The following are observations ranging from player-specific notes to comments about the state of college basketball in general. After each season, the most specific items will be culled and deleted, but those of continuing relevance will be maintained.
Duke Football After Game Six. [ We posted the following after game three and now, having gone through six games, want to offer this brief update ... which is largely a reiteration of our earlier analysis. To wit: (1) The Duke defense is playing at a level above what we would have expected, particularly with the injuries that have been sustained. (2) Daniel Jones is one hell of a quarterback. (3) The Duke offensive line is beyond abysmal, offering absolutely no pass protection for their beleaguered quarterback. One can only imagine what kind of stats Jones would have with a real offensive line. We had commended Duke on playing relatively error-free ball, but that has now changed markedly. They almost gave the game away against Georgia Tech with one error after another. What was really disappointing were the three mental errors made by Rahming, including perhaps the dumbest and most inexplicable move that we have ever seen a human being or animal make when he reached down and touched a punt at the one yard line when the ball was clearly headed into the end zone. Fortunately, Rahming did make a few nice plays on offense, but he has to play a lot smarter in the future. A LOT. If Tech did not self-destruct with three consecutive third quarter fumbles, the Devils would probably have lost the game.]
Several years ago we joked about what to expect when an athlete matriculates at Duke. We did not address the fact that he may well be more likely to spend time within the confines of the Duke Medical Center than on the court or playing field. This is truly an extraordinarily snake-bitten school. That having been said, what have we seen so far from this heralded undefeated squad? A few notes:
Lest one might suppose from the final score that Duke has manhandled its opponents, nothing could be farther from the truth. The principal reason for the team's success to date has been the fact that its opponents have made numerous errors on the field, but the Devils have not. Against Baylor, not only were there no turnovers by Duke once again, but no penalties to boot. That is simply marvelous and the first step to winning football. In contrast, the opponents have had crucial penalties and a habit of dropping passes. Unlike in prior seasons, Duke's receivers have caught virtually everything that has come their way.
We have always been enamored of Daniel Jones. He is the most accurate passer that we have seen during the Cutcliff years, both with the short and long ball. Surprisingly, Quentin Harris did a commendable job filling in for him, even though the completion percentage stats were less than lofty. But Mr. Harris has a ready excuse if he were to take it -- viz., Duke's offensive line is absolutely abysmal. Every time Harris went back against Baylor, he was taking his life into his hands. Indeed, it was the complete inability of a particular lineman to block an opponent that led to Jones' injury, as well as a direct hit on Harris later in that same Northwestern game (we will withhold the name to protect the guilty). Frankly, we are surprised that Harris was able to make some of the plays he did. His great downsize is his physical stature -- at under six feet, his balls are too likely to be tipped by defensive linemen.
It is interesting to note that while Jones is probably Duke's most effective rusher when on the field, that option has largely been taken from him by the coaching staff. In contrast, Harris was allowed to run continually. Either Harris is viewed as more expendable or Jones as more injury prone. Or perhaps both. But in any event, we find it fascinating.
We have been very impressed by Duke's secondary. Even with the injuries, their coverage deep has been excellent. The few long catches that Baylor did manage came on very tight coverage. Shorter routes, however, have been more problematical as Duke's coverage has been softer. A team with a capable quarterback and sure-handed receivers could have a field day with ten yard plays.
We were pleased that Duke did not miss a field goal attempt against Baylor, even though one extra point was shanked. Still, this team does not have the kicking game it needs and that is not a new phenomenon this year, We saw that when the Devils went for a first down on fourth and long from Baylor's thirty, whereas any other major program would have viewed that almost as a chip shot field goal. Does Cutcliff really suffer from the Mike McGee delusion that kickers are not really football players? This should be an area of first priority as far as Duke recruiting is concerned.
We commend Coach Cutcliff for rescuing Duke from the darkest depths of Hell and turning it into a credible program, albeit not at the level of a Stanford. We love the fact that the team is, as we noted, playing relatively error free ball. Nevertheless, we still have to take Cutcliff to task for game strategy after the team has built a halftime cushion. Thereafter, it is the old "let's protect the lead by running everything up the middle." While it worked against that misfiring Northwestern squad, it almost turned disastrous against Baylor. It cost Duke its momentum and allowed the Bears back into the game. In both basketball and football, it is never right to cease being aggressive. That's how you turn victory into defeat. Cutcliff does not appear to realize that, but then he is just a ball coach.
A Look Ahead. Last season was yet another let-down. Even we were over our skis at the outset given the wealth of size and talent on the roster. But as usual, under-achievement prevailed and Duke flamed out before the Final Four. Now we are again led to lofty aspirations for the pending 2018/19 campaign with four much-heralded phenoms matriculating (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson, and Tre Jones), together with Joey Baker enrolling early. Are these new cogs the key to renewed glory? We suspect not.
If you have been reading our scouting reports, you will know that our reviews of the incoming freshman have been somewhat mixed. We love the prospect of Tre Jones on the court ... he is a true point, the first at Duke since his brother departed. Yes, we know that Trevon was top-rated at that position coming out of high school, but it turned out that he had virtually no passing skills ... he was not a playmaker for his teammates, and was often a turnover machine.
Zion does intrigue us because of his massive body and ball handling skills. R.J. is a wonderful athlete who can also take the ball to the hoop. In contrast, Cam Reddish, while capable athletically, has never shown us any willingness or ability drive effectively. But all are small forwards and, at that, largely one-dimensional.
The problem is that for this Duke team to succeed at the highest level, more than pure athleticism will be required. Two major issues emerge immediately. The first is rebounding. Duke has been terribly inept over the years in controlling the defensive glass. And aside from Marques next season, we have no confidence that anyone else will emerge to cement that role. Vrank simply lacks the quickness and jumping ability to have any effectiveness in that area against strong competition, and Zion, though he is very strong and a good leaper, is really only 6'-5" and therefore at an immediate height disadvantage. Heck, even Marques has never shown himself to be dominant at all on the defensive boards.
