Welcome to the eleventh edition of the Duke basketball Playbook.
After watching only two exhibition games, it is difficult to make any definitive assessments about this year’s team, except that there is n0 Zion Williamson. But that has been true every year, because he is a once-in-a-lifetime player. However, there is more depth of talented players than recently, just not an obvious top lottery pick—the kind of game changing talent to which we have become accustomed. That doesn’t mean one or two won’t develop into that kind of player. The question is: whom will that be and, more to the point, other than Tre Jones and, possibly, Vernon Carey and Mathew Hurt, whose practice and play will deserve floor time?
Let’s hear what’s on Coach K’s mind: “Well, Zion and RJ are not here. It’s a different approach every year. This group is going to be a unit, not a starting five. Everyone’s gotta be ready to play. I’d call it old school. Like older Duke teams, from years past. Not the (Christian) Laettner, (Bobby) Hurley, or (Shane) Battier, or those guys, but a team that plays really good defense. Our kids want to do that.” [Translation: This will be a coach centric, not player centric, team.]
If history is any guide, unless you can shoot like JJ Redick, defense will be the key to minutes played. We know that Coach K loves point guards and Jordan Goldwire, a demon on defense but who has, shall we say, limited shooting range, has been starting with Tre Jones. That may be an early message to the more highly touted freshmen, because it is hard for me (but not Alan) to imagine he and Tre (who appears not to have improved his three point shot over the summer) playing a lot of minutes together– except if a Louisville-like comeback is needed. We know what Javin DeLaurier (if he stays out of foul trouble) and Jack White (if he found his jump shot in Australia this summer) can do. They are experienced co-captains and will get PT. Wendell Moore, Cassius Stanley (who broke Zion’s vertical leap record but is 100 lbs. lighter) are intriguing players as are the enigmatic but talented Alex O’ Connell and Joey (almost redshirted) Baker, who had a JJ like three point explosion (6-9), 22 points in 21 minutes against Ft. Valley State. It will be interesting to see if he can do that against Kansas in the Garden this Tuesday. As Johnny Tar Heel told me Friday at lunch: “O’Connell, Jack White, and seldom used graduate student Justin Robinson are the only other players who have demonstrated they can throw it in the water from a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
After these exhibitions games, I agree with Buzz Mewhort’s comment that free throw shooting and three point shooting may again be the Achilles Heel of this team– but with no Zion or RJ to bail them out. [Note: This year, the three-point line in college basketball moved from 20’ 9” inches from the center of the basket to the international basketball distance of 22’ 1 ¾”. Fortunately, the free throw line remains unchanged.]
Bottom Line: It’s a long season with more unknowns than knowns. These are teenagers blessed with exceptional physical and athletic skills and but burdened by often unrealistic expectations not only by themselves, but also by their parents, friends, neighbors, and classmates. Their success and failures are broadcast on television twice a week, sometimes more, for all to see and celebrate or critique on social media. Millions of dollars of NBA and shoe money are on the line. And, oh yes, there are classes, homework, term papers, and tests. Then, there is teammate and parental jealousies, girlfriend issues, and being away from the comfort of home. This is a lot of pressure for anyone much less a teenager, no matter how talented, to shoulder.
Stuff happens: Last year’s preseason #1Duke team played it’s best game of the year in the first game of the season destroying #2Kentucky 118-84. They looked hands down like the best team in college basketball. Then, Zion got hurt, RJ wore down, and, for mysterious reasons, Cam Reddish never again was consistently as good as advertised. They won the ACC Tournament beating UNC in the semi’s. At full strength, the last two NCAA Tournament games of the year against Central Florida and Michigan State, were among their worst. In 1991, UNC beat Duke 96-74 for the ACC Championship but three weeks later defeated unbeaten UNLV then Kansas to win the NCAA National Championship. Try to explain these oxymoronic outcomes. They are just some of the fascinating mysteries that makes sports so compelling to follow.
Why am I smiling as I excitedly start to write about the upcoming season? I admit I am totally psyched for the coming Duke basketball year. My heresy: “this year’s team will be better than last year’s.” Really? No team has ever had three of the previous year’s starters as lottery picks. How could this team be better?
