Duke Gets a Passing Chemistry Grade… So Far

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 18th, 2014

Duke has been very impressive so far this season, winning handily over Presbyterian on Friday and stomping Fairfield on Saturday. Both of those games were played in the cozy confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, but before the Blue Devils face their first stiff challenge of the young season against Michigan State tonight in the Champions Classic (ESPN 7:00 ET), let’s look at what we have learned about Duke so far.

Freshman Justise Winslow Has Been Aggressively Attacking the Basket in Duke's Early Games. (Mark Dolejs - USA Today Sports)

Justise Winslow Has Been Aggressively Attacking the Basket in Duke’s Early Games. (Mark Dolejs – USA Today Sports)

  • Jahlil Okafor is the real deal, but so is Justise Winslow. Okafor has been every bit as good as everyone expected. In the first two games of his career, the Chicago big man has averaged 18.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.5 blocks per game while making an outstanding 17-of-20 shots from the field — these proficient numbers earned him the first ACC Freshman of the Week award this season. In the future, Okafor’s primary competition for that honor may be his teammate Winslow, who is also playing very well on both ends of the floor. He has scored on frequent aggressive drives and shown a better than advertised outside shooting touch, going 3-of-5 on three-point shots. He also gives Duke an athletic lockdown wing defender, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Durham since Nate James. A great thing about being on press row in Cameron Indoor is how close you are to the action — up close, the maturity of Winslow in both physique and focus in his eyes is obvious when he’s in a defensive stance. That’s why he’s already been showing up in a handful of 2015 NBA mock drafts as a first-rounder. In fact, the whole freshmen class has an impressive level of maturity. Point guard Tyus Jones is off to a solid ball-handling start — passing for 12 assists while only committing three turnovers — and Grayson Allen is excelling in Duke’s up-tempo style with his great athleticism.

  • Team chemistry is great… so far. Maybe Duke’s biggest question coming into this season had to do with possible chemistry issues. With all the attention placed on the talented freshman class, it was reasonable to believe that could cause some friction if not outright resentment from the upperclassmen — namely, senior Quinn Cook and junior Rasheed Sulaimon. Two years ago, the pair were full-time starters on a team that made the Elite Eight. Then last year, the Duke offense was built around two newcomers, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, while Cook and Sulaimon struggled to find their roles. Now it appears that Mike Krzyzewski has again asked the two veteran guards to play secondary roles in the offense as it plays through Okafor, Winslow and Jones. So far, Krzyzewski says he “couldn’t be more pleased” with how they have embraced their new roles. A case in point was against Fairfield, as Sulaimon did not even attempt a field goal in a scoreless performance. As a result, his coach heaped praise on him for not forcing anything, having a great assist-to-turnover ratio (4-to-0), and applying the best on-ball pressure of anyone on the team. Cook, on the other hand, has thrived in a starting role alongside Jones, making 7-of-14 three pointers and averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 assists per game. In fact, the whole team has played unselfishly, with balanced scoring and high assist totals, such as the 30 that were notched by the Blue Devils in the opening game. Of course, it’s easy to have great chemistry in home blowout victories. We won’t know how the final chemistry grade looks until we start to see how everyone handles the inevitable adversity that will come later this year.
  • Duke will be better defensively this year. No kidding, right? It would be hard to be worse than the unit that finished #116 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, behind such legendary defensive-minded programs like St. Francis (NY) (#103) and Wofford (#108). That’s a joke, of course, but so was Duke’s interior defense last year. This season, with Okafor and his back-up Marshall Plumlee available, the Blue Devils will always have a 6″11″ center on the floor capable of protecting the rim. That will make a tremendous difference in the team’s ability to get stops, as will the improved depth and athleticism of this year’s squad. Krzyzewski has indicated that this team plans on extending the pressure full-court, not only to force mistakes, but also to wear down opponents. There’s no need to cite any stats from the first two games as proof of that, but this week’s slate may give us a clearer idea of how much defensive improvement has really occurred.
  • Coach K may really use his bench more. This will go in the wait-and-see category, but for one of the few times in recent years, Krzyzewski has enough talent on hand to give significant minutes to nine or 10 players. In addition to Cook, Sulaimon and the four freshmen, juniors Plumlee and Amile Jefferson as well as sophomores Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye have all shown vast improvement over last season. At this point it’s hard to say whose minutes will get pinched when the games get more competitive, but right now Ojeleye may be the odd man out since Winslow has proven he is capable enough to be the second big man in the lineup without Duke giving up much on the boards. The Michigan State game tonight will show us how deep Coach K really thinks his team is this season.
Brad Jenkins (325 Posts)

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