The other big issue is outside shooting. None of the incoming "big four" have any dependable outside shot. Joey Baker may well be a marksman, but it is not clear how much PT, if any, he will be getting. The only other kid on the roster who can nail a jumper is Poor Alex, who did not get nearly the PT he deserved last season. Even if he is on the court by necessity this year, other teams should be able to extend defenses to cover him while dropping off his teammates.
In short, major weaknesses currently loom. And we have not even mentioned overall defense, where we have little doubt K will be back to man-to-man with very mixed results. Of course, we are hoping for the best, but we will not be buying tickets for Minneapolis any time soon.
The Vacuity of Wendell Carter. So ... Wendell and his compatriots did not have an opportunity to show all the miraculous things they could do while playing for Duke. Really? Never mind that Carter was able to launch three pointers at his pleasure, and had plenty of chances to show his scoring moves, passing, and driving skills as well. The fact is that despite all the hype he continually received, his inside scoring and passing skills were virtually nonexistent. Of course, he was also hampered by spending so much time sitting on the pine due to his propensity for picking up stupid fouls. Apparently, Mr. Carter has convinced himself that some illusory straight jacket was to blame for any of his failings, rather than his own inadequacy. Wendell may indeed turn into a solid NBA player over time, but he has a lot of personal improvement to make, particularly in completing scoring opportunities inside.
And as to his teammates, which of the other freshman were denied the ability to fully showcase all that they could do. The answer is simple .... nobody! We have heaped our share of criticism on Coach K for many of his decisions, but providing ample opportunity to demonstrate skills is certainly not one. Indeed, we believe that at times he has been too liberal in allowing bigs to drift away from the hoop. In short, Wendell is inhabiting a fantasy world of his own creation. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the real world next season.
The Nike Hoops Summit. This is the high school all-star finale ... USA vs. Everybody Else. Everybody Else won this one, thanks in part to R.J Barrett, a Canadian. But the winner is of little consequence -- all that counts is how the Duke-bound kids looked.
We have now had a chance to see the recruits on a number of occasions against top competition, so we are able to solidify our thoughts. The one exception is Zion Williamson, who continues to nurse his injury from the McDonald's game. But we have seen enough of Zion to feel we have a pretty good sense of his game.
We were very impressed by R.J. after the Mickey D. We continue to think highly of him, though we do have a couple of qualifications. On the plus side, the kid is explosive to the basket with great leaping ability. He is very athletic, has a good handle, and is an excellent passer with good court vision. So what's the downside? Well, it has become all too apparent that his outside jumper is less than impressive. He can stick one on occasion, but it is the exception rather than the rule. His free throw shot is also rather mediocre. Finally, R.J. cannot be more than 6'-6", and his frame is not thick. He will get boards, but he will not do so in a crowd of bigs. We like R.J., but believe that to be really effective at the next level, he will have to be able to hit jump shots. That appears to be very iffy.
We continue to be underwhelmed by Cam Reddish. He has a pretty good handle for his height (seems to be around 6'-8") and good athleticism, but he falls short in a number of areas. Like R.J., he really struggles with the outside shot. However, he does not compensate by having the same explosiveness to the basket that R.J. possesses. And as we have repeatedly noted, he does not play tough, preferring to hang around the perimeter rather than even attempting to mix it up underneath. It is hard to imagine him being dominant next season.
The final small forward, Zion, also suffers from not having any outside game. But Zion has that large body that gives him a big edge around the basket. He also has an excellent handle and is a very effective passer. We expect to see him at the foul line very frequently, so his skill there will be crucial.
Lastly, we have Tre Jones, whom we really like. Excellent ball handler, savvy passer, and able to make shots off the drive. Also a very good defender. We continue to think that he will be the most important of all the recruits. He will rarely come off the court next season.
We now have confirmations that Marvin, Trevon, and Gary are all bolting for the NBA. We would be shocked if Wendell did not follow suit. When the dust finally settles, we will offer our thoughts about those leaving and next year's squad. Stay tuned.
Jordan Brand. We were supposed to see all the Duke signees on the same team. But Zion Williamson had to scratch due to the thumb injury from the McDonald's game. Then R.J. Barrett felt compelled to rest after competing in the high school championships the week before. So it was just Tre Jones and Cam Reddish. Watching them largely confirmed our assessment from Mickey D.
We love Tre. He is exactly what Duke has so desperately needed ever since the premature departure of his older brother. Tre is a pure point, and a very good one to boot. Great passing vision, solid handle, and, as a lovely added bonus, he can finish with a soft touch. We have not seen him take a trey, but he has looked really smooth on everything else. Like silk. We'll have to make that his sobriquet. He may not be as highly rated as his incoming compatriots, but he could be the most valuable member of this class.
As for Cam, we were very iffy after the prior contest. He just didn't show us much at all. In this game, he did offer some impressive one-on-one moves, but still left us pretty flat. He made a couple of long jumpers, but they were accompanied by a couple of forced air balls. We are not impressed by his shot. However, the real issue is that he simply tends to hang around the perimeter rather than making any effort to mix it up inside. In short, he plays really soft. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem.
In contrast, UNC's signee, Nassir Little, once again wowed. This kid plays very hard on both ends, and is the real deal. At this point, we would be inclined to take him over either Barrett or Reddish. K has a knack for getting the most highly rated players, but as we have said before, there is often a difference between the most highly rated and the best. Leave it to Good Ole Roy for finding the latter.
A Happy Meal. The All-Star season is upon us, and the first game is always the Mickey D. All four of Duke's highly-rated recruits appeared and all started. We had seen and reported on Zion Williamson previously (see below), but this was our first opportunity to evaluate the other kids. Here goes.
First, a follow-up on Zion. He was exactly what he showed us last time out ... quick, an excellent handle, great leaping ability, and that big, big body. What continues to trouble us, however, was the one dimensional aspect of his game. It is always go hard to the hoop. We have yet to even see him attempt a jumper. This all may be quite effective at the high school level, but may be problematical at times in college ... particularly when facing a defense without those driving lanes. The other issue is simply lack of height. He gets high off the floor, but his shorter stature makes it more likely that his shot will be blocked when trying to go up inside. But don't worry, we don't want to trade him in ... we still consider him a great catch. And by the way, Zion did sustain a thumb injury after being clearly fouled on a drive (no whistle of course) by UNC signee Nassir Little -- we hope Zion remembers that next year.
