Trevon Duval declared for the NBA draft last week, but the Duke freshman’s decision was made for him back in January. That’s when Coach K completed a recruiting hat trick by signing Zion Williamson to what was already the top recruiting class in the country, which featured the potential top two picks in next year’s draft (R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish) as well as the best pure point guard (Tre Jones, the younger brother of former Duke standout Tyus Jones) in the class. Neither Duval or Gary Trent Jr., his backcourt partner, were able to build up their draft stock at Duke, but both have decided not to give it a second try. They are essentially being pushed out the door by a program that no longer needs them.
Duval and Trent knew the deal when they signed with Duke. Coach K has beaten John Calipari at his own game the last few seasons, turning his program into the premier destination for one-and-done players. He has had a freshman taken in the top three in each of the last four drafts (Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, and Jayson Tatum), and three more (Harry Giles, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones) taken in the first round. Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. will join that group this year. The top recruits sign with Duke expecting to stay only one year in Durham.
Duke, like Kentucky, deals with the opposite problem of just about every other program in college basketball: It has more NBA-caliber talent than it can use. Coach K has to convince players with the ability to be primary options to accept smaller roles on offense. That’s what happened with Trent and Duval, neither of whom were utilized in the way most consensus top-10 recruits are. They were the fourth and fifth options for the Blue Devils, spotting up off of Bagley and Carter and taking a backseat on the perimeter to Grayson Allen, a likely early-second-round pick.
Duval wasn’t able to showcase his game. At 6-foot-3 and 191 pounds, he’s an electric athlete with the ability to play way above the rim and get into the lane at will. There aren’t many point guards at any level who can do this:
Duval is a slashing guard who can collapse the defense and find the open man on the move. He would have been best in a ball-dominant role similar to the one Collin Sexton and Trae Young had this season. Young had a usage rate of 37.1, while Sexton was at 32.9. Duval, in contrast, was at 21.3.
Duval was a poor fit in Duke’s post-heavy offense. Like many hyperathletic guards, outside shooting was his biggest weakness coming into college, even though it’s an essential skill for perimeter players on a team that plays inside out. Duval, who shot 29 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts a game, was never able to make opposing defenses pay for packing the paint against Bagley and Carter. Considering how dominant the two big men were, it’s hard to blame Coach K for structuring the offense around them. The Blue Devils would have been better with a guard with a more complementary skill set in Duval’s position.
The fit between Duval and his star big men wasn’t much better on defense, either. A guard with his physical tools should have been pressing up on opposing ball-handlers and forcing them into turnovers and poor decisions.
Playing that type of defensive style would also have improved his offense, since a more uptempo game would have allowed him to use his athleticism in transition, as opposed to playing in the half-court, which magnified his poor outside shooting. Instead, Duke sat in a zone to minimize the defensive weaknesses of Bagley and Carter. Duval, who has an only 6-foot-3.5 wingspan, didn’t have the length to be an impact defender when he was forced to guard an area instead of a man.
Playing at Duke was a worst-case scenario for Duval’s draft stock. He couldn’t do the things he did well, while his weaknesses were on full display. That’s how he went from a potential lottery pick before the start of the season to no. 50 overall on ESPN’s Top 100 prospects list. Freshmen in that range typically go back to school to work on their games. Most NCAA coaches would love to have a sophomore like Duval running their team and would have tried to sell him on returning by structuring their offense to emphasize his strengths. The situation is different at Duke.
Duval would have an even smaller role next season. Barrett is a 6-foot-7 point forward who needs the ball in his hands. A ball-dominant guard like Duval with a shaky outside jumper makes little sense next to him, especially in comparison to Jones. Like his older brother Tyus, Tre Jones is a playmaker with a high basketball IQ who can adapt himself to any role. He should be able to get the ball to Barrett, Reddish, and Williamson without getting in their way. Duval would likely have been forced to run the second unit for a coach who rarely goes deep into his bench. He would have been yesterday’s news on a program built around freshmen.
That’s what happened to Marques Bolden, a sophomore center who averaged 13 minutes per game this season behind Carter and Bagley. Bolden, the no. 11 overall recruit in the class of 2016, was seen as a likely one-and-done player coming out of high school. Instead, he got injured early in his freshman season and was never able to carve out a role for himself in a crowded frontcourt at Duke. He’s not even ranked in ESPN’s Top 100 anymore, and his role won’t be much different as a junior. He will have to fight for minutes with Javin DeLaurier, a more defensive-minded big man who better complements the trio of ball-dominant freshman wings that Duke is bringing in.
