DJ Steward stands out from the other Duke basketball rookies in one regard.
Needless to say, given his five-star prep rating, DJ Steward arrived on campus in August with loads of potential as a Duke basketball player and beyond.
Nevertheless, the official roster tags Steward with a 6-foot-2, 163-pound frame. Fair or not, that starts him out in the dime-a-dozen category for a combo guard, meaning NBA scouts won’t notice any “upside” without first seeing him play.
No worries. The here and now is his life in Durham, where he’ll likely be on the court often, right away, without his run-of-the-mill size hindering his ability to get his shot off or to defend other college guards; after all, generally speaking, they themselves will stand no more than a couple of inches taller than Steward.
The only real question mark regarding the 19-year-old — as of his Friday birthday — is the length of his stay. One season? Four years? Somewhere in between? All those options are conceivable. But when talking about Steward’s upcoming impact as a newcomer under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, well, there’s a notable absence of question marks altogether.
Athletic? Plenty. Reliable as a ballhandler? Check. As a decision-maker? Yup, it appears so. A willing, effective defender? Absolutely.
A capable shooter and slasher? Just check the tape from Steward’s Whitney Young (Ill.) days, including one 40-point effort, capped off by a game-winner in the lane, against now-freshman North Carolina guard Caleb Love. Or replay the 2019 Peach Jam, where he outdueled now-freshman Kentucky guard BJ Boston, thereby demanding an offer from Coach K.
Attitude problem? Nope. Not at all. In fact, judging from his seemingly constant ear-to-ear smile and upbeat vibe in every video the Duke basketball social media team has rolled out, Steward is sure to be more of a solution than an issue when it comes to team chemistry. Add to that the fact the program has decided to use his vlog to debut a new inside-look individual series on Friday:
Expect DJ Steward to make an immediate splash as a Blue Devil, and expect his learning curve to be the steepest in his class.
Now, to be fair, part of the reason Steward could have it so relatively easy is that he should attract less instant attention from opponents because of his fellow rookies’ presence. He should see less instant scrutiny from fans as well. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the probable coaches’ pet hails from the northeast corner of Illinois, just like Coach K and associate head coach Jon Scheyer.
Other Duke basketball freshmen may not enjoy such a grace period
Meanwhile, point guard Jeremy Roach must prove able to handle the responsibility and pressure that his title entails. Questions abound about his style as a floor general, particularly in the halfcourt, and how it’ll fit with a squad that looks to have tons of solid scorers but not so many facilitators. Will he be a turnover machine while trying to force shots among a crowd of defenders?
Next, small forward Jalen Johnson must prove he’s indeed the star of the show. Questions abound about his stroke from deep. Plus, some question his competition in high school and his unexplained transfer from IMG (Fla.) without ever once playing for the powerhouse. Can he dictate scoring opportunities for himself and create for others if defenders don’t respect his outside shot?
As for the other first-year Blue Devils, the question marks are clear and in somewhat large supply.
At 6-foot-8 yet only 215 pounds, does power forward Jaemyn Brakefield have the necessary strength to battle down low? Enough so to share time with Matthew Hurt at the four-spot? If not, does he stand any chance of seeing consistent minutes while competing for action at the three-spot with the likes of Johnson, Wendell Moore, and Joey Baker?
Does power forward Henry Coleman boast a sufficient skillset, whether around the rim or on the wing, to complement his obvious tenacity and Hulk-ish exterior? Does center Mark Williams have a base sturdy enough to hold his ground against ACC bruisers and post moves threatening enough to ever require double-teams?
The questions go on and on. Of course, that’s the case with the majority of freshmen every year.
It’s just much less the case when it comes to Steward. Again, though, that doesn’t mean he is necessarily the No. 1 newbie. However, much like many of the program’s past reliable two-guards — namely, Thomas Hill and Daniel Ewing — the “Swipa Snipa” will serve, at the very least, as a frequent scoring option and a trustworthy point guard when necessary.
DJ Steward certainly also has the potential to one day shine as bright in the No. 2 Duke basketball jersey as a former national champ and ACC Player of the Year — nowadays the director of basketball operations at his alma mater — in four-year two-guard Nolan Smith (one could even argue Smith is the most fitting comparison for Steward).
Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more Duke basketball news and views.