Duke emerges from non-conference play with just one blemish on its resume: a final-second loss to No. 3 Kansas. How will Duke fare going forward?
Duke entered the season with about as much hype as any college basketball team of the last decade. Several key veterans returned from last season’s squad and head coach Mike Krzyzewski brought in one of his most talented freshmen classes to date. The preseason expectation for this team was national championship or bust, and so far this team looks more than capable of accomplishing that.
During non-conference play, Duke has looked close to juggernaut status. The Blue Devils are the second-best team in the nation, have the third-most efficient offense, and the eighth-most efficient defense according to KenPom.com. They score 120.0 points per 100 possessions and allow only 91.1 points per 100 possessions. They are also tied for 31st in scoring offense (83.5 points per game), tied for 36th in field goal percentage (48.3 percent), and are 20th in turnovers per game (11.08).
The veteran core has been central to this impressive start. Redshirt senior forward Amile Jefferson is averaging a double-double with 14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds, senior guard Matt Jones is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, junior guard Grayson Allen is putting up 16.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, and sophomore Chase Jeter provides a nice ninth piece to the rotation.
However, sophomore guard Luke Kennard has been the most prolific, and most surprising, returning player for Duke this season. Kennard leads the team with 20.4 points per game to go along with 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, and is shooting 52.0 percent from the floor and 42.7 percent from three-point range. His development in just one year has sent him from role player off the bench to the focal point of one of the best offenses in the country, and his ability to score was crucial early on when the Blue Devils were utilizing a six-man rotation and three of their four five-star freshmen were sidelined with injuries.
Speaking of freshmen, their insertion into the lineup since returning from a myriad of injures has created something of a problem for Krzyzewski in terms of managing their minutes as well as finding the right combination of players on the floor. That’s a good problem to have, though. Krzyzewski would much rather deal with this issue than the one he had last year when he had only six players he trusted for almost the entire season.
Phenom forward Harry Giles made his debut Monday night against Tennessee State and scored his first collegiate point Wednesday night against Elon. Krzyzewski is slowly easing Giles into the rotation, having played Giles only 10 minutes total between the two games. Even still, Giles has shown glimpses of the talent that made him the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2016.
Center Marques Bolden is also adjusting to the flow and pace of the college game, and he will continue to develop his role as a significant bench player. Point guard Frank Jackson is nursing an injury of his own now, but he has appeared in all but one of the Blue Devils’ games so far this season and is averaging 12.3 points in those contests.
Small forward Jayson Tatum, though, has shone the most of all the freshmen despite playing in only five games since returning from a sprained foot. Tatum is averaging 27.8 minutes, 15.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game. He can score in a variety of ways, is dynamic on the ball, has a relentless motor, and is long and quick enough to guard multiple positions. Right now, he looks like the freshmen that will have the most impact on the direction this takes in the coming months.
As all of the freshmen continue to find their way in the rotation and grow as players, this team will go from a run-of-the-mill great college team to one of the best teams we’ve seen in years.
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During its non-conference slate, Duke has beaten two ranked teams, slaughtered UNLV in Las Vegas, and battled through a few closely contested games, too. The only hiccup on an otherwise perfect non-conference resume is the 77-75 loss Duke suffered at the hands of Frank Mason III and Kansas at Madison Square Garden back in mid-November.
The teams went back and forth until the Jayhawks ran out to a 12-point lead with eight minutes remaining, but the Blue Devils showed an incredible amount of fortitude by coming back with a shortened rotation to tie the game with 20 seconds to go. Mason’s last-second jumper sunk Duke’s comeback, but the loss still showed a lot about this team. If Duke had its full complement of players available, the game very well could have gone a different way.
The two main issues that Duke must contend with going forward are how exactly to utilize all the talent on its roster, and what to do about Grayson Allen’s tripping.
The quandary of Grayson Allen’s propensity to trip opposing players in the heat of the moment is one that this team, Krzyzewski, and most importantly Allen will have to solve going forward. Outside of the fact that it is unacceptable behavior in general – which it obviously is — he cannot continue to provide this type of distraction to his team. The sideshow created by his actions detracts from everyone focusing on the singular goal of bringing home a sixth national title. The program made the right first step Thursday morning by suspending him indefinitely, but now it’s up to Allen to actually correct his behavior and just play basketball at the high level that he is capable of playing.
In the meantime, Krzyzewski will continue to fiddle with the rotation and ease his freshmen in.
The Blue Devils have enough talent that a down night for one player won’t necessarily doom the offense as it did last year. As conference play progresses, Giles will see his role expanded until eventually he either earns a starting spot in the rotation or plays close to 30 minutes per game off the bench; Tatum will continue to hone his scoring abilities, particularly his jump shot as he shoots up draft boards; and Bolden will find out if he is a 20 minutes per game type of player or if he will tend toward a more Jeter-like role of about 10 to 15 minutes as needed.
The veterans must continue to produce as they have so far this season, particularly Kennard, but there is no reason to suggest that they’ll fall off. Kennard can score from anywhere and Jefferson has nearly perfected playing in the post with his back to the basket and putting the ball in the hoop.
The ACC is the country’s toughest conference, which means the Blue Devils will be tested night in, and night out – except, of course, the one time they play Boston College. Those tests will prove important in the long run. When it comes time to face Kentucky, UCLA, Villanova, or possibly Kansas again in the NCAA tournament, Duke will be able to couple its ability with experience, and that could prove to be the difference.
Even though this team is so laden with veteran and freshmen talent doesn’t mean they are guaranteed any trophies. Just look at Kentucky’s 2014-15 team that went undefeated before losing in the national semifinals to Wisconsin. But this team is poised to dominate. Kennard has shown he can take over a game, as has Allen when he’s not tripping people. Giles and Tatum are waiting in the wings to put on showcases of their own, and the compliment of players like Jefferson and Jones only serves to make Duke stronger.
They have already put up dominating performances, and they’ve already endured hard-fought battles. As their chemistry continues to build, the Blue Devils will start to show their true nature: a college basketball force to be reckoned with.
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