COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 13 Penn State at Purdue
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Given the sheer talent that will be around him in the 2024-25 season, Mason Gillis will be hard-pressed to increase or even match his career averages of 21.8 minutes and 6.3 points per game as he heads to Duke for his sixth and final college season. But his importance to the Blue Devils will go far beyond whatever production he winds up contributing as a stretch forward with a sweet 3-point shooting stroke honed over five years at Purdue.

The hype around the Duke's top-ranked incoming freshman class is well warranted as the group includes No. 1 overall prospect Cooper Flagg and five of the top 18 players in the Top247 Rankings for the Class of 2024. It's a group on par with many of the best classes brought in by coach Jon Scheyer and predecessor Mike Krzyzewksi this century. 

But it's entering at a time when age and experience has never been more critical in college basketball.

That's why the addition of Gillis is so big for Duke. With 11 NCAA Tournament games across four trips to the Big Dance under his belt, Gillis' Final Four experience sets him apart from Duke's crop of five-star prospects and even from returning guards Tyrese Proctor and Caleb Foster. He's played in a national title game and lived through an even greater amount of team pressure than what the Blue Devils' young roster will feel in the season ahead.

Duke's dynamics for the season ahead are shaping up much differently than they did a year ago, when the Blue Devils welcomed the nation's No. 2 recruiting class featuring four of the nation's top 25 freshmen. When the dust settled on the Blue Devils' 2023-24 roster, the freshmen weren't the headliners. It turned out to be a team defined by what returned rather than what entered. 

Kyle Filipowski spurned the draft and gave Duke an All-ACC returner, and Jeremy Roach returned for his senior season as gritty, veteran anchor for the backcourt. The Blue Devils wound up ranking No. 24 nationally in minutes continuity, per KenPom.

Now, as Scheyer prepares for his third season, a radical paradigm shift is coming. 

New look for Blue Devils

With Filipowski and Jared McCain turning pro, Roach using his COVID year at Baylor and Mark Mitchell transferring to Missouri, the nucleus of an Elite Eight team is gone. Also departed is the squad's unofficial grandfather, Ryan Young, who is out of eligibility after offering two years of meaningful minutes and leadership.

Gillis could have transferred to a place where he would have been guaranteed a major role and an open path to averaging double figures. Instead, he appears likely to take on a role similar to the one Young played over the past two seasons.

After playing three seasons at Northwestern, Young arrived at Duke for the 2022-23 season as the unheralded transfer addition in a frontcourt that was adding five-star prospects Dereck Lively II and Kyle Filipowski.

Young averaged 21 minutes per game and logged eight starts over his first 17 games at Duke during the 2022-23 season as the diaper dandies found their bearings. Then, over Duke's final 11 games, Young averaged just 11 minutes per contest while playing exclusively off the bench.

Nevertheless, he was named a team captain for the 2023-24 season, despite the fact that his role diminished even further during his final college season. Scheyer said that "his voice carries a lot of weight."

Gillis' voice will, too. That's a good thing. As a three-time Big Ten All-Academic team honoree who is finishing up his MBA at Purdue this semester, Gillis knows how to put the team first and produce when called upon.

He embraced a bench role for the 2023-24 season with the Boilermakers after starting 63 games over the prior three seasons. Gillis was so strong in that niche — knocking down 46.8% of his 3-pointers and keeping the lane open for Zach Edey — that he earned Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year honors.

Gillis helps those around him produce

The Blue Devils are likely going to play through Flagg in the season ahead, and they have a couple of five-star centers entering in Khaman Maluach and Patrick Ngongba II. Those players and five-star small forwards Isaiah Evans and Kon Knueppel are the sources of hype fueling Duke to No. 5 in Gary Parrish's Top 25 And 1 for the 2024-25 campaign.

You'll see their names in way-too-early 2025 NBA mock drafts and hear whispers of their promise as they arrive on campus and don Duke practice jerseys for the first time. But Flagg won't turn 18 until Dec. 21. Maluach will turn 18 two months before the season. Ngongba will play most of his freshman season at 18. Evans will begin his college career at 18, and Knueppel will turn 19 in August.

Gillis will hit 24 in November and be a grown man amongst a group of boys, including a headliner in Flagg who won't be eligible for jury duty until over a month into the season. The five-star prospects from the Class of 2024 will sell the tickets, draw the ratings and drive the hype. 

But it could be Gillis, a three-star prospect who was ranked No. 203 in the Class of 2019, who is the glue that holds the talent together.