Duke Successfully Coping With Early Injuries… For Now

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 14th, 2016

Duke’s lofty preseason #1 ranking was largely based on the outstanding freshman class set to join Mike Krzyzewski’s squad this fall. But two games into the young season, three of those newcomers — Marques Bolden, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum — are sidelined with various lower body ailments, with no scheduled return in sight. The short-handed Blue Devils managed to dominate two inferior teams over the weekend (94-49 over Marist; 96-61 versus Grand Canyon), but things won’t be nearly as easy in Tuesday night’s Champions Classic meeting with Kansas at Madison Square Garden or the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off later this week. A Saturday matchup with Penn State will be followed by a Sunday meeting with either Rhode Island or Cincinnati — two Top 25 squads.

Three Potential NBA Lottery Picks are not currently on the court for Duke. (Juan Bermudez / The Chronicle)

Three Potential NBA Lottery Picks are currently unavailable for Duke. (Juan Bermudez / The Chronicle)

In Saturday’s postgame press conference, Mike Krzyzewski said about his roster: “Right now, we have to be this team and we can’t think about who we could be. And our complete focus has to be how to win, right now, with this team. I can’t give you a time. I don’t anticipate [Bolden, Giles and Tatum] to play on Tuesday. They may not play the whole week. So we have to prepare the way we have our team right now with nine guys.” The remaining roster still has plenty of firepower, but it is not nearly as balanced with a clear focus on the perimeter. Preseason All-American Grayson Allen was going to be a major focus of the attack anyway, so logging big minutes and high possession numbers won’t be foreign to him. Likewise, Luke Kennard and Matt Jones are comfortable in their supporting roles — Kennard has a complete offensive game, while Jones gives the Blue Devils great versatility on defense. Coming off the bench is Frank Jackson — Duke’s remaining five-star freshman. Jackson had an impressive outing on Saturday (21 points in 25 minutes) and already looks more mature than his age. That’s a solid four-man rotation in the backcourt, but what about up front?

Amile Jefferson‘s return as a redshirt senior is more important than ever. Never an explosive scorer, Jefferson looked aggressive offensively in one game — 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting agains Grand Canyon — while falling flat in the other — five points on 1-of-4 shooting against Marist. The starting center has been sophomore Chase Jeter, also with mixed results. In the opener Jeter looked great — 11 points and eight rebounds on 4-of-4 field goal shooting. But he seemed to regress on Saturday with just three points and two boards in 22 minutes. Beyond those two starters, there are three other youngsters — sophomore Antonio Vrankovic and freshmen Javin DeLaurier and Jack White — who do not appear ready to compete at a high level at this point in their careers. It is notable that Krzyzewski did not trust the trio with much playing time (only 15 total minutes) despite the 35-point margin of victory. This indicates that Krzyzewski would rather play small-ball with four perimeter standouts rather than risk playing an unproven frontcourt reserve. While that strategy could be exposed by the bigger, more physical teams the Blue Devils will face in the near future, it represents Duke’s best chance to succeed right now. The irony is that this Duke team, as currently constructed, looks a lot like last year’s depth-shy squad. And just like 2015-16, foul trouble will equal doom against good teams — that is, until those future millionaires sitting on the bench in street clothes can finally put on their blue and white jerseys.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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