In spite of having Zion and RJ, Duke played a desultory end game in February and March last year. Remember, after the heroic comeback against Louisville on February 13, Duke lost by 16 to UNC on February 21; to Virginia Tech by 5 on February 27; to UNC again by 9 in the season finale in March. In the penultimate regular season game, Duke held off a terrible Wake team by a point on senior night in Cameron, after giving Wake a chance to actually win with 7 seconds left. Winning the ACC tournament was a feat, but may have obscured obvious weaknesses. Duke beat UNC in the semi-finals by a point before defeating Florida State for the title. Florida State had beaten UVA in the semi-finals, which might have dulled their fires for the final. In any event, the Blue Devils were far from impressive in the Big Dance: unimpressive in beating North Dakota State, almost lost to Central Florida (when Dawkins missed the open put back), winning by 1; beat Virginia Tech by 2 after Tre missed the front end of a 1 and 1, which gave the Hokies a wide open bunny at the basket to tie the game; and, finally the loss to Michigan State. Duke’s problem last year is easy to identify. In the modern game, Duke shot thirty percent from deep; last in the ACC by a wide margin and 317 out of 371 Division I teams. Duke also shot under 70% from the free throw line 13th in the 15 team ACC. Those two statistics were Duke’s Achilles heel last year.
My Optimism for This Year
We have seen one half of basketball in an intra-squad scrimmage; and two exhibition games against teams that had no real inside presence (or at least nothing comparable to ACC and National class competition). We have seen 11 players with enough talent to make the rotation and enough inconsistent play to make predicting the starting lineup and rotation next to impossible. Readers know that I love defense and believe it is the key to championships. Duke has many high level defenders who could be part of an extraordinary defense. The best news is that the headlines from coaches and players coming out of practice are all about defense. Here’s my analysis of the pieces of the puzzle that are Coach K’s to use:
There are five: Justin Robinson (6’9” 5th year senior), Javin DeLaurier (6’10” senior), Jack White (6’7” senior) as well as two highly regarded freshmen, Vernon Carey (6’10) and Mathew Hurt (6’9”).
Vernon Carey – rated 6th overall last year and 3rd rated center. He’s down to 250 lbs. from 270 for speed and mobility. In the Blue-White scrimmage, he was the best player on the floor, posting up DeLaurier, scoring inside and out. Coach K said he played mostly on the perimeter in high school, and is just learning to score on the interior. He’s coordinated and a shot blocker. Then, in the first exhibition game, he simply laid a shocking egg, committing 3 offensive fouls in the very early going and only seeing 9 minutes of playing time. In the final exhibition game against a dramatically inferior and smaller team, he started and played very well. I believe he will be a stud by the time Duke is deep in the ACC season.
Mathew Hurt –is rail thin at 215 pounds, but can do everything on a basketball court. He is a scorer and smart player. He can shoot from the outside, has nifty post moves, can pass, dribble, drive, rebound and defend. More than any other player, I want to see how he handles playing against a Nationally ranked team like Kansas, with its powerful front line. The jury is out, but I very much like what I have seen so far.
Jack White – is so valuable. However, his shot deserted him in the second half of last year, which really hurt Duke. He had, by all reports, an excellent summer with the Australian National Junior team. He is best as a rebounder; he is a versatile defender, with no real weaknesses (if his shot goes in this year)
Javin DeLaurier – seems to have acquired the maturity he needs to stop fouling and stay on the floor as the team’s best defender among the Bigs. He will play many crucial minutes. He is not a scorer, but a valued contributor.
Justin Robinson – All laud his value in the locker room as a team builder. I (maybe alone) have seen enough to think there may be a time this year when he is in the rotation. I was impressed that when he guarded Tre Jones on the perimeter in the Blue-White scrimmage when he blocked two of Tre’s shots. He can shoot from the perimeter and is a good rebounder.
