With 13 nonconference games behind them, including two prehyped matchups with Kentucky and Indiana and two surprising nail-biters against Georgetown and Utah, the Blue Devils find themselves ranked 15 with a 11-2 record entering ACC play. While respectable, the 2015-16 team was not able to replicate last year’s perfect nonconference start and a rank of 15 is not what Coach K would consider a success thus far. Nevertheless, bright spots have been abundant and Duke looks to be competitive as usual in the stacked ACC, although the ceiling seems lower than last year’s.
Here are some quick notes about Duke’s start, seen through the performance of some of the individual players:
• Amile Jefferson is irreplaceable. It’s not just the double-double that he was averaging prior to his foot injury that the Blue Devils are missing in his absence. He was the emotional leader of this team and exemplified the hustle, heart, and hard-nosed defense that Coach K wants all of his players to display. As far as finding a replacement in the rotation, Chase Jeter has seen his minutes rise a bit in the four games since Jefferson’s injury, spending 15 and 17 minutes on the court against Elon and Georgia Southern, but it’s unclear exactly how committed Kryzyewski is to the freshman forward seeing as he saw less than 10 minutes against Long Beach State and Utah. Instead, another freshman seems to be taking advantage of Jefferson’s absence, which brings us to…
• Brandon Ingram: Freshman Phenom (finally). It took a while and Duke fans were definitely frustrated after the lanky forward scored in the single digits in 4 of his first 7 games, often with poor shooting to boot, but Ingram has come on strong in the last 6 games. Starting with a strong performance at home TV against Indiana, Ingram has averaged 21 points on 55% shooting (45% from beyond the arc) in the last 6 games. In Amile’s absence, he is also averaging just under 9 rebounds and has racked up two double-doubles. While he doesn’t quite provide the post presence on defense that Jefferson did, Duke fans are excited to see Ingram build momentum leading into conference play.
• As Grayson goes, so go the Blue Devils. Allen has scored in single digits just twice during Duke’s start. Somewhat unsurprisingly, those two games were Duke’s only losses. Allen simply couldn’t find his rhythm against Kentucky or Utah and his horrid shooting doomed the Blue Devils. Given that he’s putting in the 2nd most points per game in the ACC, opposing defenses will look to clamp down on Allen. In these situations, Allen will have to look to distribute more instead of trying to force up his usual allotment of shots. Of course, this is nitpicking. Allen has scored over 30 three times so far and his ability to exploit driving lanes will continue to open up the floor for sharpshooters such as Matt Jones as well as…
• Luke(warm) Kennard. Numbers normally don’t lie but don’t put too much faith in Kennard’s 30% three point shooting. Kennard has a smooth stroke and a quick release that will translate into deep daggers more consistently going forward. Kennard reminds me of Grayson Allen in his freshman season in that he sometimes looks lost on the court and can turn in some dreadful shooting performances but when it’s on, it’s a sight to behold. Coach K seems to have given him the green light (after all, shooters have to keep shooting to bust a slump) and sooner or later, Kennard will start sparking runs with his shooting while buoying the Blue Devil’s second unit.
Later, I’ll take a closer look at Duke’s two losses and try to identify this team’s weaknesses, followed by a preview of the beast of a conference schedule that Duke will face starting on Saturday.
Duke Class of 2019
Stats from sports-reference.com and espn.com.