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How Duke basketball head coach Jon Scheyer has rebuilt the Blue Devils’ roster

After his second season as Duke’s basketball coach ended with a second 27-9 record, Jon Scheyer is looking ahead with renewed vision.

He led the Blue Devils to an ACC championship in his first season, and to within a win of the Final Four in his second.

Both times, though, the Blue Devils fell short of the program’s ultimate standards — the NCAA championships they chased, and won five times, during Mike Krzyzewski’s Hall-of-Fame coaching tenure.

“There’s some good building blocks there,” Scheyer said in an interview with the News and Observer. “For me, I’m always going to want more. I’m always going to want to do more and have a higher standard for how we do things.”

That means rebuilding the Duke roster from the bottom up, the type of massive overhaul that’s become more commonplace in modern college basketball, but one that has been unsettling to some longtime Duke fans.

Seven players left Duke via the transfer portal after the 2023-24 season, and the Blue Devils attracted four new players as transfers.

“There wasn’t going to be promises or assurances for anybody in terms of guaranteed minutes or guaranteed starting,” Scheyer said. “Our programs are built on competition. And we’re doubling down on that at a time where the environment makes you or puts you in a position to promise things. Our promise is to give you everything we have as a coaching staff and our entire support staff.”

Scheyer set out to build a team that’s even more competitive, both externally and internally. It’s one that will include two freshman players expected to be top picks in the 2025 NBA Draft — 6-9 forward Cooper Flagg and 7-2 center Khaman Maluach. It will have two starters back from last season in 6-5 junior guard Tyrese Proctor and 6-5 sophomore guard Caleb Foster.

Duke’s head coach Jon Scheyer talks with Jeremy Roach (3) and Caleb Foster (1) during the second half of UNC’s 93-84 victory over Duke at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.
Duke’s head coach Jon Scheyer talks with Jeremy Roach (3) and Caleb Foster (1) during the second half of UNC’s 93-84 victory over Duke at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.

Getting older

While Duke has six incoming freshmen, it also has six experienced players who have started college games. Foster, a starter in 15 Duke games last season, is the least experienced of those players.

Mason Gillis, the Big Ten sixth man of the year winner at Purdue, started 63 games during his four seasons with the Boilermakers.

Another graduate student, 6-6 guard Sion James, started 61 games the past two seasons at Tulane. Maliq Brown, a 6-8 junior forward, led the ACC in steals while making the league’s all-defensive team as a sophomore at Syracuse last season.

Grad student guard Cameron Sheffield also came aboard from Rice.

“Ultimately,” Scheyer said, “we needed a group that was completely all in to Duke basketball and to winning and to competing at the level that we needed to in order to accomplish what we want this year.”

Duke’s Kyle Filipowski (30) laughs with Jeremy Roach (3) and Jared McCain (0) late in the second half of Duke’s 93-55 victory over James Madison in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sunday, March 24, 2024.
Duke’s Kyle Filipowski (30) laughs with Jeremy Roach (3) and Jared McCain (0) late in the second half of Duke’s 93-55 victory over James Madison in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Sunday, March 24, 2024.

Tough goodbyes

The process of turning the roster over meant having tough conversations with some of last season’s starters.

Kyle Filipowski and Jared McCain entered the NBA Draft, where they are projected to be first-round picks next month. Those were relatively easy decisions.

But senior guard Jeremy Roach, a starter on Duke’s 2022 Final Four team in Krzyzewski’s final season and a stalwart on Scheyer’s first two Duke teams, entered the transfer portal while declaring for the NBA Draft. Roach has since withdrawn from the draft and will play at Baylor next season.

Forward Mark Mitchell, who started 67 games for the Blue Devils the past two seasons, transferred to Missouri.

Reserve players decided to depart with guard Jaden Schutt landing at Virginia Tech, forward Sean Stewart at Cincinnati, forward TJ Power at Virginia and center Christian Reeves at Clemson. Another reserve, guard Jaylen Blakes, is seeking a new school for his graduate year.

“You have to handle every conversation, every one of them, whether it’s the guys returning or the guys that are leaving with total transparency and honesty,” Scheyer said. “I’m proud of each of those guys. The conversations we had in the spring and conversations that were had throughout the course of the season, what they had to do in order to get better and to carve out a role. But it wasn’t going to be just promising somebody something for them to come back. And so again, I wish all those guys best of luck.”

From left Duke recruits Cooper Flagg, VJ Edgecombe, Patrick Ngongba II,Isaiah Evans and Darren Harris, in front, watch the Blue Devils’ scrimmage during Duke basketball’s Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Friday, Oct. 20, 2023.
From left Duke recruits Cooper Flagg, VJ Edgecombe, Patrick Ngongba II,Isaiah Evans and Darren Harris, in front, watch the Blue Devils’ scrimmage during Duke basketball’s Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Friday, Oct. 20, 2023.

Who might start?

In the wake of the player turnover, Duke has a pretty good projected starting five of Foster, Proctor, Flagg, Brown and Maluach. That said, James and Gillis are more than capable of winning starting jobs in the backcourt.

Of the freshmen, 6-6 Isaiah Evans, 6-5 Kon Knueppel and 6-5 Darren Harris bring reputations as strong perimeter shooters. Patrick Ngongba, a 6-11 center, will compete for playing time inside along with Maluach.

It’s the kind of internal competition Scheyer craved for this team.

“In order to have a championship caliber team,” Scheyer said, “you need more than just five players who are capable of starting and I feel we have that in this year’s group. Like I couldn’t tell you right now, who our starting lineup is going to be.”

Recovering from the broken right ankle that ended his freshman season in February, Foster is back working on the court and shooting well. That’s a good sign for the Blue Devils.

“We’re gonna be conservative with him but over the next few weeks, he’ll be back to full go 100%,” Scheyer said. “Everything’s gone really well with him.”

Duke’s Tyrese Proctor (5) drives past N.C. State’s DJ Burns Jr. (30) and Michael O’Connell (12) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Duke in their NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Sunday, March 31, 2024.
Duke’s Tyrese Proctor (5) drives past N.C. State’s DJ Burns Jr. (30) and Michael O’Connell (12) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Duke in their NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Sunday, March 31, 2024.

Proctor returned home to Australia when the academic semester ended but has since returned to campus. Gillis has already arrived in Durham, too.

Proctor’s sophomore season, which saw him average 10.5 points per game, ended on a sour note when he went scoreless (missing all nine of his shot attempts) when Duke lost 76-64 to N.C. State in the NCAA Tournament South Region final.

Scheyer said the December ankle injury that sidelined Proctor for four weeks limited him the rest of the season. So getting Proctor back to full health is the goal. At the same time, Proctor is taking full responsibility for what needs to happen to make him an even more productive player.

“We need to get him back to full health, full strength where he can work the way that he has worked in his time here,” Scheyer said. “I think that what he wasn’t able to do that as much down the stretch. So, for him, there aren’t any excuses. There isn’t any finger-pointing. It’s about doubling down on who he is and who he can be as a player and putting the work in. I’m proud of what he’s done so far.”

With a couple of exceptions, the full team will be on campus in late June to begin their normal summer work. The exceptions are Maluach, who will play for his native South Sudan in the Paris Olympics in July. Ngongba could be playing on the U.S. Under-18 national team this summer.

Otherwise, the group assembled and ready to be one of the nation’s best teams next season.

“We have, already, the base of our team,” Scheyer said. “I mean, look, we’re big team. We have the ability to switch positions and put size on the court. The ability to play small or to play big. We want to make sure we have in our pocket for this year where we could play how we needed to assert our presence, whoever we’re playing, not the opposite way around.”