For months now sports writers and fans have raved and raved about Duke Basketball’s freshman class. Those five players are, for the most part, going to be the determining factor whether Duke wins or loses, such is life in modern college basketball.
Returning players, however, can also have a major impact on a team, just as Grayson Allen did during his sophomore year. Guys that come back to school – to continue their collegiate career or because the NBA is not a current option – have a season under their belts to assess strengths and weaknesses, and then a full off-season to improve.
Alex O’Connell did not play too much last season but showed flashes of his potential. He has always been a good shooter, yet athleticism and a lengthy build, 6 feet 6 inches tall and 171 pounds, surprised some and aided O’Connell on defense.
With so much future NBA talent coming into Durham on a yearly rotation, O’Connell has gone unnoticed in how his skills will help Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski attempt to win a sixth national championship.
O’Connell, in particular, is the returning player that Coach K will look to for shooting and spacing the floor. Apart from Cameron Reddish and Joey Baker, O’Connell is truly the only other shooter on the roster.
Other players can shoot but their primary skills come in different areas. Zion Williamson is mainly a slasher/finisher/rim demolition expert, RJ Barrett likes to drive and operate in the mid-range, Tre Jones looks to find teammates and drive the ball to create opening, and Marques Bolden predominately stays down on the block.
O’Connell will need to be a knockdown shooter next season in part for his own success but also because players like Williamson, Barrett and even Reddish like to have driving lanes to finish at the rim.
Alex O’Connell shot 48 percent from the three-point line last season, according to SportsReference.com. While O’Connell took significantly less threes last season than he will this upcoming season, his three-point percentage should not drop significantly. Especially considering how many other players on the court will receive more defensive attention.
Think about it, O’Connell may even start, depending on what Coach K wants to do. If Duke implements a small-ball, faster and athletic lineup, O’Connell could very well end up starting at Shooting Guard.
More realistically, O’Connell will contribute off the bench and if he shoot round 40 percent from three Duke will benefit tremendously.
I believe that O’Connell can follow the career path, more or less, of Allen and have an NBA-attention-grabbing sophomore season.