Frank Jackson, who was part of the same recruiting class as Bolden, stuck with the original plan of going pro despite an inconsistent freshman season. He didn’t want to come back to school and back up Duval. He was taken at no. 31 overall in last year’s draft by the Pelicans, who shut him down all season because of a foot injury. It’s unclear what will happen to him now. New Orleans is in win-now mode and trying to convince Anthony Davis to stay long term, and it can’t afford to let Jackson play through his mistakes. He will likely be pigeon-holed into a role as a bench shooter. If he can’t earn minutes on a veteran team, he could end up in the G League, where he will have to prove himself all over again.
Duval, like Jackson, would have been better going to a college program built around him. The best-case scenario is the career arc of Kris Dunn, another hyperathletic guard with a shaky jumper. Dunn shot only 39.8 percent from the field as a freshman at Providence, but he still averaged 27.2 minutes per game for a middle-of-the-pack Big East team. Over the next three years, Dunn grew as a shooter, decision-maker, and defender, becoming the leader of the program. He went from shooting 28.6 percent from 3 on 0.6 attempts a game as a freshman to 37.2 percent from 3 on 3.4 attempts a game as a redshirt junior. That growth helped Dunn become the no. 5 overall pick in the 2016 draft.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Dunn in the NBA. His rookie season with Minnesota was much like Duval’s freshman season at Duke, as he struggled to adapt to a complementary role in the offense. The difference is his draft pedigree convinced another team to take a chance on him. Chicago essentially gave Dunn the keys to its offense this season after getting him in the Jimmy Butler trade. As a 23-year-old coming out of college with a more NBA-ready frame and years of experience at the NCAA level, he was also more equipped on and off the court for a professional career. It’s hard to imagine Dunn being where he is today if he had been forced to go pro as a 19-year-old.
Duval has a hard road ahead of him. It’s difficult to run a spread pick-and-roll offense without a consistent 3-point shot, and it’s impossible to be in a complementary role without one. Not only was Duval a poor 3-point shooter as a freshman, but he was also a terrible free-throw shooter (59.6 percent from the line at 2.4 attempts a game). He will likely need years to reconstruct his shot just to get to where Dunn is today, much less become a knockdown shooter. He will also need to run thousands of pick-and-rolls to improve his overall feel for the play, developmental time that few NBA teams will be willing to give a second-round pick.
The same dynamic applies to Trent, who declared for the draft despite being ranked at no. 52 overall in ESPN’s Top 100. At 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds with a 6-foot-8.5 wingspan, Trent has NBA-caliber size for a shooting guard as well as a consistent 3-point stroke, but he was seen as a chucker who forced shots and didn’t play much defense in high school. Instead of expanding his game in college, Trent was used as a spot-up shooter and hidden in a zone on defense. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Trent ran a pick-and-roll in only 15.7 percent of his offensive possessions this season. He didn’t get the chance to be a featured player on offense as a freshman, and he would have been marginalized even further as a sophomore.
Duval and Trent will almost certainly end up spending a lot of time in the G League, where former McDonald’s All Americans are a dime a dozen. If they can refine their games and polish their skill sets, they have the talent to play in the NBA. However, talent is not enough once you get to the professional level. Just ask former Kentucky guards Marquis Teague, Archie Goodwin, and Aaron Harrison, who have spent most of their professional careers bouncing back-and-forth between the G League and the NBA after declaring for the draft as underclassmen. Teague and Goodwin were both late-first-round picks, but neither got the opportunity to grow as a primary ball handler in the NBA.
Malik Monk, who starred in his one season at Kentucky before being taken by the Hornets with the no. 11 overall pick in last year’s draft, told my Ringer colleague Jordan Ritter Conn that Calipari basically kicked him off the team to make room for his next blockbuster recruiting class. Monk, along with De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, had an implicit understanding with Calipari when they signed with him. It worked out well for both sides: They starred for one season and then went pro, making themselves a lot of money and allowing Calipari to use their success to sell the next generation of recruits to follow them. Players who need longer to develop don’t fit that model.
Kentucky and Duke are run more like NBA teams than NCAA programs. While most NCAA programs desperately need players like Duval and Trent, that scenario is reversed at the next level. NBA teams have more talent than they can use, and they don’t have much incentive to develop players, unless they are truly transcendent. They are perfectly happy to let players like Duval and Trent figure it out for themselves in college, the G League, or overseas. Point guards who can’t shoot and shooting guards who don’t defend or pass are expendable. If Duval becomes the next Archie Goodwin and Trent becomes the next Aaron Harrison, it doesn’t really matter to them. There will be more players like that in next year’s draft.
Duval and Trent are getting forced out of Duke, but they knew what they were getting into. Coach K is running a pro factory. He doesn’t need to develop players anymore. Future NBA stars are beating down his door to sign with him every season. If they wanted to take a slower route to the NBA, they could have signed somewhere else. No one is holding their hand at Duke, just like no one will hold their hand at the next level. They’re in the game now.