Wings and Off Guards
It is very possible that Matt Hurt will play as the small forward with two of the more traditional Bigs up front. The others who will compete for playing time in those positions are Alex O’Connell (6’6”), Joey Baker (6’7”) as well as freshmen Wendell Moore (6’6”) and Cassius Stanley (6’6”).
Joey Baker – had played himself well out of the rotation in the intra-squad scrimmage and the first exhibition game. He looked lost at both ends of the floor. I had him least likely to play until the last exhibition game, when he demonstrated that his reputation as a long range shooter wasn’t an alternative fact. His shot lit up the Duke offense as he led Duke’s scoring. He will get a chance is my prediction. There will be a lot of pressure on his first shot. He clearly has the potential to shoot himself into the rotation.
Alex O’Connell – has shown flashes of skill and talent, but suffers from being inconsistent and sometimes not intense on the defensive end. He has matured and will see time on the floor. As with most, how he takes advantages of his opportunities will dictate his playing time. He has demonstrated hops and driving ability. He can be a bit sloppy with the ball, but has played very well in spots. If he overcomes his inconsistency, he will be a valuable contributor.
Wendell Moore – might be the most athletic player on this squad. He’s been a ball hawk and intense one on one defender on the defensive end. He has played some backup point guard. He is not shy; will shoot from anywhere. He is a ferocious driver, but can be over exuberant. He has perfected the behind the back pass to the press in the front row. A warrior on defense and a work in progress on offense.
Cassius Stanley – the lowest rated of Duke’s freshmen coming out of high school (a 4 star recruit), he has been (to me) the surprise of Duke’s pre-season. I love this freshman and believe that in spite of being the lowest rated, he may turn out to be the most valuable. He’s smooth. He has never seemed rattled to me and has not displayed a freshman like inconsistency. He’s quick (and since he broke Zion vertical leap Duke record), it is clear he has remarkable hops. I have liked his passing, ball handling and defense. He has a terrific handle, makes his free throws and has a high shooting percentage. I will go out on the limb and predict that if he doesn’t start (I think he will), he will be first off the bench. I like my limb.
The ballhandling guards
Tre Jones and his backup (maybe) Jordan Goldwire. When they play together, they make a formidable defensive duo. They have acquired the nicknames: Thing One and Thing Two, for their ferocious pressing defense.
Jordan Goldwire — we saw last season – especially against Louisville and UNC in the ACC tournament – he is a superior defender who can steal the ball, execute the trap, and has amazing intensity. His three point shooting has been woeful, but he has shown an ability to get to the rim with the ball – even against Tre in the scrimmage. I believe he will log major minutes this year.
Tre Jones — as Tre goes, so will Duke go. He has had a slow start. He was outplayed in the scrimmage and has not shot well from the perimeter. Of course, his defense is the best, he handles the ball with aplomb and skill, and has increased his scoring on drives and a pull up mid-range game. Whether he can turn into the player his brother was will depend on his long range shot and his ability to hit free throws at the end of games. He is the player that Duke will rely upon more than any other.
Musing About the Season
Coach K’s starting lineup in the last exhibition game is my bet on who will start against Kansas. Thing One and Two will start in the backcourt with three freshmen up front – Stanley on the wing; Hurt and Carey up front. I think (and fervently hope) that this will be a pressing team that substitutes freely to keep the defensive pressure on. Coach K will do much experimenting before we know who is starting and what the various roles are by February and March (and hopefully April).
In the last years (since the 2015 championship), Duke has been better in November and December than at seasons’ end. I predict that will change this year. I think Duke will have trouble in the early going and jell at the best possible time.
That’s why I’m smiling.
Tuesday November 5 at Madison Square Garden: Duke v Kansas. Game on.