The consensus No. 1 recruit this season is R.J. Barrett. Well, folks, we are delighted to say that Barrett is the real deal. He is as close to being a complete offensive weapon as anyone we have seen in a long time. He explodes to the basket through traffic. Excellent elevation and handle. What's more, he finishes with a soft touch even in traffic. It is beautiful. But unlike Zion, he has an outside game as well. After an initial errant shot from very long, he showed us a sweet and consistent jumper. He even makes foul shots routinely. What's not to love? The answer may turn out to be defense, but we will have to wait and see on that. [oops -- not so fast -- We just watched R.J. the following day play in the national high school quarterfinals. We are still impressed by the athleticism, but less so with the shooting skills as he missed all his outside jumpers and some foul shots. Not quite offensive perfection yet ...]
Then there's the kid brother. Tre Jones. The point guard that has been missing since Tyus departed. We were very impressed by Tre -- he was exactly what we were praying he would be, a smart point who makes excellent decisions and very effective passes. He looks for his teammates first, but showed that he is capable of scoring himself as appropriate. The kid is a winner, and exactly what Duke so desperately needs.
The final recruit was ESPN No. 3 Cam Reddish. We have to say that this is much more difficult for us. We had heard the usual talk of Cam being able to play four positions, but we were less than overwhelmed by his ball-handling. Not that he was turning it over, but just that he lacked the skill and quickness to blow by people like R.J. and Zion. For most of the evening, Cam simply hovered around the perimeter and watched the action ... we don't remember seeing him ever try to mix it up and go to the glass. That does trouble us. The good news, however, is that he swished his only open jump shot, so perhaps he is a lights out shooter. We will be anxious to see him in the Jordan Brand Classic for further enlightenment.
Post Mortem 2018. Another season, another disappointment. For the third year in a row, the team has failed to meet initial expectations. This year, they again started the season with the No. 1 ranking, bringing in the top overall recruit (Marvin Bagley), the top-ranked point guard (Trevon Duval), and two other top 15 players. As usual, however, K found it difficult to distinguish between ranking and over-ranking. The result was a seesaw season that provided no realistic view of a felicitous ending. Yes, the team made the Final Eight, but that was largely due to favorable match-ups. And for all of you satisfied with that, well, God bless you.
The one consistent positive throughout the season was Mr. Bagley. His height and freakish jumping ability made him a major force inside on the offensive end. Of course, the defensive end was something else again, and Marvin did not exactly shine there ... he was typically on the outside looking in. For him to finish the season with only 29 blocks is almost inexplicable ... that is what Marques had in one-third the minutes. Still, his consistent offensive production was remarkable, and we'll miss him.
All the other players were up and down. We loved Grayson from day one in his career, but he was never the same after his sophomore year. As we have previously pointed out, Grayson was initially a kid who would take it to the hoop with the intent of scoring or drawing a foul. It worked beautifully for him and the team. That completely changed starting in his junior season, where every drive resulted in a dish Admirable and sometimes quite effective, but he ceased to be a scorer. All his shots were now from long, and it turned out that he had no consistency whatsoever. We were so happy when he decided to continue at Duke after his terrific sophomore year, but in retrospect it was a major financial mistake for him. We wish Grayson the very best, and will always have a soft spot in our hearts for the kid.
Wendell Carter was really the polar opposite of Marvin. Carter was Duke's most effective big man on the defensive end, the only downside there being his chronic propensity for picking up fouls. But on offense, he was less than stellar, despite all the lavish (and undeserved) praise from commentators who speak freely but know nothing. Wendell had his share of impressive dunks, and he turned out to be a fairly dependable free throw shooter. After that, it was slim picking indeed. In a perfect world, Wendell would be back in school next year, working on his scoring around the basket. A fairly consistent hook shot from within five feet would be a godsend that would completely elevate his game. But it ain't a perfect world, so we will also wish Mr. Carter good luck.
We suspect that Mr. Trent will also be inclined to jump ship. We had been his major critics through the early season as he continually struggled to make shots. But we had to eat crow when he went on a mid-season tear from the outside. But that just brings to mind the old joke -- we were wrong once, when we thought that we were wrong but we weren't. Sure enough, Gary slipped back into early season shooting form and finished the season that way. Still, he was able to score at times in the lane, and played without committing many turnovers. The problem is seeing how a kid with no great athleticism or ball handling skills, with little shooting consistency, and who plays well below the rim can expect great success at the next level. But the one thing we can always be certain of is the lack of perspicacity among NBA GM's.
When one hears of the great freshman class that Duke assembled last season, the name Alex O'Connell rarely pops up. Yet we have felt that after Marvin, Alex may have been the most talented kid on the squad. The problem is that K largely saw fit to keep him sitting on the pine, thus earning the kid the sobriquet, Poor Alex. The team will need his outside shooting next season, though that will require him being on the court. With K, that will be quite iffy.
And, of course, this season saw the inevitable departure of a player. This time it was freshman Jordan Tucker, who could not even get any PT in garbage time. It was quite inexplicable, but vintage K. It will be interesting to follow his progress. We have not seen enough of him to say if this will be another Semi Ojeleye missed opportunity.
What will interest us is seeing what decision Marques Bolden makes. We were surprised to see him back this year after his shabby treatment from K last season. Next year, he would be particularly helpful because Duke's lofty incoming class does not include real height. Marques has talent, but has never been an effective rebounder on the defensive boards. We would love to see him return, but are not counting on it.
