ACC Team Preview: DukePosted by mpatton on November 2nd, 2011
And then there were two.
Duke is a very tough team to project this season. The Blue Devils lost their top three players (Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving) from last season, but there’s still plenty of talent and a Hall of Fame coach on the sideline in Durham. Thoughtful preseason rankings slot Duke anywhere from fourth to ninth nationally, which seem very reasonable for where Duke could finish the season — not necessarily where it should start.
The team’s two major questions are, “who will run the offense?” and “will any of the frontcourt players finally live up to his potential?” Duke’s relative success depends almost solely on these questions. Of course, one thing we forget is that both questions also faced the Blue Devils when Kyrie Irving went down after the Butler game last year. To that point Nolan Smith had not played much point guard since the first half of the 2009-10 season. During Duke’s National Championship year Mike Krzyzewski moved Smith to the off-ball position, ceding the point guard spot to Jon Scheyer. If not for Brian Zoubek’s miraculous ascension from unproductive bench-warmer to one of Duke’s most important pieces, the guard switch would have garnered much more attention. Smith excelled while working off the ball and Scheyer limited Duke’s turnovers to the absolute minimum.
But once Kyrie Irving’s foot problem arose last season, Duke was again left without a quarterback. The best choice was to move Smith back to the point, although Krzyzewski experimented with Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry there briefly as well. The result was Smith leading the ACC in scoring and nearly leading the conference in assists. Of course Smith was a special player. His career arc only answers the question that it’s possible for Seth Curry to step up and lead Duke.
The other relevant example of a two-guard making the transition to point is even closer to Curry: It’s his brother. After arguably the best NCAA Tournament of my lifetime during his sophomore season, Davidson’s Stephen Curry made the move to floor general to replace the graduating Jason Richards. Curry’s scoring numbers slipped a little that season, but he posted one of the top ten assist rates in the country as a junior.
I think the younger Curry is up to the task, but I’m worried about his turnovers. In the limited time at point guard he played last season, little things like dribbling into too much traffic and making ill-advised passes currently make me wary. But the fact of the matter is that it’s Curry or no one. Freshman Quinn Cook will eventually be a starter, but he’s at least a year away; Thornton is a nice spark plug off the bench but is too much of an offensive liability.
One of Curry’s biggest assignments will be involving Ryan Kelly and the Plumlees, assuming one of the three veteran bigs steps up (currently, all signs point to Marshall Plumlee redshirting). The latest buzz out of Duke practice is that Miles Plumlee is the most consistent player on the team. He put on some extra pounds and, more importantly, some extra swagger during the offseason. However, Duke’s summer trip to China didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in either of the other Plumlee brothers. Kelly looked like Duke’s best player overseas, but his defensive inadequacies are cause for some concern.
In Duke’s scrimmage against Bellarmine recently, both Plumlees played very well. They combined to go 12 for 14 from the field for 30 points and 17 boards. Now they’ll have to do it against players with much more talent. Getting production out of its bigs is the most important key to Duke’s success this season. If the Plumlees play well, Duke plays well. If they don’t, the team will need a superhuman effort out of Austin Rivers, Andre Dawkins, and Curry.
Finally, the freshman class deserves a quick look. Rivers will have an instant impact on the offensive end, but his defense is questionable. Alex Murphy, Michael Gbinije and Cook make up the rest of the star-studded class. Murphy and Gbinije will probably see some minutes based on their defensive effort, as both have the size and athleticism to guard multiple positions. Cook will also see some time, but like I said before he’s definitely a work in progress.
This Duke team has more question marks than any Duke team since 2006-07 when the Blue Devils had a roster made up almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores (and DeMarcus Nelson). This team has a lot of experience, but very little of that experience was in leadership roles. Looking at the nonconference schedule, a very talented Belmont team opens its season at Cameron Indoor Stadium and could easily upset the young Blue Devils. Coach K’s team also plays Michigan State in New York, possibly plays Kansas and Memphis in Maui, plays at Ohio State and takes on Temple in Philadelphia before even starting conference play.
It will be trial by fire, but in the end I expect Duke to emerge a Top 10 basketball team with a reasonable if not great chance to get hot and cut down the nets in March.