Duke 68 – Kansas 66
A year ago in this nationally televised season opening Champions Classic, Duke’s precocious freshmen played like they belonged in the NBA. Tonight, this new class of freshmen sometimes played like they were suffering from stage fright but the upper classmen led the way with retro Krzyzewski basketball– tough, aggressive defense that trumped (a bridge, not a political, term) sloppy, inconsistent offense. I don’t know if the Blue Devil defense is this good or Kansas big players have hands of stone but the Jayhawks committed 18 first half turnovers and 28 overall. For sure, the defense appears much better than that of the last few years when defense was a seven letter word that seemed like an afterthought and led to (gasp) Duke Playing Zone. While the savvy point guard from appropriately enough Apple Valley (15 pts, 6 assists, 3 steals) led the Blue Devils to this win in the Big Apple, it was the tough Australian senior and co-captain Jack White, who was the enforcer at closing time. Although he hit an important three, it was his shrewd defensive manuevers with 2 steals, a block, and an offensive rebound in the final minute and a half that clinched the win.
All the freshmen settled down and had their moments: Vernon Carey held his own against older, bigger players; Matthew Hurt, hit some big threes but was not a strong presence inside; and Wendell Moore demonstrated unusual versatility and athleticism but was often out of control. However, it was Cassius Stanley, the only Duke freshman who did not to make the McDonald’s All-America team, who stepped into the spotlight in the second half going 5-6, including 2 dunks and a three for 13 points to spark the second half resurgence. In addition, Alex O’Connell contributed both offensively AND defensively. Of the top ten players, only Joey Baker, coming off a sensational shooting performance, did not receive any playing time.
Both teams struggled from the foul line with Kansas going 16 for 26 and Duke 14 for 23. Only Ty Jones’ 5-5 at the end made Duke’s semi-respectable.
The win ended a three-game Duke losing streak to Kansas and extends Duke’s all-time record in the rivalry to 8-5. It also ran Duke’s record to 6-3 in the Champions Classic.
At games in Madison Square Garden, Duke is now 36-18 all-time and now 70—27 when playing in the greater New York City area. Under Coach Krzyzewski, they are now 31-11 at MSG and 33-18 in games between top-five teams.
As the announcers make unnecessarily clear, this year’s Duke basketball team will be a work in progress for most of this year. As Bill emphasized, Duke’s defense, which has been distressingly un-Coach K like in the past several years, looked exceedingly formidable. The Devils doubled the post frequently and effectively (except for one stretch in the second half). It was coordinated team defense, led, of course, by Tre’s on the ball defense. But Tre had plenty of help from his energetic teammates, who pressed and switched, giving Kansas fits and creating the raft of Jayhawk turnovers.
The game began to answer the intriguing questions about this team. Who will earn minutes, start the games, be on the court at crunch time are all open questions. I thought last night’s game against Kansas, especially the second half, began to illuminate some answers. The second half was winning time (obviously), but also where Duke faced its first real adversity of the season (down 9 as Kansas ran off 13 in a row). How Duke responded to that, fought tooth and nail for the entire half, and prevailed at the end with Tre Jones doing his best Tyus Jones imitation. With Duke leading 62-61 and 1:34 left in the game, Tre scored Duke’s last 6 points with a tough mid-range jumper followed by 4 clutch free throws to clinch it. Duke also established a Big 3. Tre played all 20 minutes (39 for the game), while Vernon Carey was on the floor for 17 minutes and Cassius Stanley for 16. Both Stanley and Carey played exceedingly well and got timely help from Jack White (11 minutes of scintillating play after a sub-par first half) and Alex O’Connell (whose 12 minute second half contributions were on the floor and defense – a very good sign) and Matt Hurt. Hurt made 2 huge 3 point shots in his 10 minutes on the floor, but had trouble competing on the interior (a single rebound). Alex scored 9 in the game; 7 in the first half. Wendell Moore (6 minutes, a rebound, a foul and 2 turnovers), Jordan Goldwire (5 minutes; 0-1), and Javin (who managed to commit 2 fouls and miss his only field goal attempt and both free throws in just 3 minutes) contributed little in the final stanza. Javin continued his foul prone defense committing 4 in only 12 minutes.
