Even with a win over Wake Forest yesterday, the 17th ranked Duke Blue Devils continue to fall short of their preseason expectations.
This is certainly not the first Duke team to experience offensive woes; their 2011-2012 season, for example, where Austin Rivers ran a more isolation style offense that plagued the team down the stretch, comes to mind. Defense, however, has been the staple of Duke’s program, using tough man schemes and the occasional zone to slow down more athletic and talented teams, year in and year out. But this season, good offense and defense have both been seemingly impossible to find for this group of future NBA players.
Lets start from the beginning: an offensively gifted team posts consistent 10-point wins against non-conference opponents to open the season, with a two-point loss to a top-5 team in Kansas thrown in. But the Duke faithful was reassured even after the loss: “We’re missing our three best recruits, we win that game with just one of them.” Luke Kennard was emerging as a prolific scorer and a Wooden Award candidate, while the only healthy five-star recruit, Frank Jackson, was finding his rhythm as an oversized point guard. Then the freshman started to get healthy, one by one. Jayson Tatum started to show flashes of offensive prowess against mediocre teams. Harry Giles showed he can be physical, but needed more time to regain what he lost over 16 months without competitive basketball. Meanwhile, Marques Bolden sat on the bench, getting no more than eight minutes a game.
Now comes conference play in the gauntlet that is the ACC, and the news breaks that Coach K is going to miss time recovering from back surgery. Assistant coach Jeff Capel takes over and quickly records two losses over his first three games. Overall, the team is now 3-3 in this stretch. So is it the lack of Coach K?
No. That excuse has gone far enough.
Kennard has not been getting enough touches. In the last loss to North Carolina State, he only took nine shots, while Tatum took 14 (7-14 for 16 points) and a struggling Grayson Allen took 13 (4-13 for 13 points, 1-9 3PT). Kennard has been averaging 20 points most of the season, shooting over 50 percent from three, so why is he not taking more shots? The answer is Jayson Tatum. Tatum plays as selfishly as any player in recent history, repeatedly driving into crowded lanes and taking ill-advised shots. He plays like he did in high school, which worked then because all of his opponents were smaller and weaker than he was. But now, he is contested at the rim on most of his drives, and fails to adjust. The ball does not move while he is in the game, and Luke gets less shots and touches. Kennard instead has had to make his own shots through his own handling, which he can certainly do, but should not have to do for every shot he takes.
In yesterday’s game against Wake Forest, Tatum fouled out with 6:58 remaining in the second half. From that point (65-71), a trailing Duke team went on a 20-12 run. 12 of those points came from Kennard, including the go-ahead three with six seconds remaining. What changed? The ball started to move. It actually looked like team basketball, and Kennard was able to benefit from screens off of set plays. Duke simply stopped playing isolation ball, and escaped Winston Salem with a much needed win.
Sophomore Luke Kennard is Duke’s leading scorer this season.
Two other factors that should not be overlooked are the mental state of Grayson Allen and the lack of playing time for Marques Bolden. We have all read enough about the incident(s) with Allen, but playing wise, he doesn’t take the shots he’s used to taking anymore. He throws shot fakes when he has open threes, opting to drive (unsuccessfully) instead. With regards to Bolden, Duke has a recent history of grossly underplaying talented players (ex: Semi Ojeleye, a transfer who now stars for SMU, averaging 17.7 points per game), and this is no exception. Maybe he hasn’t fully recovered from his injury yet, or maybe K has him in the doghouse. Whatever the reason, he needs playing time because if Duke is going to make a run in March, it won’t be without his presence in the paint.
As for the defense, a wall is only as strong as its weakest point, and Duke is an example of that, as Giles and Tatum are gross and obvious liabilities on defense. As mentioned before, Tatum plays like he’s still in high school, and on the defensive end, Giles is the same. Tatum is bad at help defense, and consistently loses his assignments, while Giles can not avoid fouling while guarding stronger players at the college level. Duke therefore gets abused by pick-and-rolls and physical post players.
In the game against Miami, Bolden showed his promise on both sides of the ball, but his defense was what stood out the most. He executed the step out at the top of the key perfectly to cut off their guards, redirecting them enough to be able to successfully retreat to the paint and regain position on his man. This is a concept that fellow big men Chase Cheter and Antonio Vrankovic have yet to grasp. However, he has only started one game and played more than twenty minutes just one time. Vrankovic even saw more minutes than Bolden did against Wake Forest today, the reason for which is puzzling and unknown.
Does Duke miss Coach K? Absolutely. But they shouldn’t need him to beat North Carolina State at home with such a talented team. Tatum and Giles need to adjust on both sides of the ball. They are both incredible talents and projected top 10 picks, but this Duke team will not succeed if they do not execute the fundamentals required to excel at college basketball.