Why things are looking up for Duke basketball

Marvin Bagley III was cleared by the NCAA to play at Duke this seasons.
Marvin Bagley III was cleared by the NCAA to play at Duke this seasons. AP

Duke had plenty of basketball talent last season.

The problem was all the pieces of the team were rarely available all at the same time. That team was ranked No. 1 in the country at the start of that season, but didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

The Blue Devils are loaded with talent again this season and, at this point, the entire team and coaching staff is set to be on the court when practice begins Sept. 30.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski had successful knee replacement surgery in August, causing Duke to cancel a planned trip to the Dominican Republic for a pair of exhibition games. He has been back working with the team on a limited basis and is expected to return in full by the start of practice. And on Friday, a big hurdle was cleared when freshman Marvin Bagley III received approval from the NCAA to play for the Blue Devils this season.

The 6-11, 220-pound Bagley, projected as a top pick in next summer’s NBA draft, signed with the Blue Devils last month after graduating from high school a year early. He started classes at Duke on time on Aug. 28 and has been working out with the team and going through the normal offseason work allowed by the NCAA.

All the while, the NCAA Clearinghouse poured through the records from his circuitous path to a high school degree that included time at three high schools.

Last May, Bagley was completing his junior year at Sierra Canyon High School in Chatsworth, Calif. While playing all over the country this summer, averaging 25.8 points, a league-high 14.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game for the Nike Phamily in the EYBL, Bagley completed coursework online to complete his high school degree a year early.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski directs his team as the Blue Devils play Troy in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

On Aug. 14, he committed to Duke and was accepted into the school a few days later. But he still didn’t know for sure if he’d be able to play this season.

In determining initial eligibility for any incoming athlete, the NCAA looks at academic and amateurism factors. Athletes must be certified in both areas and, on Friday, the NCAA signed off for him to play.

Either way, Bagley would have been allowed to practice and work out with the Blue Devils.

But now, Bagley and Duke will begin full practices later this month with the knowledge that he’ll be available for all their games. The Blue Devils have exhibitions against Northwest Missouri State on Oct. 27 and Bowie State on Nov. 4 before its season-opener against Elon on Nov. 10 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Last season, Duke lost freshmen Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum to injuries before its first exhibition game. They became first-round NBA picks anyway. But their early absences, and Krzyzewski’s month-long absence to have back surgery, were big reasons why the Blue Devils went from preseason No. 1 to losing to South Carolina in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

This month, Bagley will be on the court playing the stretch-4 forward position that should allow him to thrive. Duke’s other star-studded freshmen, point guard Trevon Duval, shooting guard Gary Trent, power forward Wendell Carter and small forward Jordan Tucker, will fall into their roles.

Senior guard Grayson Allen, the team’s most experienced player, is healthy following offseason ankle surgery.

If Duke were to start practice this season with Krzyzewski missing or Bagley’s eligibility unsettled, it would have been difficult to start piecing together the young and talented team. We saw last season what that can mean.

At this point, with practice three weeks away, all the questions have been answered and the Blue Devils are ready to go.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

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