Cassius Stanley’s second half deserves special attention. As I predicted in the pre-season edition of the DBP, in addition to his excellent defense Stanley was the Devil’s offensive stud in the second half. One play stood out for me. Stanley was after a loose ball heading out of bounds off Duke. He grabbed it on the sideline and staggered for balance. He maintained that balance enough to throw an accurate pass, giving Duke an extra possession. Incredible athletic skill. His second half was awesome (11 points on 4-4 shooting; 1-1 from deep; and 2-3 from the foul line). He was Duke’s anchor facing that 9 point deficit. With 14:35 left in the half, the Jayhawks had forged a 46-37 lead. Carey and Hurt made back to back 3s (both on assists from Tre) to trim the lead to 3. Cassius then scored 8 straight points – the first two on dunks (great passes from Tre on each) followed by 1-2 from the line and a 3 pointer. Duke was back in the fray fighting toward the end. With Duke trailing by a deuce with under 3 minutes to play, Stanley scored from the field on a tough shot and completed the 3 point play to give Duke the 62-61 lead that set the stage for Tre’s heroics. Carey was the glue to Duke’s interior game. He helped Duke answer another big question: does this team have the inside presence to compete with national class front lines.
The answer was a qualified yes, with the emphasis coming from Carey. It was almost as if it took him a half to understand how big and powerful the Kansas front was. Then Carey’s athleticism (2-2 on 3 point attempts) took over and he led Duke on the interior both on defense and offense. His development will be a huge factor in how this season turns out. Jack White was superb in the second half and Matt Hurt played well and will get better. Let’s hope this was just an aberration for Javin.
It was a wonderful start to a season of questions.
Next game: Colorado State on Friday (11-8).
Duke 89 – Colorado State 55
After one very difficult game in a very difficult venue and one not so difficult game in a very friendly venue, Coach K stayed true to his word prior to the season that due to the team’s “balance” the Blue Devils would not have a go-to starting five. [Translation: There is no Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter or Jayson Tatum like there were during the last three seasons However, we have depth and talent, so I am going have to be a real coach again.] Consequently, Krzyzewski will shift different players and/or groups of players in and out until he finds what works against a particular team on particular night. Krzyzewski’ somewhat puzzling analogy: “It’s like a musical. When you have a few guys that are NBA ready, they sing most of the songs and have all the dances. With this group, is more like an ensemble. It’s, okay, knock our socks off with how you’re doing it. That’s why I said it’s more of an old-school, retro[team]. It’s built on defense.”
A case in point: In both games, defense kept the Blue Devils in the game until some one or two players developed an offensive rhythm and demanded the spotlight. Against Kansas it was Cassius Stanley, supported by Tre Jones, and Jack White. Tonight, it was a late first half surge by starters Jones, O’Connell, & Stanley teamed with non-starters DeLaurier & White in place of Carey & Hurt. Suddenly, the lead doubled to 12 points. By the time the half was over, Duke had scored the game’s last 10 points to lead by 16. The Blue Devils forced 8 Colorado State turnovers over the first nine minutes of the second half. Think about that. A lead that was six points with 2:18 left until halftime was now 24 just 3:21 into the second half. In less than six minutes of actual play, Duke quadrupled its lead. That is a classic Duke Run to which Blue Devils fans have become accustomed from their best teams. “That group at the end of the half really played the best eight minutes of the game– the last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “Jack, Javin, Alex, Cassius, and Tre just found a rhythm defensively and offensively and boom we had it.”
This wasn’t a particularly good night for Carey and Hurt. The 6-10, 260-pound inscrutable Carey scored 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting but fouled out in just 15 minutes of play. Afterwards, he was very analytical: “I have to adjust to the calls, really, and the playing style, because, for instance, this game was completely different from the last game where we played Kansas just physical wise and call wise. I have to learn to adjust to that.” Hurt had 9 and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes. White and DeLaurier only combined for 7 points, but their play meshed well with Jones, O’Connell and Stanley.
The bottom line is that chemistry and defense usually win close games. Take another look at the picture above. Did you notice Jack White lying unconscious in the paint? He and roommate Javin DeLaurier crashed into each other lunging for a loose ball. Jack got the worst of it, but Javin recovered to contest the shot along with Alex O’Connell (aka. AOC). That, folks, is tough defense.
- Despite a team of McDonald All-Americans, three point shooting and free throws (60%) again appear to continue to be a frustrating weakness with the Duke Blue Devils. Duke was 4-for-22 from long range against Colorado State. O’Connell made three of them. The rest of the team was 1-for-16.