The one bright note from this disappointing season was Duke's switch to a zone defense. We were the voices in the wilderness screaming for it for years. It made a tremendous difference for the team even though it was operating in a less than textbook fashion. The zone has many advantages -- it is less debilitating, reduces fouling, and prevents drives. The trade-off, however, is that the opponents get better looks from three. Well, Duke tried to have it both ways by extending the zone out on the perimeter. They were often able to get away with it, but got their comeuppance as Kansas was repeatedly able to drive inside. The other problem with Duke's zone is that it looked like a Keystone Kops comedy at times -- how many times did we see four Duke defenders on one side of the court, then desperately trying to get back into position as the ball went to the other side? Again, it really defeats the purpose of a zone.
All who follow Duke basketball regularly know that Duke has supposedly gone above and beyond with next year's incoming class -- the top three ranked recruits and another in the top ten. But will it just be more of the same? The college basketball season had always been a magical time for us. But we know find that magic fading rapidly. Another disappointing year will be the nail in the coffin, and almost certainly the end of any new content on this web site. Come to think of it, it may pay El Greco! to take a dive for that reason alone.
Mount Zion. We had a chance to catch Zion Williamson on ESPNU the other day. As most of our readers probably know, he is one of the catches in Z's latest celebrated recruiting class. We had heard many times that Zion was a monster, and he is that indeed. Around 6'-6" and 275, he is built like a tank. Rather unusual for Duke, but we love it. And Zion makes full use of that big body off the boards ... a lot of guys will be bouncing off him even at the next level.
The extraordinary thing about Zion, however, is that he combines that bulk with an extraordinary level of quickness. That applies both to his feet and his hands. Moreover, he gets off the floor with great speed, both on his initial elevation and on second chances. Even though he is not the tallest kid, he plays much bigger. The fact that he has an excellent vertical leap just cements the fact that he should be a terror off the glass.
Zion also has an excellent handle for his size. We are told that he can play any position, including point. While we think that is a stretch, the fact is that his handle, quickness and leaping prowess make him a tremendous threat driving the lane. Of course, that will result in many fouls, so free throw prowess is extremely important. While he seems to have a nice stroke, he did miss four free throws in the game we saw, including the front end of an important one and one down the stretch. However, the ESPN commentator remarked that his percentage for the season is over 80%, so let's hope that is the relevant indicator.
OK, there is a lot to love about this kid. What are the negatives? Well, it appears that he has no outside game at all. He did not even attempt a jump shot in the game, preferring to drive on every occasion, even if it meant trying to get between three defenders. Of course, that raises the next issue ... we hate selfish players, and there were way too many forced drives that we saw. He must have turned the ball over five times as a result. The interesting thing is that when he did pass, the passes were crisp and effective. The ability seems to be there, but the will to share was a bit lacking. Perhaps that will change when his teammates match his talents.
The other potential issue is defense. His team, probably wisely, plays almost all zone, and Zion did not show much intensity on the defensive end. That part of his game therefore remains a real question.
We would finally note that his conditioning is currently a bit of an issue. However, Zion has recently come off an extended injury leave, so he may not be in the best shape at present. There was a lot of leaning over with hands on shorts from Zion. He will need to work on the conditioning and shed some body fat. Yet even with those caveats, we liked what we saw.
The Grayson Dilemma. We fell in Love with Grayson Allen the first time we saw him pre-season in his freshman year. We loved his mixture of talent and athleticism, as well as well as his intensity on the court. So we were dismayed by his lack of PT throughout the year, but felt vindicated by his heroics in the championship game ... and doubly vindicated by his terrific sophomore year performance. He was a major threat going to the hoop, and a force from the outside as well. His shooting percentage from long for that second season was a terrific 41.7 percent. Absolutely outstanding, and it looked as if he was in line for a POY award.
Then the bottom dropped out. Without an effective point guard for the Devils the following season, Grayson largely assumed that role. Instead of routinely driving to score, Grayson was invariably dishing off the drive. While he is an excellent passer, that resulted in a big drop in offensive production. He was no longer going to the line (only 159 free throws attempted to 252 the year prior), and his outside shooting dropped off as well -- a percentage of just 36.5 percent.
This year, we had high hopes that the outside shooting, at least, would bounce back since Duke purportedly had a strong point once again. The fact is, however, that has not proven to be the case -- his current long range percentage is 38.8 percent. An improvement, but not dramatic. But then Grayson has not resumed trying to score off drives; he is instead feeding to the talented bigs.
So why the shooting decline? Of course, there is no way of explaining with certainty. But we will offer a compelling hypothesis.. When Grayson was routinely driving to score in his sophomore season and going to the line, he was routinely seeing his shots (at the stripe) going through the hoop. It has been surmised in general that this creates a mindset of success -- i.e., swishes at the line breed swishes elsewhere. Those line swishes have largely disappeared after his second season.
Again, the correlation is not definitive. There may be other explanations. But we do believe that this hypothesis has a lot to commend itself. In any event, the bottom line is that Grayson is no longer Grayson.
Transfer U. If you scroll back in our Game Notes, you will see that we put out an APB on Jordan Tucker after the South Dakota contest. We simply could not figure out why he had completely disappeared from the scene, not even appearing when scores became lopsided. We never really got the chance to watch him for any extended period, but we kind of liked what we saw in the Blue/White, even though the shots were not dropping. So we were really scratching our collective heads.
Well, needless to say, the inevitable happened. It has now been announced that Tucker is transferring. We can't blame him one bit. The only real question is why he opted for Duke in the first place. True, that decision occurred before Bagley jumped aboard, but even then Duke was relatively well-stocked in the front court. It simply amazes us that these kids are either (a) unaware of K's insistence on using a very short bench or (b) myopic enough to believe that they will be one of The Chosen. Self-confidence is nice, but needs to be blended with a healthy dose of reality.
There is no reason Tucker could not have seen more action. Yes, there were a bunch of tight contests to date, but there were also a bunch of very comfortable wins. Perhaps there is some issue behind the scenes of which we are unaware, though the fact that he did see action against St. Francis would suggest otherwise. It is hard for us to believe that it is simply a lack of ability. In any event, once again K's miserly substitution policies come back to bite. Nothing ever changes.
