Duke started the season 8-1, with their only loss coming at the hands of Kansas, at the buzzer, on a neutral court. Coach K’s five starters were returning contributors from last season, many of whom had made strides over the offseason.
First and foremost, this describes the play of sophomore guard Luke Kennard. The lanky, pale-haired guard came into last season highly regarded, having broken the Ohio high school all-time scoring record (previously set by LeBron James), but was up and down at times last season. He shot well, especially from the free throw line, yet struggled to handle the ball, get to the rim, or handle pressure. This season, despite playing more minutes and having the ball in his hands more often, Kennard has increased his offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, assist rate, fouls drawn per game, and shooting percentages both inside and outside the arc. Reach your hand into the advanced stats bucket and you’ll pull out something Kennard has improved year-over-year.
Grayson Allen has yet to shoot as well as he has the past two seasons, but is still scoring 16 points per game, and adding 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Amile Jefferson is averaging a double-double in what feels like his 9th year at Duke. With contributions from senior Matt Jones, freshman Frank Jackson, and big man Chase Jeter, it looked like another ho-hum top 15 Duke squad.
But this all occurred with three elephants simultaneously hanging out in the room. Aside from Jackson, the rest of Duke’s highly touted recruiting class was sidelined due to injury.
Marques Bolden was the least highly regarded of their incoming class, which is a bit crazy since he’s a 6’10 center with rangy arms and a penchant for hammering dunks through rims. He’s been banged up and should return before ACC play, when Duke will need size and athleticism.
This week saw the return of Jayson Tatum, who may well be a top 5 pick in next June’s NBA Draft. After getting his legs in limited minutes during a blowout against Maine, Tatum had a coming out party at Madison Square Garden in the Devils’ next game versus Florida. Tatum scored 22 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in 29 minutes off the bench. He showcased the lightning quick first step that has NBA scouts (and me) drooling.
So a Duke team who was already a top 10 team added an athletic marvel who is smoother than silk to their arsenal, and they aren’t done yet. Despite Tatum’s high draft and recruiting grades, he wasn’t the true prize of Coach K’s most recent class. That honor goes to Harry Giles, who gets compared to springy bigs like Chris Webber and Amare Stoudemire. As great as that may sound, Giles has the injury bug in the worst way. He tore each of his ACLs in high school, one sophomore year and one senior year. This summer, surgeons went in and scoped his knee, ensuring everything was good to go, though it backed his debut up to mid-December. Big men with shaky knees can be scary, but if doctors (or the reporters hearing second-hand information from doctors) are to be believed, Giles will be 100 percent soon. Before the Florida game the other night, Giles was on the floor, in uniform, for warm-ups. He looked….pretty good.
Now, with Duke set to add Bolden, Tatum, and Giles to the rotation, a college basketball season that looked to have an even group of top teams now has a monster team building in Durham. Fans of Kansas, Villanova, Kentucky, and the other 347 men’s college hoops teams will become desperate to find a crack in the Devils’ lineup. For now, there isn’t much to nitpick. Sure, you can fall back on the old faithful concern of “There’s only so many shots/basketballs to go around.” That usually ends up just being noise, especially when the team is coached by a Hall of Famer who knows his way around a talented team.
The more crucial concern for the Dukies is the lack of a true point guard. Kennard, Allen, and Tatum are capable playmakers in the halfcourt, even if none is a real ball-handler or floor general. Jackson is a mere freshman and more of a combo guard to boot. Matt Jones has brought the ball up the floor a bit this season, if not for any reason that no one else was ready or equipped to. When push comes to shove, it may not matter. Kennard, Allen, and Tatum are all capable of initiating offense, maneuvering pick-and-rolls, and making plays in transition. The trouble would come against fierce pressure and high-intensity teams like Louisville. Mike Krzyzewski is probably willing to gamble that his team can excel in every other facet of the game, making up for potential turnover problems. The balance of veteran leaders and freshman with pop gives this team enough answers to the few holes you can find in their foundations.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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