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Duke basketball ready to rely on talented freshmen

Freshman center Jahlil Okafor came into the Duke program as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 class. Okafor was named the AP Preseason Player of the Year.Courtesy of The Chronicle/Jesús Hidalgo

Freshman center Jahlil Okafor came into the Duke program as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2014 class. Okafor was named the AP Preseason Player of the Year.

Courtesy of The Chronicle/Jesús Hidalgo

“If you take anything from the last season to the next season, I think it’s a mistake,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

“You have to start out fresh ... You’ve got to concentrate on who you are right now.”

Who are the preseason No. 4 Duke Blue Devils right now?

Well, for starters, they have the Associated Press Preseason Player of the Year in 6-foot-11, 270-pound true freshman center Jahlil Okafor.

“He’s as talented as everybody says,” senior guard Quinn Cook said.

“He’s dedicated to the game. He takes it seriously. He wants to win.”

If he is as good as they say he is, Okafor will be a double-team magnet, a defensive anchor below the basket and a post presence that the Blue Devils didn’t have last year.

Cook, a team co-captain, said Okafor is already the best scorer on the team. What might make him even more dangerous, however, is the ways in which he can open up the floor for his teammates.

“It’s really good for me and our unit to have a force like that in the middle — someone who’s going to demand so much attention,” said Amile Jefferson, a junior forward and Cook’s fellow co-captain.

“It’s going to make the game easier for all our guys.”

With Okafor at center, Jefferson can move to his natural position at the power forward spot, where he says he hopes to improve the team’s rebounding numbers — which ranked 193rd in rebounds per game in Division I last year.

As an added bonus, Okafor’s defensive prowess should allow guards like Cook and junior Rasheed Sulaimon to play more aggressive defense, knowing that they have a rim protector behind them.

The rest of Duke’s ESPN top-ranked recruiting class in the nation is nothing short of dangerous in its own right.

The Blue Devils also welcome two recruits who have played alongside Okafor in the Team USA basketball youth system.

Top-ranked point guard recruit Tyus Jones will likely be the new floor general for the team, and forward Justise Winslow has elite athleticism on defense.

“(Winslow) is going to be one of the unique players in the ACC this year,” Jefferson said.

“He’s going to be one of those do-it-all guys for us.”

The high level of talent and maturity possessed by the freshman group, which is rounded out by the 2014 recruiting class’ sixth-ranked shooting guard in Grayson Allen, should allow the newcomers to make an immediate impact on the team.

“(The freshmen) embraced the upperclassmen,” Krzyzewski said.

“The guys right now don’t look at each other as freshmen and sophomores and juniors and senior. They just look at each other as Quinn and Tyus and Justise, and that’s a little bit unusual. It’s unusually good.”

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Duke had elite recruits and top-notch talent last year and failed to convert it into a deep run during March.

Jefferson said he hopes this team can change that fortune.

“For me personally, it’s something that is one of our goals for this season — to hang a banner,” he said.

“It’s a process. Our guys are doing the things right now to be worthy of winning, and winning big.”