The D Issue. We have been bemoaning the inadequacy of Duke's man defense for many years now. It has largely given opponents a blank check when driving to the hoop due to numerous deficiencies -- lack of communication, unnecessary help/doubling, challenging opponents too far in the back-court, and on and on ad nauseum. While we have not historically been wowed by Duke's zone, we have nevertheless strongly advocated its regular use. After watching yet another scoring fest in the Florida State contest, we can no longer resist dealing with the issue in this separate note.
The Florida State game frames the problem perfectly. Duke struggled mightily in its man defense before switching to zone in the first half. The change resulted in an immediate turn-about. Unfortunately, Duke could not insert the final dagger because the Seminoles suddenly went on a long-range shooting spree (including a couple of banked three pointers). That kind of torrid shooting is not an indication of a defensive deficiency ... it is simply an unfortunate fortuity, one that you hope and expect will run its course. You do not change your defensive scheme as a result.
We were tempted to send a love note to Seth Davis for his half-time comments during the Florida State game. He did not hesitate to criticize our vaunted coach for abandoning the zone. He was absolutely correct. It was terribly foolhardy and nearly fatal. Not only do marginal man defenses allow penetration, but they also are much more prone to result in fouls to key players ... particularly in ACC play where virtually every drive to the basket draws a whistle. That is something that Duke simply can't afford. The upshot in the Florida State game was a roster full of Duke players with four personals. K finally realized in the final minutes that he had no chance but to go zone, and that put the game away for them.
The other advantage of a zone is that it is simply not as physically taxing on the defender. For a team that invariably goes with a short bench such as Duke, that is a major plus. The bottom line is that a zone makes all the sense in the world for the kind of team that Duke has become in the modern age. We are even pleased to note that Duke's zone is improving -- we felt that it never looked better than it did against Florida State. There is just one problem ... the intransigence of that gentlemen making all the decisions.
The All-Star Shows. They are finally over. The three annual dog and pony events featuring the best -- or at least those kids the flawed talent analysts deem the best -- of the current high school crop. After the first two, we could not have been less impressed with this year's group. Both the McDonald's contest and the Nike Hoops event featured the worst jump shooting displays that we have ever seen. It was so bad that it was downright shocking. The final event, the Jordan Brand Classic, was a major improvement, though much of that was the work of Brian Bowen, who was absolutely sizzling. The kid is still undecided, but, of course, Duke is not on his list. Just not overrated enough we suppose.
It is not our intention to discuss the games themselves; rather, we just want to offer some notes on the players that Duke has and is seeking commitments from. The two current Duke signees in each of the contests were Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Trent, Jr. We had seen Carter before, but it was our first opportunity to watch Trent in action.
Let's star with Carter. He may be listed at 6-11, but he plays more like 6-9. He is not a real above-the-rim shot-blocker type. Nor have we seen him show an effective jumper facing the basket. Rather, he relies on decent athleticism and quickness around the hoop, as well as intensity. One of the announcers likened him to Elton Brand, but we think that entirely inappropriate. Brand had a massive upper body, and was a man-child on the court from day one. That will not be the case with Carter -- he is certainly not thin a la Amile in his early years, but he will still need to spend a lot of time in the weight room if he is to muscle effectively against top competition. He has the tools to be productive inside for Duke next year, but he will need to add that bulk as well as play with great focus.
As for Trent, what we saw was very deflating. He had the reputation of being a very strong jump shooter, but that was nowhere in evidence. Moreover, he played with almost no intensity, generally standing around on the periphery waiting for something to happen. (Come to think of it, he's a prototypical Duke player.) He does have good size for a two guard and appears to have an acceptable handle, but he did not show any quickness. Again, typical Duke. Anyone watching him in these three games could not have been impressed.
Now for the three maybes -- Trevon Duval, Kevin Knox II, and Mohamed Bamba. Probably the most important of these for Duke next year would be Duval, who has been the highest rated high school point this season ... and Duke desperately needs a true point guard. Duval sustained an ankle injury at the start of the Micky D. While he did play some in the second half, he did not show much. He started in the two subsequent games, and played reasonably well but certainly did little to dazzle. He really was out-shone by Collin Sexton, a remarkably quick kid off to Alabama. Oddly enough, Duval did impress with his jumper from three, which was supposed to be the weakest part of his game. While we can't rave about what we saw, we did see enough to know this kid is a major talent and a must-have for Duke.
The other kid we would love to see at Duke is Mr. Bamba. We have complained interminably about Duke's lack of rim protection, and rim protection is Bamba's middle name. His wing span is incredible. We also love his quickness and athleticism, although he does suffer from the disease of wanting to show that he can do everything on the court. It's a disease that invariably results in senseless turnovers. Carter is a bright and articulate kid, and would fit in well academically at Duke. Still, with Bolden and Carter on board for next year, we are not holding our breath.
The final prospect, Knox, is a small forward with good athleticism. What is still very much in doubt for us is his skill level. He has not shown us an effective jump shot, and we really can't testify that he has a great handle. While he did score in the games, it was almost invariably via the jam. He was respectable on the court, but we are not prepared to offer any more effusive praise. How much more he would put on the table next year than White or DeLaurier is debatable. Yes, we would like to see him in a Duke jersey, but the other two candidates would appear to fill larger gaps.
There They Go. So, what's the difference between Egypt and Duke University? In Egypt, an exodus requires the parting of the Red Sea.
So much of this was (or should have been expected), but let's go down the list. First there was Jayson. That was an absolute no-brainer and we won't waste any more time on the subject.
Then we got Chase Jeter. Now that is more interesting. As any long-term follower of this site will know, we were actually lamenting Duke's recruitment of Chase from the get-go. It certainly wasn't a character issue -- everything we have seen of Chase leads us to believe that he is a terrific kid. But having watched him in international competition showed us immediately that he was wildly over-ranked as a high school player and would not be ready for ACC competition. Nevertheless, Duke signed him (further supporting our assessment of K's dubious talent assessment skills) and our predictions were realized. The fact is that Chase really should have elected to transfer prior to last season, particularly after Duke signed Giles, Bolden and Tatum. The handwriting was completely on the wall at that point. Anyway, we believe his departure was overdue and we simply wish him well.
