DURHAM, N.C. -- Mike Krzyzewski will start next season with one very experienced player — senior Grayson Allen — and six freshmen.
In between Allen’s 2,646 minutes of career experience and the untested freshmen are four returning players — junior Antonio Vrankovic and sophomores Marques Bolden, Jack White and Javin DeLaurier. They have played barely 400 minutes between them, leaving them almost as big a question mark as the six freshmen.
Almost … but not quite.
The four returning players might not have much game experience, but they all have a year in the system (or in Vrankovic’s case, two years). They understand what Coach K demands from his players and how the system works.
Bolden certainly believes that he’s come a long way in the last year.
“I really grew up a lot from my senior year (of high school) to the end of my freshman year in college — just the maturity, how I approach the game now,” Bolden told The Sporting News in late June. “It’s being in attack mode 100 percent of the time. Sometimes playing in high school, it would be really easy to take plays off because you were one of the top players. Coming into college, my coaches preached every day about playing hard, all the time.”
Bolden might be the most important of the inexperienced returnees. He was a five-star prospect out of DeSoto, Texas, who was expected to play a huge role for the 2016-17 Blue Devils.
It didn’t happen.
Oh, Bolden drew raves from the coaches who saw him scrimmage over the summer and in early preseason practice. He started the team’s first exhibition against Virginia State and had 13 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots in 25 minutes. But two days after that strong showing, Bolden suffered a foot injury that left him in a boot and cost him more than a month of preseason and early season preparation.
Worse, when he returned in December, the young big man was just a shadow of himself. He never regained the bounce that was evident in preseason. Bolden ended up playing just 157 minutes in 24 games, averaging 1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds.
“It was definitely challenging for sure, it really made my first year of college real interesting,” Bolden told Steve Clark of 247 Sports. “It was something personally that I felt like my foot was bothering me and so I went to the trainers about it and they did what was best.”
Despite his injury-plagued season, Bolden considered declaring for the NBA Draft. He came to Duke with the hope of being a one-and-done prospect, but he had enough flexibility to understand that his wasted freshman year didn’t really prepare him for the league.
“I knew I wouldn’t get too far in the NBA with the mindset that I had,” he told 247 Sports. “So I felt like another year in college would really prepare me for that to follow my dream. I take everything a lot more personal now with my body, my mind, and just everything in general.”
Krzyzewski is counting on Bolden to be the player he was projected to be out of high school. He’s already talked about pairing the 6-foot-10, 245-poind sophomore with 6-10, 250-pound freshman Wendell Carter in the post.
“We’ll actually be a pretty big team,” Krzyzewski told reporters during the K Academy in early June. “Those two guys will play together.”
He noted how important it is for Bolden to regain his health and to reestablish himself as a superior player.
“It’s a big year for Marques,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s been training. He’s going to try out for the U19 team.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t go well. Bolden suffered a minor hip injury in Colorado Springs and that led to an early cut from the team.
But Bolden was not discouraged by his minor setback.
“I understand how important I am to the group this year,” Bolden told The Sporting News. “I look forward to filling that big role. I’m looking forward to taking this journey with the freshmen that are coming in, helping them with the transition from high school to college.
“I want to start off strong: no injuries, no setbacks or anything. I need to get past last year and get ready for a better start.”
Bolden has almost two months to work on his health and his game before he’ll be on display again when the Duke basketball team travels to the Dominican Republic in late August. Those two public games against the Dominican National Team should give us a clue as to whether Bolden will be ready to play a major role next season.
Obviously, players get better. Grayson Allen went from 4.4 points in less than 10 minutes a game as a freshman to 21.6 points in almost 36 minutes a game as a sophomore. Ryan Kelly, Nolan Smith, Matt Jones and Quinn Cook are all recent Duke players who increased their role significantly after a limited freshman season.
But none of those examples played anywhere near as insignificant a role as Bolden did as a freshman. It’s fair to ask, how often has Duke had a player to play minimal minutes one season — let’s say under 200 minutes — then to become a major rotation player?
There are six examples in the Coach K era:
• John Smith: The 6-7 post player saw little action for the powerful 1986 team, compiling 31 points and 26 rebounds in just 91 minutes of playing time. A year later, he was the team’s starting center, averaging 11.9 ppg.
• Alaa Abdelnaby: The prep All-American played just 191 minutes as a freshman in 1987. His progress was a bit slower, just 320 minutes as a soph and 4.9 ppg. Abdelnaby eventually became a starter on a Final Four team, averaging 15.3 ppg in 1990.
• Nate James: Injuries kept the future Blue Devil assistant coach on the bench his first two years at Duke. He played just 185 minutes combined in 1997 and 1998. He was finally healthy enough to play in 1999, averaging 5.0 ppg for a powerful team. He became a starter and a key player the next season. He was one of the stars of Duke’s 2001 national championship team.
• Lee Melchionni: The swingman saw little action in his first two seasons at Duke, playing just 71 minutes in 2003 and 145 minutes in 2004. But he played over 700 minutes as a junior in 2005, averaging 7.7 points a game and was a key player again as a senior.
• Miles Plumlee: The unheralded big man played just 165 minutes as a freshman in 2009, but became a key player (a starter for the first half of the season) in 2010, when he averaged 5.2 ppg and 4.2 rpg. He ended up as a first-round NBA Draft pick.
• Marshall Plumlee: The youngest of the three Plumlee brothers redshirted as a freshman, then played just 50 minutes — scoring two points total — in 2013. His playing time gradually increased until he was a starter, playing more than 1,000 minutes in 2016, when he averaged 8.3 ppg and 8.6 rpg.
Will Bolden add his name to that list? And will he emerge as a mere marginal contributor (say, 6-7 ppg, 4-5 rpg) or will he be a significant player?
“I'm thinking we have a good chance at having a really good season with this roster,” he told 247. “We’ve got a lot of incoming freshman and a couple older veterans that will help us get through it this year. I’m pretty confident.”
It’s a little disturbing to consider that Bolden is the most experienced player — aside from Allen — on the 2017-18 roster. Vrankovic is a junior, but he’s managed just 115 minutes over those two seasons. At 7-1, 261, he adds even more size to Duke’s frontcourt.
DeLaurier is another frontcourt player. His freshman season was also marred by injuries and he managed just 85 minutes of playing time. But he’s a high-energy guy and even at 6-10, 220 pounds, he has the mobility to play outside the post.
Krzyzewski noted that Duke’s trip to the Dominican is an important training ground for the two untested bigs.
“It gives Antonio and Javin, guys who didn’t play as much, a chance to assert themselves,” he said.
Jack White has the same opportunity. The 6-7 Australian soph played just 61 minutes as a freshman, but he and Allen are the only two perimeter players with any experience.
Krzyzewski will be watching closely to see how his four inexperienced veterans put this summer to use. There was not a lot of playing time available for them a year ago, but the minutes will be there this season — if they are ready to take them.
On a team as inexperienced as the 2017-18 Blue Devils will be, the minimal minutes Bolden, Vrankovic, DeLaurier and White played last season, could turn out to be important.