As usual, the 2016-17 season began with lofty expectations for Duke. The Blue Devils carried a preseason No. 1 ranking thanks in large part to a phenomenal freshmen class that was the top rated recruiting class in the country last year.
Through the first seven games of the season, those high expectations have had the Blue Devils holding their breath as they try and survive the barrage of injuries that have plagued them this season.
They’ve been without three of their star freshmen to start the year, and now it appears preseason All-American.
Harry Giles, the No. 2 rated recruit in the 2016 class, underwent a minor knee surgery before the season and was expected out six weeks. It’s been almost eight weeks, and he’s remained at the end of the bench for Duke. Giles has appeared in warmups the past week for Duke, and it’s entirely possible that he could make his return soon. Of the three freshmen, however, he will likely be the last to make a return.
The other two freshmen who have not appeared in games — Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden — are in a similar situation as Giles. They’ve participated in warmups, but still, no action.
Tatum suffered a sprained foot in a late October practice, and Bolden suffered a lower leg injury that has held him out.
Duke has been mum on their expected returns but they seem to be reasonably healthy, although when determining at what percent health they will be cut loose to play, Duke is adamant — 100 percent or nothing. Their goal is to not rush the return and risk further injuries.
“We can’t go through the whole year with lingering injuries,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN’s C.L. Brown. “We’re not the team we thought we would be at this time, but we’re a good team. To be the team that we hope to be, we’ve got to be healthy. We’re going to really be adamant about taking a longer time than a shorter time, no matter what.”
Of all the teams in the country, perhaps no team is better equipped to soak up the injuries that have plagued them than Duke. Without their three freshmen stars, they still have a plethora of former McDonald’s All-Americans to step up in their place. Luke Kennard has been perhaps their biggest, most important piece, averaging 17.1 points per game and shooting a red-hot 40 percent from 3-point range. And another freshmen, point guard Frank Jackson, has stepped up to be a nice spot-up shooter to fill in scoring.
But their biggest weakness thus far this season has been their lack of frontcourt depth. Without Giles, Tatum or Bolden, Amile Jefferson has played nearly 30 minutes per game, and only got seven minutes of combined rest in tight victories over Rhode Island and Penn State.
Although it does have the feel that nothing is bouncing Duke’s way on the injury front, they are taking a wise approach in easing their stars back when they become available. Coach K has been around long enough to know championships aren’t won in November and December.
It seems to be a matter of “when” they return, rather than “if” they return this season for their top freshmen. And when they do return, they could bolster an already top-10 team by turning the Blue Devils into one of the deepest, most lethal squads in the country.