Draft Decision Fallout: Center

Jahllil Okafor’s decision to enter the NBA Draft was made official on Thursday afternoon and was hardly a surprise as the Blue Devil freshman is projected as a top three overall pick. But how does the move impact next year’s team? Here’s a look ahead at the center position in Durham for 2015-2016.

2014-2015 Recap:
Jahlil Okafor perhaps the greatest freshman season in program history, and certainly the most dominant big man performance since Elton Brand’s National Player of the Year campaign in 1999. From day one the Duke offensive approach focused on the Chicago native, and Okafor responded by averaging 17.3 points,  8.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.4 blocks per game while collecting numerous honors including National Freshman of the Year and ACC Player & Freshman of the Year. Okafor is the first freshman in league history to be named ACC Player of the Year.

It wasn’t only that Okafor was scoring a lot, he was doing so with great efficiency, shooting 66 percent from the field, while also collecting 3.5 offensive rebounds per game. He scored 20 or more points 14 times and had 11 double-doubles in 38 appearances for Duke.

As dominant as he was at times, the 6-foot-11 Okafor also proved to be a liability on the defensive end despite possessing a 7'5" wingspan and high basketball IQ. He struggled to protect the rim and had all manner of issues defending pick and rolls. As Draft Express points out, opponents were shooting around 46 percent around the rim against him.

When searching for a defensive stop or improved defense in the post, head coach Mike Krzyzewski would often substitute Marshall Plumlee, and the fourth year junior responded by playing the role you’d expect from an upperclassman. His defensive rotation was better, he didn’t get lost on switches, and he provided energy around the basket. Plumlee was never called on for his offense, and finished the season with more rebounds (92) than points (87).

Towards the end of the season when Duke went with a situationally small lineup, the Blue Devils would insert Amile Jefferson at center. While Jefferson lacks the bulk of either Okafor or Plumlee, the crafty junior made up for it with his length and athleticism. In fact, Jefferson was the most effective defender on National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky in the title game.

Okafor’s decision was never in doubt. From the time Duke began recruiting him three years ago, the coaching staff knew that his time in Durham would be measured in months, not years. And, accordingly, the Blue Devils have and are recruiting to provide more depth inside.

Plumlee should be back as a fifth year senior starter, and may have the inside track toward more minutes early in the season. At 7-feet and 255 pounds, he provides Duke with size and rebounding as noted above, and it will be interesting to see what his numbers look like with extended minutes and, perhaps, a bigger role. In four years Plumlee has scored 10 or more points just twice, and he’s attempted more than three field goals just four times in 87 appearances.

If you pencil in Plumlee for around 15-20 minutes of action per night, there’s still half the game to consider. Enter transfer Sean Obi, the 6-foot-9, 265 pound transfer from Rice who averaged 11.4 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Owls a season ago in Conference USA.

Obi’s game begins on the glass where he’s adept at establishing position and holding it to secure defensive rebounds. Offensively he’s effective around the rim, but like Okafor he could stand to improve at the free throw line (54 percent).

The third piece of the post rotation in 2015-2016 will be five star commitment Chase Jeter, whose game continued to improve over the last 24 months as he went from a top 25 prospect to one of the 10 best players in the class of 2015.

Of the three options inside, Jeter may be the best at running the floor. Offensively, his short range jump hook is the most reliable weapon though he has a workable face up jumper out to around 15 feet. He’s also a very good rebounder on both ends of the floor and that, coupled with his ability bother shots could be his early ticket to extended minutes. As with most freshmen bigs, Jeter - who is young for his class - will need to continue to get stronger and put in a lot of time in the weight room.

While five star big man Caleb Swanigan continues to list the Blue Devils, a decision to attend Duke would come as a big, big shock. Most likely the Indiana prospect will attend either Cal, Michigan State, or Kentucky according to the latest intel.

Still, Duke has another option in the class of 2015 in the form of Florida’s Antonio Vrankovic, a 6-foot-11, 275 pound center who averaged 25 points, 16 rebounds, and five blocks per game as a senior for Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Pine Crest School.

At 6-foot-11 Vrankovic has some nice tools on the offensive end that lead you to believe he can be effective on the block. He has a hook shot and can make short-range jumpers. Plus because of his size and hands, he rebounds well in his area.

To this point there’s been a handful of evaluations and then a visit from Vrankovic to Durham. If an offer came from head coach Mike Krzyzewski it could produce some movement.

“Duke’s been my dream school for awhile now since I started playing and watching basketball,” Vrankovic told TDD. “It doesn’t get much bigger in college basketball than Duke.”

If he did end up choosing the Blue Devils, the most realistic short term projection would have the three star big man providing depth, but most likely redshirting next season.

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