Then comes Sean Obi. Given that his prior service was at Rice, we did not have an opportunity to scout him before he was offered the Duke scholarship. When we did see him in the Blue-White, however, we had to shake our heads a bit. There was no real evidence of skills or athleticism, and it appeared he could barely get off the floor. Once again, it solidified our doubts about K's judgement. True, there was a real question at that point about lack of any front court depth, so that may be an explanation. We would be very curious as to what kind of sales job was given to Sean during his transfer recruitment. Like Chase, Sean really should have fled after last season -- it was obvious he would not be getting PT.
Next, there is Harry. Injury notwithstanding, his performance this season was shockingly inept and inconsequential. We believe that we have pretty good judgement about prospects, so Harry really had us shaking our heads. The fact is that he was not remotely ready for top level competition this season, and it is difficult to picture him doing much in the NBA next year. He will be pushed around constantly. Compounding that is the history of injuries -- we have been compelled to accept from long experience that injury prone players do not grow out of that affliction. Under the circumstances, any NBA GM who selects Mr. Giles as a lottery will be taking a very heady risk. True, it may work out in the long run, but that kind of fortuity does not make the initial draft decision wise. Nevertheless, from Harry's standpoint, if he finds a GM foolish enough to take the big risk, we don't blame him a bit for grabbing the opportunity before injury strikes again. Bye Harry.
Then we have Luke. As we have noted, Luke is the only kid who over-achieved this year for Duke. He had a marvelous season overall. The warning signs, however, occurred down the stretch when he struggled against tough defensive pressure. He was essentially worthless in the NCAA tourney. We doubt, however, that staying at Duke would have done anything to boost his status, so he got out while the going was good for him. Best of luck, Luke.
As of the date of this post, we still have not heard of Grayson's decision. We were not surprised to see him return last year, and would not be at all surprised to get him for a fourth season. Indeed, barring injury, it may be his best move since he stands to be the team's dominant player next season. We'll keep our fingers crossed.
The one big surprise to us at this point is not a departure, but rather a decision to stay. We refer, of course, to Marques Bolden, whom we were almost certain would depart for greener pastures. The fact that K would not even put him in the game at the end of the season when he was clearing his bench appeared to be the final death knell. We can only imagine that the idea of having to sit out an entire year was simply too unbearable for Marques. We think the kid is very talented and got shafted on PT this season, so we hope that the situation will somehow rectify itself next year. Hopefully, Marques will become one of the Favored Seven.
Because we are still waiting for a number of announcements from incoming recruits, we will reserve comment on the new blood until after the dust settles. Stay tuned.
The 2016/2017 Post Mortem. We are normally very cynical. Now I know that observation will shock most of our readers, but intellectual honesty is something that we prize above all else (and that's why you will never see a puff piece on this site). Anyway, despite our cynicism, we had extraordinary expectations for this season. With the impressive cast of experienced talent returning and what appeared to be an absolutely superlative freshman group, we truly believed that Duke would be the best squad in the country. Truth be told, we were even harboring those dangerous thoughts of an undefeated season.
What we got, instead, was a team that did not begin to match expectations. Yes, there were those initial injuries, and yes, Duke did manage to claw out that ACC Tourney crown. That would be enough for most programs. But Duke is not most programs, and this did not appear to be most years.
There were a number of issues at play. Obviously, kids cannot contribute when they are sidelined by injury. By midseason, however, the freshmen were generally back in the fold, and Duke still managed to lose three of its last four regular season contests. If not for the ACC Tourney miracle, Duke would have been a much lower seed. It turns out that would have been the right call in fact.
The responsibility/blame for this year's stumbles must be spread around. First of all, no player exceeded expectations except for Luke Kennard (and, alas, Luke was a disaster in the NCAA Tournament). You might argue that highly-touted Jayson Tatum met expectations, although his long range shooting percentage of 34% was hardly impressive. But Grayson Allen and Matt Jones had terrible offensive years, and Harry Giles and Marques Bolden gave the team absolutely nothing.
We had seen Giles on many occasions before matriculating at Duke and were very impressed, so his inability to compete effectively was stunning. He was clearly hampered in the lane by the fact that he was giving away a lot of weight and muscle. He also seemed to have no clue as to how to move defensively. As for Bolden, we were also very high on him, but he was mired on the bench by El Greco!, and when he did get a chance to play, he seemed just a bundle of anxiety out there. It is something that we have seen time and time again with K's Most Favored Seven or Elite 8 player rotation. Kids are not properly groomed for the long run, and it can take a real toll.
We also got little chance to see Jack White on the court. While he may not have been the quickest guy out there, we did like his poise, general athleticism, and lovely shooting touch. Not only was he not developed, but he will no doubt be contemplating transfer. We imagine that Marques will also not reappear in a Duke uniform, though in his case it may be the D League or Europe if the NBA does not give the nod.
We have often commented on Duke's chronic lack of quickness, noting that this is a trait that K tends not to seek in his recruiting decisions. The fact is that quickness cures a multitude of sins, and often leads a team with lesser skills to victory. On this Duke squad, the only of the favored players with real quickness was Frank Jackson, but that was largely vitiated by his relatively poor ball handling abilities. It turns out that Duke desperately needed that quick point guard who could routinely penetrate and either complete or dish, not to mention apply defensive pressure and escape trapping defenses. There was nobody like that on this squad.
One of the things that most excited us in anticipation of this season is that Duke would finally have a bevy of talented bigs. Normally, Duke is a squad that suffers inside -- indeed, defensive rebounding has also been a major deficiency on Krzyzewski teams. So with Amile returning and Giles, Bolden, and Tatum coming on board, we were almost licking our chops. Needless to say, it did not turn out that way. Duke was just the same old Duke in that regard. It was terribly disappointing.
At this point, we have to anticipate that for one reason or other, almost all members of this squad will depart. We have no inside information -- that is simply a reasonable guess. Luke will no doubt remember Grayson's decision to return, and will probably be inclined to learn from it. Since Grayson's stock has clearly dropped, we have no idea what he might do, but there is at least a chance he will elect to return for redemption. Of course, Amile and Matt have no more eligibility, and Jayson will surely depart. While Mr. Giles is clearly not ready for top-flight competition, that has never stopped an NBA General Manager ... so we assume he will probably take the money and run. And we already talked about Marques and Jack. Doesn't leave much for next year, does it?
