Duke’s Post Players: Has Reality Caught Up with Perception?

Posted by mpatton on November 14th, 2011

For the last ten years, fairly or unfairly, Duke has had the perception of being all backcourt all the time. Long gone are the days where Christian Laettner, Elton Brand or Carlos Boozer graced the court in Durham. In describing his recruitment decision to attend Michigan last week, Mitch McGary let it all out: “all [Duke’s] big men do is set screens and rebound and that they don’t get a lot of touches.”

Josh McRoberts' Relative Lack of Success at Duke Still Haunts the Blue Devils

Duke Hoop Blog looked at this perception, which moves closer to reality as the memory of its last dominant big man, Shelden Williams, fades out of casual fan memory. The author comes to the conclusion that the Williams/Redick era is the answer, and I see his argument. But I don’t think it’s that simple, or even the biggest factor in Duke’s relative decrease in a post presence over the last ten years. I think the real argument is much more complex and is a combination of four main factors:

  1. JJ Redick’s relentless exposure: There’s no arguing that JJ Redick is the most important player not to win a National Championship at Duke. Ask most casual fans to name a Duke (or most-hated) player, and Redick is almost always on the short list. He also overshadowed an incredible career from Shelden Williams, who won National Defensive Player of the Year and was a consensus first-team All-American his senior year.
  2. Busts (a.k.a. Josh McRoberts): Duke was ready to reload after Williams left when the staff signed the highly-touted Josh McRoberts, the top power forward prospect in the country in 2005. Unfortunately, McRoberts never panned out. He was a constant attitude problem who never seemed ready to step up and be the go-to guy for the Blue Devils. But McRoberts wasn’t the only one. Mason Plumlee was also a projected NBA Draft lottery pick out of high school. But upon arriving at Duke, it became clear he had a long way to go before competing at the top level of the college game. Bomani Jones and Jim Young buy into the Plumlee effect, especially with respect to negative recruiting against Duke.
  3. Brian Zoubek: A McDonald’s All-American [UPDATE: despite conflicting reports, Zoubek wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American but was a fourth team Parade High School All-American and Jordan All-American in 2006] out of high school, Zoubek’s lack of athleticism dominated his first three seasons at Duke. He was irrelevant on offense, contributing what felt like nearly as many turnovers as made field goals (seriously, his freshman year he actually did commit more turnovers than he made field goals). Finally Mike Krzyzewski found Zoubek’s role in the second half of the season: set screens, hold defensive ground and crash the offensive glass. He was extremely effective, but it wasn’t the type of style on the interior that attracts top-tier big man recruits.
  4. Duke’s coaching staff: While Duke rotated very good and truly dominant college big men from the early 1990s until Shelden Williams left in 2006 there wasn’t much talk about the lack of interior players on Duke’s roster. To be fair blogs and message boards (where much internal and external criticisms is currently published) didn’t gain steam until the early to mid-2000s. But look at Duke’s coaching staff and you’ll see two forwards: Nate James (an elite defender), and Chris Carrawell. But this complaint should be taken with a grain of salt, as it wasn’t a problem so long as Duke had a dominant post player alongside these wings. Not having a great post player leaves the guard-heavy staff open to criticism.
mpatton (576 Posts)

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6 responses to “Duke’s Post Players: Has Reality Caught Up with Perception?”

  1. Steve says:

    It probably isn’t unusual for teams to endure periods of “busts” in a particular position. There are various reasons. A player might have a hard time adapting from high school to college, difficult in adjusting to academics, has an unexpected family crisis/tragedy, injuries, and so forth. Perhaps the player just takes longer to develop than the experts expected. Every team has players that don’t live up to the hype. Josh has been in the NBA for years. While a solid player, it has taken him years to reach that point. Does that mean that the NBA coaches didn’t know how to develop him or did it just take time for his body/mind/work ethic to mature and develop?
    I attended Duke at the time Josh and Brian were players. Josh didn’t seem quite mature enough to take on a leadership position during a year when Duke was very young. Like Miles on this year’s team, Duke only had one senior that year – Demarcus Nelson. Josh also didn’t appear to enjoy the academic side of the “student athlete” equation that Duke demands.
    Regarding Brian, can’t say enough great things about him. Naturally, Shelden Williams received the majority of the minutes during Brian’s freshman year. However, what you failed to mention is that Brian suffered a broken foot before the beginning of his sophomore year and had surgery. Unfortunately, in January of that season, he broke the foot again and during the offseason before his junior year had surgery again. The guy was always on crutches. When a 7 foot man endures a broken foot twice, it shouldn’t be surprising that his playing career has a setback. However, he was a great teammate, classmate, and very bright. (All-Acc Academic selection). Everyone loved the success he found his senior year.
    As far as the Plumlees, have you been watching the games this year? The post players are getting plenty of scoring opportunities now that they are more mature and ready for the responsibility. Mason has stated that he knows he needs to step it up and is ready for the responsibility. Why would it be surprising when you have two Seniors, Singler and Smith, and the number one draft pick, Irving, that young post players wouldn’t score as much. Post play often takes longer to develop in college than guards. Coach K has said the easiest transition from high school to college is the point guard position.
    McGary is just a kid repeating the negative recruiting message that has been whispered in his ear. Nonetheless, I wish him the best of luck with his career.
    Buy the way, quoting Bomani Jones as a source of information for anything is a laughable.