- Coach Mike Krzyzewski announced Thursday that fifth-year senior Justin Robinson has been named a captain for the 2019-20 season. Robinson, a graduate student at Duke University, is in his fifth year on the Duke men’s basketball team. He will join sophomore captain Tre Jones and senior captains Jack White and Javin DeLaurier on the Blue Devils’ newly-created Leadership Council. Robinson, whose NBA All Pro father David rarely misses a game, is from San Antonio, Texas, holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is pursuing his master’s degree in management students in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
- Highly touted Carolina freshman Cole Anthony (UNLV’s Greg Anthony’s son) has had an impressive two games, scoring in the 30’s. However, he took 40 percent of UNC’s shots against Notre Dame and 33 percent against ECU. When I pointed this out to Johnny Tar Heel, he said that is because nobody else on the team can shoot. However, Roy’s Boys have had a number of injuries and are short- handed.
Before the Kansas game fades from memory, just how remarkable the Duke defense was in that game should be examined. This was the first game of the season and Duke was a very different group from last year. I went back to look at portions of the Kansas game. The sophistication and cohesion of the Duke defense would have been remarkable at season’s end for a veteran team, like Virginia. Duke negated Kansas’s inside advantage by doubling the post on almost every post possession. Yet the post player could not find an open man … because there wasn’t one. Duke’s switching and anticipation was almost magical. I found myself a bit disappointed by the defense in this game. There were missed assignments and Colorado State did get a bunch of open looks. Duke played really hard, but there was a Kansas like intensity that was missing by a small notch or two.
But wait a minute. Duke held the Rams to 26 first half points, and 32% shooting for the game, while forcing 18 turnovers (12 steals). Moreover, the defense allowed only 2 offensive rebounds. The reality of the rout is the defense simply gutted Colorado State, both physically and spiritually. The Rams had to work so hard just to avoid steals on every possession. After the early run in the second half, Colorado State was emotionally done. The defense did all that; so, maybe I overreacted.
There is growing clarity to Coach K’s rotation. Alex O’Connell has emerged and has played his way into starting. He has been the most improved veteran. It seems the coach has settled on a starting perimeter of Tre, Cassius, and Alex. They all excelled last night. Cassius has been a highlight; and Tre has been all we hoped for (except from deep). Wendell Moore will be first off the bench on the perimeter. He is so athletic and exuberant on the court that he will get minutes. He can turn the ball over from anywhere, but he can also dazzle. I believe Coach K will be patient with him and he will blossom before February. Jordan Goldwire will spell Tre when there is that luxury, and come in for defense in pressing situations. The interior is more muddled.
Coach K mentioned many players in his press conference, but not Matt Hurt or Vernon Carey. The co-captains earned praise for their amazing performance in the 8 minutes that Bill described so well. But Duke needs Vernon Carey. He may have fouled out in his 15 minutes, but take a look at his stat line for those 15 minutes. He scored 11 on an efficient 5-5 from the floor and 1-1 from the line. He grabbed 3 boards, blocked 2 shots and had a steal. He wasn’t mentioned because he turned it over 3 times while committing 5 fouls. Coach K has many ways of motivating his freshmen. White (especially if his shot ever returns) and Javin have great value, but for Duke to be a force at tournament time, the freshmen – especially Carey – have to mature and develop.
While the offense overwhelmed an inferior team – gutted by early second half – the offense is developing. But it seems like de ja vu all over again with the abysmal 3 point shooting and the sub-par foul shooting. Last year we kept saying that the players were too talented to keep shooting so badly. It should be fixable, but if it is not fixed it will be fatal to championship dreams.
An interesting insight
Coach K explained why he elevated David Robinson to captain. He said that with Team USA, there was a “leadership council” of a few players. “It doesn’t matter whether you call it leadership council or co-captains. It gives a chance for analysis, planning and chemistry.” They meet every Monday. Another example of Coach K’s genius.
Central Arkansas on Tuesday (7:00 ACC Network) and Georgia State on Friday.