Duke setting a new standard with glittering 2018 recruiting class

John GasawayESPN Insider4 Minute Read
Mike Krzyzewski has rebuilt the Duke roster to replace all five starters from last season.Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports

Last week, five-star prospect Joey Baker announced that he was reclassifying to join the 2018 recruiting class and would enroll at Duke in the fall.

Baker's decision means Mike Krzyzewski will enter 2018-19 with no fewer than five freshmen ranked in the top 40 of the 2018 ESPN 100. R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and Baker will form the nucleus of a Blue Devils roster that has lost its entire starting five from last season.

Barrett, Williamson and Reddish are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively, in the ESPN 100. (Jones is No. 17, and Baker clocks in at No. 39.) In other words, even by Duke's recent lofty standards, this is one extreme abundance of talent.

If fact, the abundance raises a question. Is this the Blue Devils' best recruiting class yet?

By "yet," let's first agree to narrow the discussion down to just the one-and-done era. This saves us from trying to compare contemporary players to the celebrated and indeed catalytic freshman class that arrived in Durham in the fall of 1982: Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and, of course, our good friend and colleague Jay Bilas. Clearly, no class could compare with that group. (Got that, Jay?)

Now, to measure the heft of a given recruiting class, I like to use the front-loaded sliding scale first proposed a few years back by Drew Cannon (who for the past few seasons has held the title of basketball operations analyst for the Boston Celtics). In Drew's scheme, the No. 1 player in the nation was worth 10 points, the No. 25 prospect nets your program five points, the No. 50 player is worth three, and signing the No. 100 recruit gets you one point.

Joey Baker adds to Duke's collection of freshman talent for next season.Provided by Kelly Kline/Under Armour

On that scale, yes, this is indeed Duke's best recruiting class of the one-and-done era. Barely.

2018-19: (Barrett, Williamson, Reddish, Jones, Baker)
39.0 points
2017-18: (Marvin Bagley, Trevon Duval, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent, Jordan Tucker, Alex O'Connell)
38.2
2016-17: (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier)
36.6
2014-15: (Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen)
29.7

The freshman class that arrived at Duke in the fall of 2014 and went on to win a national title comes out looking rather underrated on this point system, but bear in mind, Krzyzewski was still transitioning to the one-and-done model at that point. Freshman starters Okafor, Jones and Winslow teamed with veterans Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones that season. The rest is history.

Now, however, the Blue Devils are in the habit of replacing the bulk of their rotation on an annual basis. That leads to bigger and more highly rated recruiting classes.

This latest Duke freshman class rates out as the best of them all, by a hair, but the larger point is that, in each of the last three seasons, Coach K has brought in five or even six top-tier recruits. This is nothing if not the golden age of Blue Devil recruiting.

None of which is to say that Duke is a shoo-in to win the 2019 national title, of course. Relying primarily on one-and-done talent is a club with just two members: Kentucky and Duke. Both programs have won national titles using this approach, while, for their part, teams like Villanova and North Carolina have shown you can also get the job done with veterans.

Nor is this incoming Duke freshman class necessarily the highest rated one we've seen from any program in the one-and-done era. That honor might go instead to UK's 2013-14 freshman class (46.9 points: Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee).

But the boast that Duke will be able to make in 2018-19 is that no team nationally will bring as much presumed NBA talent to the floor. In my colleague Jonathan Givony's 2019 mock draft, Barrett is the No. 1 pick, Reddish is No. 3 and Williamson is No. 7.

No team in the one-and-done era has had three of its players selected in the first seven picks of the draft (though Florida came close in the 2007 draft, with Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah all going in the first nine picks). Duke's freshmen have a shot at standing out even at a program known for sensational freshmen.

Then again, assessing the NBA potential of this group may be the easy part. The real question, at least for Duke fans, will be whether this latest crop of amazing freshmen can get the Blue Devils back to the Final Four for the first time since that 2015 national title. Coach K's team was, of course, one bounce on the rim away from getting there in April.

If 2019 is indeed the year that Duke again plays in a national semifinal, it will almost certainly be because this freshman class lived up to its hype. Can you win a national title starting four, or even five, freshmen? The Blue Devils are about give that question a test.