  2. mpatton says:

    I totally agree re: Josh McRoberts and Brian Zoubek. Not trying to say that Zoubek was a bad guy (in fact, I think him coming into his own was the driving force behind Duke’s national title), but the fact is he was a McDonald’s All-American who never took a “starring” role. Very few top-five recruits would be happy in the role Brian Zoubek played on Duke, no matter how important it actually was. They want to be the man. Once recruits get to Duke, Coach K does a terrific job helping players find their roles. But when trying to recruit those players, they will be much more interested in a Ohio State / North Carolina / Kansas where big men feel like the backbone of the team.

    With regards to the Plumlees, I respectfully disagree. They’re getting lots of scoring opportunities. And so far they’re doing very well. But this is new. Mason Plumlee came to Duke as a lottery pick, and the question marks raised over the last few years may drop him to the bottom of the first round. The fact is, he hasn’t developed into the player most analysts thought he’d be out of high school. He’s incredibly athletic, but he still turns the ball over with alarming regularity and doesn’t seem comfortable with post moves that aren’t fall-aways. Every time I see Mason take a baby hook (which I’ve seen much more from him and Miles this year than any year before), I’m reminded how dangerous he could be with a little more polish on his offensive game.

    I think we’re very much in agreement that Duke has merely seen a mini-string of “busts”. My only question is whether these busts are keeping Duke from landing top flight bigs going forward.

  3. JP says:

    speaking of sources, the quotation you use to base the argument is laughable. English 101 says when you see a quote, find what was left out.
    Here’s your version: “all [Duke’s] big men do is set screens and rebound and that they don’t get a lot of touches.”
    Here’s the truth:
    “The con for Duke would be the perception that all their big men do is set screens and rebound and that they don’t get a lot of touches.However, I know that if I went there I’d change that up because they mapped out how they want to use me and involve me in the offense, which is appealing.”

    McGary’s real quote actually shows the Duke plan for their bigs as plus in his decision. Your use makes it seem as if the history of big men is why he decided against Duke as if Michigan and/or John Beilen have any kind of credibility in that area. Tractor Traylor? Pittsnogle?

    The fact is, Michigan found a person of influence (AAU Coach), hired him and McGary followed. No mystery. Duke will sign Tony Parker, Mason will be a first rounder and the haters will have to invent a new straw man to attack.

  4. JP says:

    Take your 2nd paragraph and put in the name John Henson. Does Carolina have an issue? How about the name Greg Monroe? Does Georgetown have an issue? How about the name Patrick Patterson. What is UK’s problem?

    I agree with the rest of your rationale and you make some really strong points. I just don’t think it’s fair to grab one name.

  5. mpatton says:


    Just because there’s a plan, doesn’t mean the perception isn’t there. McGary also didn’t choose Duke. He sites the plan as a plus, but only with the caveat that the perception is different. Clearly the perception had him wary.

    As for Beilein, he certainly convinced McGary’s AAU coach (from http://www.zagsblog.com/2011/11/03/mcgary-will-make-michigan-a-major-player-in-big-ten/).
    “The post player is intimately and intricately involved in John Beilein’s system,” Brumm told the paper. “I don’t know anybody who runs a better offensive system for a post player than Michigan. So I have to say, why not (Michigan as a possible destination)? Everybody else is (analyzing McGary’s recruitment) like they’re a friggin fan. We’re trying to pick a school that is in Mitch’s best interest.”

    I believe Mason will go in the first round. I also believe if he left after his freshman year, he would’ve gone higher (assuming he hasn’t made a huge leap this year, which is entirely possible). A couple of weeks ago I thought Parker would sign with Duke (once McGary announced otherwise), but I’m not as sure now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t either.

  6. joebaby says:

    It is amazing to me how big guys can not see how affective they would be if they came to Duke surrounded by all those great shooters! I am a huge Duke fan but big men have to have some game at the college level because in high school most of them dominate because they are not playing competition or people there size! Fab Melo at Syracuse was lighting it up in high school now he can barely see the floor, people I can name names of big men not from Duke whom are struggling like Thabeet Uconn, Tractor Traylor, Michigan, Kansas Jayhawks has lots of guys whom are not actually lighting up the NBA and Sean May, North Carolina

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