Why Go To Duke? If you scroll way, way down, you will find a piece, semi- tongue-in-cheek, about the advantages of choosing to matriculate at Duke on a basketball scholarship. However, even there we offered that fateful caveat -- viz., if you do not join that elite group of coach's favorites, you will find yourself picking up a ton of pine splinters. We referred to the Elite 8 in that prior post, although in many seasons it is instead the Favored Seven. Unfortunately, there is not always a perfect correlation between talent and one's favored status. So, if you're feeling lucky, punk, opt for Duke. Otherwise, you may want to think twice.
Who Is He? In the Duke recruiting class of 2013/2014 after being named Parade's high school player of the year ... Chiseled big body with jumping ability ... Not a great handle, but a beautiful and soft jumper ... Was not one of the Favored Seven, so got little playing time at Duke .... Transferred to SMU after a season and a half ... Was this season's Player Of The Year in the American Athletic Conference, averaging around 19 points and 7 boards a game while shooting almost 42% from long. The answer ..... Semi Ojeleye! Think he would have helped Duke's front line the past two years, particularly given Amile's absence last season? We congratulate him -- he made the right decision to bail.
A Nod at Duke Football. A disappointing season to say the least. Yes, there were some key injuries, but the problem was actually much deeper.
We love Daniel Jones. He is the coolest and certainly most accurate passer that we have seen at Duke in many years. But he is surrounded by so little talent. Watching him desperately try to get the ball away before being swamped by Miami's rush (even taking a quick sack against a three-man rush) was positively heart-rending.
The fact is that any top program has to build off its line play. Duke's offensive line this year is less than stellar. Its defensive line has been dreadful throughout the Cutcliffe regime. There is almost no defensive line penetration, practically allowing opposing quarterbacks time for a comfortable weenie roast before having to find a receiver. And this year, Duke has absolutely no kicking game whatsoever ... in fact, it would be hard to dispute that the team has the worst place kicker/punter tandem in major college football. A clear recruiting failure.
Yes, Duke football is no longer a laughingstock in the post-Cutcliffe era. But the recruiting needs to reach another level before Duke can aspire to anything other than the Preparation H Bowl.
The Cone of Silence. At the time, we were told that Harry Giles was just having minor arthroscopic surgery to remove scar tissue That was at the beginning of October, and his return was expected in about six weeks. It's been over six weeks and his return is still completely up in the air.
Then it was Jayson Tatum. He suffered a "foot sprain" and we were informed he would be out for two weeks. That was over three weeks ago with, again, no timetable for return.
Finally, we were told that Marques Bolden was being "rested" for the last Duke exhibition game. While we were skeptical, we were willing to give that story the benefit of the doubt. How naïve that was, since two days later were informed that Marques has a "lower leg injury." Gotta love that detailed report, which no doubt reflects the actual medical conversation ... in fact, we can almost hear it:
Doctor: Well, Coach, we've done a complete battery of X-Rays and tests on your boy.
K: So what's the story?
Doctor: We've reached the conclusion that he has a lower leg injury.
K: OK, thanks.
And that's all we've been given to date on each of the long-term care patients. No more detail, no updated prognosis. Apparently, the Duke athletic department believes that it is none of our business to inquire further. What absolute arrogance.
This is not actual warfare where it is incumbent upon each side to disguise its actual areas of weakness. No, this is a game, and one that is supported by the dollars of those fans who are being given as little information as possible. And for anyone who knows what Duke season tickets cost, those are very big dollars indeed. We would have expected a program to be more forthcoming for the benefit of its loyal alumni/fans, but it seems those expectations were unrealistic. No, to the Duke Athletic Department (and that includes our illustrious coach), we are simply the Great Unwashed.
The Decline of Cameron. Cameron Indoor Stadium still occupies a hallowed perch among college venues. However, the dirty little secret (that we are compelled to share) is that it really is just a pale shadow of what it once was. The raucousness, the clever student antics, the deafening volume on a regular basis are things no more. Even the pep band would once get into the act ... those going back a long way will remember the refrains of "Pinball Wizard" as Tommy Burleson entered the court for warm-ups. Now, the school even has trouble filling the lower stands with students for all but the big games.
We thought things reached a new low during the Grand Canyon contest. Throughout the game someone was shouting in a shrill manner to disrupt every Duke free throw. Once we ruled out Gminski, we decided that it must have been some brazen Grand Canyon roadie. What was shocking was that it was going on the entire game in Cameron. That is unbelievable. In the good old days, that miscreant would have been informed with the utmost clarity that such behavior in Duke's gym is simply verboten and will not be accepted. You may wear your colors, but you will not be permitted to act out.
Now, however, it seems that everything will be politely tolerated ... except perhaps wearing a "Trump For President" T shirt. Yes, Cameron is but a shadow of its former self. How sad.
Our Worst Fears. As we noted before things started off this year, the only thing that we could see derailing this incredible collection of talent is injuries. Guess what? The nightmare has come to pass. First, Harry Giles with what was supposed to be a simple clearing of scar tissue. Then Jayson Tatum with a "foot sprain." Finally, Marques Bolden, who was supposedly being "rested" against Augustana, in fact turns up with a vague "lower leg" injury. What's more, none of them seem to be healing very quickly.
In prior seasons, we had noted the extraordinary number of foot injuries in Cameron, and questioned the condition of the sub-flooring. Yes, it may well just be coincidence, but, if so, it is coincidence on steroids.
Given Harry Giles' injury-plagued history, we always knew he would be iffy for an entire season. But losing Jayson and Marques as well is back-breaking. Without at least two of those three bigs healthy, this is probably not a national championship team.
The Blue-White. Well, buckaroos, it's that time of year again. Temperatures are gradually receding from the 80's, clocks have to be reset, and basketball is in the air.
