Editor's note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Duke. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.
There is a universal caveat that applies to pretty much any in-depth preview of the next college basketball season in May. This caveat is pretty straightforward: It's May.
At this early date, even the most well-reasoned projection needs to be understood within its temporal constraints. It's a long summer ahead. Last year's freshmen get their first full summer of on-campus workouts. Prospects arrive on campus and start working out with their college coaches and teammates for the first time. Upperclassmen tighten and tidy up. One random night in front of The Gun, a previously raw late-bloomer discovers the tiniest mechanical tweak on his follow through, and suddenly it all just ... clicks.
Or the opposite happens: Players we expect to develop stagnate instead. A team we expect to improve (because it's full of returning players, obviously!) just ends up being what it is.
These are all possibilities. That's why it has been -- and always is -- difficult to pick just one key returner on any given team, as we're doing in this series this month. There are plenty of variables, and you can often argue either side for any number of players on a single team. Tuesday's UCLA decision was a genuine challenge. And what constitutes "key," anyway? Best? Most important? What's the difference?
I am happy to report today's edition required no such agony. Duke's key returner in 2013-14 is obvious: It's point guard Quinn Cook, and there's no close second.
Why is Cook so key? Because after two years spent sharing the ballhandling responsibilities with Austin Rivers and Seth Curry, Cook will be Duke's true point guard from the start of the season to its finish.
Despite losing three starters (Curry, Ryan Kelly, and Mason Plumlee) this summer, the Blue Devils have a good deal of talent at almost every other spot. At forward, there's now-eligible Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, who might end up being the second-best player on the team, as well as senior Josh Hairston and sophomores Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee. At small forward (with the option to play in the post), there's uber-recruit Jabari Parker, the most highly touted incoming player of the past five years not named Andrew Wiggins, who just so happens to be in the same freshman class. On the wing, Duke will have major sophomore breakout candidate Rasheed Sulaimon, as well as two four-star freshmen: small forward Semi Ojeleye and shooting guard Matt Jones, the No. 6-ranked player at that position this fall.
That is a lot of versatile, athletic talent to choose from in Spots 2 through 5. The point guard role, by contrast, essentially boils down to Cook and then senior Tyler Thornton, who is still best utilized as a shot-making, glue-guy type, preferably off the bench. (Thornton is invaluable in this role.) In terms of sheer quantity, Duke can afford to lose Cook less than any of its other presumed starters. Ergo: most key.
But that's just the surface argument. When you actually dig in a little bit, and play around with what Duke's lineup could look like next fall, I don't think it's unfair to argue (or guess) that coach Mike Krzyzewski is going to want to play faster than he has in any season since 2008, when the Blue Devils' adjusted tempo of 73.0 possessions per game ranked 16th in the country (pace stats via KenPom.com). In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, there was much talk of whether Coach K could juggle his dual responsibilities. K ended up melding them, borrowing liberally from then-Suns coach (and Team USA assistant) Mike D'Antoni's spread uptempo system and adapting it to his personnel on the college level.
Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of the game for a reason: He's adaptable. Since 2003, he's had teams play fast, slow and everywhere in between. In 2009-10, two years after that speedy 2007-08 team, the Blue Devils were the 249th-fastest team in the country. They posted 1.24 points per possession, tops in the country, and won the national title.
In other words, there is absolutely nothing stopping Krzyzewski from tweaking what's left of last season's moderately paced squad (96th) by inserting a cinder block on the gas pedal. The Blue Devils probably won't have a "true" center; what they'll have is a lot of really talented forwards, several of whom are as skilled on the perimeter as they are on the low block, particularly Parker. It's not hard to envision a lineup in which Murphy and Parker fly down the floor on the secondary break before the Blue Devils set up that high ball screen and space "Horns" derivative game you may remember from Steve Nash's glory days in Phoenix.
Even if the Blue Devils don't indulge my up-tempo fantasy, that doesn't diminish Cook's importance. Fast or slow, big or small, Cook is a junior point guard leading a relatively young, relatively deep, very talented group. He will inherit everything, tangible and otherwise, that goes along with that task. It's not an easy task, either, but it's one he has to master. There is a high, even thrilling ceiling for the team next season, but the Blue Devils won't touch it if Cook isn't great.