haven’t quite caught Roach yet, but they’ve made it very clear that Duke’s fate will largely be on their shoulders as the year goes on.
In fact, when Roach had to miss a nonconference game against Maryland Eastern Shore recently, the freshmen achieved a feat never accomplished in Duke’s long history.
The Blue Devils trotted out a starting lineup of Tyrese Proctor, Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski, Dariq Whitehead and Mark Mitchell, marking the first time that the starting five was entirely made up of freshmen. For the game, seven freshmen saw the floor and combined for 136½ of the 200 minutes of playing time, scoring 65 of Duke’s 82 points.
“I don’t think it’s ever happened before, if I’m not mistaken,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “It’s not something we were trying to do for that reason, it just organically ended up that way. Each of those five guys, they’re talented, they’re bought into the team, and they’re trying to figure it all out. Thought they did a good job out there, we were a little quiet, which is what it’s going to be when you have five freshmen. Proud of their effort and proud of what we did overall.”
While the freshmen are already doing things no other class has ever done at Duke, there is still a long way for the group to go. Each has endured growing pains and is still far from reaching their ceiling when it comes to potential.
The energetic center was the No. 3 recruit in the country when he arrived at Duke, but he missed more than a month in the preseason, including the season-opening game, and is still playing catch-up when it comes to getting into game shape. He’s shown flashes on defense, including a five-block game against Maryland Eastern Shore, but he still struggles with foul trouble, and outside of dunks, he hasn’t shown much of his offensive ability yet.
The No. 2 recruit in the country, he missed even more time in the preseason and the first three games. Roach’s injury gave him his first start in college, and he had his best game with 15 points.
“He can have some big scoring games,” Scheyer said. “And he can also really impact the game with his versatility. … I want him to get out in transition more, attack the basket and I don’t think he’s shown yet, I think you’ll see soon, just what a defender he can be too. With his size and athleticism, he can guard multiple positions. I’ve said it’s been a tough stretch for our team, it’s been a tough stretch for him. He came back at the hardest segment of our season, hasn’t been much practice as a team.”
He had 18 points in the opening game and scored in double figures in three of his first four. He’s been up and down, however, with six double-figure games and four with three points or fewer.
The guard should still be in high school, but he reclassified to join Duke early. He struggled with his shot at first but has picked it up of late and has been aggressive in driving to the basket and scoring. He had to step up as a team leader with Roach out.
“The thing with him is that he’s really smart, he’s really unselfish, and the next step is just taking what he knows and talking more,” Scheyer said. “I want him to talk more and to use his voice because he sees things that others don’t or can’t, and he really carried the load for us with ball-handling responsibilities.”
Duke’s most consistent scorer and rebounder, he’s been the star of the freshman class in the early going despite coming in less heralded than Lively and Whitehead. He has been turnover prone, however, and battled foul trouble against major conference foes. His outside shooting, while a threat, also needs work.
He’s played sparingly so far but saw his minutes and production increase with Roach out. He had a season-best nine points with three made 3-pointers. He likely won’t play major rotation minutes this year, but he could develop into a shooting threat off the bench as the year goes on.
A big man originally expecting to redshirt this season, his outstanding play in the exhibition game and blue-white scrimmage, as well as the uncertain status of Lively and Whitehead, ended that plan. He likely will be a bench player this year, however, with very limited minutes.