Duke basketball lands sought-after veteran guard via transfer portal

Duke’s goal of becoming an older basketball team despite bringing in the nation’s top group of incoming freshmen drew closer to reality on Friday.

After playing four seasons at Tulane, guard Sion James announced on social media he’ll use his fifth and final season of eligibility to play with the Blue Devils next season if he stays in college.

The 6-6 James has his name in the NBA Draft and has until May 29 to withdraw and return to college basketball. He’s among 195 players who entered the NBA Draft pool with NCAA eligibility remaining. Though he averaged 14 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while making 51% of his shots last season at Tulane, James did not receive an invitation to either the NBA G League Elite Camp or NBA Draft Combine, which begin May 10 in Chicago.

So James entered his name in the NCAA Transfer Portal last week with a do not contact tag, meaning he would initiate any contact with potential new schools instead of the coaches reaching out first. James visited Duke over the weekend.

Duke coach Jon Scheyer sought a veteran guard for next season’s team, which returns only two players in junior guard Tyrese Proctor and sophomore guard Caleb Foster.

The Blue Devils are brimming with talent, though, with 6-9 small forward Cooper Flagg arriving this summer. Flagg is the No. 1-rated player in the class and projected to be the top pick in the 2025 NBA Draft. Among the five other incoming freshmen is 7-1 center Khaman Maluach from Africa, who will play for his native Sudan in the Paris Olympics this summer before coming to Duke in August. Maluach is also projected as a top-five prospect for the 2025 NBA Draft.

James in the third transfer to join Duke for next season. He joins 6-8 power forward Maliq Brown, who led the ACC in steals and made the league’s all-defensive team as a sophomore while playing for Syracuse last season.

Mason Gillis, who like James has a fifth season of NCAA eligibility due to COVID-19 pandemic rules, is coming to Duke to complete his career after playing four seasons at Purdue. The 6-6 Gillis was voted the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year last season while helping Purdue make the NCAA Tournament final.

James comes to Duke with no assurances of a starting position. Proctor started 25 of the 32 games he played in for the Blue Devils last season. Foster started 15 of his 22 games before a stress fracture in his right ankle ended his season in late February.

James gives Scheyer and his coaching staff a third ballhandler with plenty of experience. The Georgia native started 61 games over the last two seasons at Tulane last season and has 106 starts in his college career. Having made 47% of his shots during his career with 34.2% accuracy on 3-pointers, he’s not a dead-eye shooter. But he’s a steady playmaker, having averaged 3.0 assists against 1.4 turnover per game as a collegian.

In his 30 games last season for Tulane, James finished with either one or zero turnovers in 22 of them. That’s while playing 36.8 minutes per game.

Last season, when sharp-shooting Jared McCain and steady captain Jeremy Roach joined Foster and Proctor as Duke’s top guards, Scheyer used a three-guard starting lineup and shuffled them in-and-out of the lineup. He often said he had six starters because any of three those four could join forwards Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell as a starting lineup.

With Flagg, Brown and Maluach giving Duke three high-quality big men, a two-guard lineup will better fit the Blue Devils next season. Proctor, Foster and James give Scheyer three guards as possible starters.