One of the issues with non-conference play is that oftentimes, a team’s wins don’t tell you much due to the vast quality gap in terms of opponents. In other words, Duke’s wins over Siena or Long Beach State are less telling of things to come than the losses against Kentucky and Utah (and to some extent, the unnecessarily close call against Georgetown). Here are some weaknesses that were revealed during those games as well as a look at how the Blue Devils can avoid those pitfalls going into conference play.
Lack of Front Court Depth
On paper, the Blue Devils have their fair share of big men including freshmen Anton Vrankovic and Chase Jeter, former Rice Owl Sean Obi, and returning champions Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson. But with Amile sidelined indefinitely and Coach K showing reluctance in including Obi and Vrankovic in the rotation, the Blue Devils are left with Plumlee, whose offense is limited to dunks, and the unproven Chase Jeter, whose frame simply doesn’t strike fear into opposing big men.
Even with Jefferson healthy, foul trouble proved to be Duke’s undoing as both Jefferson and Plumlee fouled out in the nailbiter against Georgetown, with Plumlee again fouling out in the loss against Utah. Plumlee also found himself on the verge of fouling out on 3 other occasions and a pattern of foul trouble for the starting big man comes with a whole host of problems, including limited physical post defense and extended minutes for a small-ball lineup.
A makeshift solution to this lack of depth has been the use of Brandon Ingram at the 4 where the freshman’s length and freakish wingspan has allowed him to clean up the boards nicely. But again, Ingram simply doesn’t have the frame of someone who can anchor a team’s post defense. As a result, opposing big men will look to feast in the paint much like Jakob Poeltl of Utah did to the tune of 19 points on 8 of 11 shooting.
Limited Ball Movement
Duke ranks near the bottom of the ACC in assists per game despite sitting atop the conference in points per game. This stat sums up some of the concerning iso-heavy games that the Blue Devils have had so far. To some extent, this is to be expected. The only true point guard in the rotation is Derryck Thornton and the freshman point guard is not exactly a pass-first point guard (although with his shooting confidence, it’s hard to blame him).What this means is that Duke’s leading scorer Grayson Allen is expected to create a lot of the offense through isolation and drives to the basket as opposed to an offense dominated by cutting and off-ball screens. Allen is a skilled driver and Duke’s abundance of perimeter threats (Matt Jones, Luke Kennard, Thornton, and Brandon Ingram as of late) means the drive-and-kick is also a staple of the Blue Devil offense. But the problem comes when Allen is having an off night, as he did in Duke’s two losses. When Allen’s shots aren’t falling early, the defense becomes less likely to collapse on him during his drives and Duke’s shooters are left watching as Allen forces up shot after shot. Duke’s other main offensive threat, Brandon Ingram, has a similar game and this tends to keep the ball from moving around the perimeter and producing a more efficient offense.
Over-dependence on Individuals
This is not to say that Allen and Ingram are selfish; they are extremely skilled creators who can slice into the paint or get their own shot from nearly anywhere on the court. But an offense centered around individual performances as opposed to a system of finding the open man and feeding the hot hand is worryingly dependent upon the streakiness of individual players. Last year’s championship squad, which led the ACC in assists, was a pinnacle of team basketball and when one or two guys were off (like Jahlil Okafor in the championship game) the ball always found its way to an open man (often facilitated by the superb court vision of Tyus Jones). It’s unclear whether this team has the ability to overcome a bad game by Grayson Allen and that could spell trouble during the NCAA tournament.
These issues are intertwined. Having more options in the paint, particularly a guy that can produce buckets off of back-to-the-basket plays, would allow for more rotation and movement without the ball much like last year’s Jah-centered offense. And improved ball movement would allow for the team to be insulated from the ups-and-downs of a particular player. Ideally, Chase Jeter takes advantage of his heightened playing time in the absence of Amile Jefferson and begins providing a stable offensive presence in the post which could result in the opening up of the perimeter and the involvement of more guys in a possession. More likely however, the Blue Devils are in for an entertaining but bumpy ride on the backs of Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram.
Duke University ’19
Stats from sports-reference.com and espn.com.