Austin Rivers’ departure dampens optimism for Duke next year

If this season's Duke team lacked the talent to make a deep NCAA tournament push, the Blue Devils might be in worse shape next year.

Freshman Austin Rivers, Duke's leading scorer this season, will forgo his final three years of college eligibility, sign with an agent and enter the NBA draft, reported Friday. The son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers averaged 15.5 points per game and was the lone Duke guard consistently able to get to the rim off the dribble.

Couple that with the impending graduation of Miles Plumlee and reports that brother Mason is also considering entering the draft, and Duke's roster suddenly starts to look less intimidating than it has in years.

If both elder Plumlees leave, Duke's top returning frontcourt players would be senior-to-be Ryan Kelly and redshirt freshmen Marshall Plumlee and Alex Murphy, with Josh Hairston and Michael Gbinije able to play either forward spot. The backcourt situation is a bit more promising with Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton set to return, but the lack of size and lateral quickness of that group was one of the biggest reasons Duke struggled to defend the dribble this season.

The arrival of 6-foot-4 incoming freshman Rasheed Sulalmon will help, but so far the Houston native is the only 2012 commit Duke has landed. The Blue Devils are still in the running for No. 1 overall recruit Shabazz Muhammad and elite big men Amile Jefferson and Tony Parker, any one of which would certainly be in position to add much-needed talent and contribute immediately.

Rivers' decision is no huge shock even though he certainly has facets of his game left to improve. His ability to get to the rim will translate well at the NBA level and his jump shot is improving, but his defense and ability to facilitate for his teammates are both works in progress to put it kindly.

The roster Rivers leaves behind certainly isn't threadbare, but it also doesn't appear to be top 15 caliber either.

Maybe Duke lands some late recruits to bolster next season's team. Maybe the Blue Devils emulate this year's Kansas team and emerge as a pleasant surprise. Or maybe next season will be one of those rare years where the specter of facing Duke isn't as daunting as it usually is.

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