Things were definitely different at this year's annual blue-white extravaganza. Viewers were first treated to one of the most spectacular light shows that we have ever witnessed, designed to make the game itself almost anticlimactic for all but the most ardent enthusiasts. (But then, ardent is our middle name.) The game itself was just one long 20 minute scrimmage rather than a two-half affair with players switching sides. The coaches evidently thought they had balanced the squads to make it competitive. Little did they know.
We thought going into this season that Duke had the strongest roster, top to bottom, in its storied history. The talent level overall is just stunning. Nothing in this game changed our opinion. The level of play on both ends was very impressive, and that despite the fact that Harry Giles was kept out of the contest to assure his full recuperation from minor surgery. Harry was introduced pre-game and ran very fluidly around the court, giving us some comfort about his imminent return.
Most of the post-game hype will center around Jayson Tatum, and for good reason. He easily led all scorers with 18 points, sinking his first four attempts. Frankly, we weren't happy about some of those shots ... they were forced fall-aways that probably should not have been taken. But when the ball goes through the hoop, much is forgiven. Blessedly, Jayson seemed a bit embarrassed about being such a shot-hog early, and he started looking for teammates later in the game. What we really loved was the wonderful diversity of talents that he showed -- the ability to make shots (which was our big concern coming into the season), to grab rebounds, to handle the ball, and to sink free throws. He is just a remarkably complete athlete.
Jayson's teammate on the White squad, Luke Kennard, also had a very nice outing. Unlike most of last season, his jumper was dropping beautifully. He was 3 of 4 from long. In fact, the entire White team was just on fire, hitting over 70% of their threes for the game. Wow.
The Whites also included Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, and Chase Jeter. Amile looked like Amile, except for the fact that he actually took and made a 15 foot jumper. We haven't seen that since high school. Unfortunately, he continued his 50% free through shooting, going 3 for 6. That's the one area that we were hoping for some progress. Still, it was great to see Amile back and in good form. If anything, his handle was better than ever.
Matt had a very nice outing. Two for two from long, four assists, four boards, and no turnovers. We have never been big fans, but this was really solid on both ends. As for Chase, the positive was 2 for 2 at the stripe. The negative was once again leading the squad in fouls committed. He seems like a great kid, but we're not sure why he elected to stay at Duke since he should not expect much PT with all the talent on this roster.
The Blue team was led by Grayson Allen, Frank Jackson, and Marques Bolden. Allen started the game looking only to pass, then began forcing shots as his team dropped well behind. That's never a good thing. Frank Jackson provided scoring assistance, mostly off drives to the hoop -- though he did sink a trey that circled the rim for an eternity first. Frank wound up with a team-leading 12 points, and looked strong overall in the process. He has a good body, nice elevation when driving, and a solid handle. We were most encouraged.
As for Bolden, while he did have trouble scoring in competition, we do have to bear in mind that he is playing at a whole new level. We like this kid, and appreciate the fact that he understands he is a true center ... you never see him wandering out 20 feet to toss off a jumper. The upshot is that while he only scored 7 points, he did lead both squads with 7 boards. We love that. Giles' injury should give him some meaningful time to gain experience and confidence.
The other interesting Blues were Javin DeLaurier and Jack White, neither of whom we had seen previously other than in meaningless mix tapes. DeLaurier did not show any outside game or handle, staying mostly inside. The bad news is that he lacked the height to be effective on the offensive end against the stiff competition. The good news is that he was not afraid to mix it up, finishing with 5 rebounds. While we can't say that we were very disappointed in what we saw, we don't expect at this point to see him getting a lot of time as the season progresses.
The really interesting guy out there is Mr. White from Down Under. He seemed to have added a good deal of muscle from the high school tape we had seen, and shocked us with a beautifully soft jumper. He was 2 for 2 from behind the arc. Alas, those were the only two shots he attempted, and he added no boards so his stat line is rather sparse. At this point, we're not quite sure what to make of him, but we are definitely intrigued. Too bad he'll be fighting desperately for a few minutes here and there.
All in all, it was a very impressive showing on several levels. Not only were shots being made, but the level of ball-handling by almost all participants was remarkable. We're not sure we want to see Grayson playing the point (even though he is the best passer on the team), but it was exhilarating watching him dribbling behind-the-back through competition as he raced up-court. And, as noted, the defense was intense, particularly by the White players.
With Harry Giles added to the mix, this team deserves its preseason ranking. The key will be whether it can avoid serious injury. We are not particularly worried about chemistry or similar intangibles. We just hope that K can somehow break out of his compulsion to fall into an eight man roster. There is just too much talent here to leave kids languishing.
More All Star Observations. We've now officially overdosed on high school all-star contests. After McDonald's, it was the Nike Hoop Summit and the Jordan Brand Classic. The nice thing about Nike is that it was a real game (U.S. vs. foreign players) and some actual defense was played. The same can certainly not be said about Jordan Brand, which was a complete joke. But we still got some mildly interesting glimpses.
After shooting lights out in the Mickey D, Frank Jackson fell hard back to Earth (figuratively) in the Nike contest. He was 0 for 6 from the floor and committed two absolutely blatant walking infractions. It was not pretty. As for Jayson, he continued to miss jumpers, though he racked up some points at the line.
In the Jordan Brand, Jackson again fell to Earth, although this time he did so literally. He suffered a concussion and did not play after the break. While he was on the court, he continued to miss jumpers, though he did score on a gorgeous driving bank shot. We can see the talent, though we may have overestimated the shooting prowess in our McDonald's analysis. Since we had never had an opportunity to watch him before these games, we can't assess which performance was the greatest deviation from his norm.
Jayson Tatum continues to amaze us at the free throw line. We have yet to see him miss, and the shot is magnificently mechanical. On the other hand, we rarely see him sink the jumper. In the Jordan Brand, he repeatedly forced difficult turn-around shots that routinely missed. If he tries the same in Durham, we will not be happy campers. On the other hand, he should be able to make a living taking it to the hoop and drawing fouls from those whistle-happy ACC refs. Whether he has the discipline to play to his strengths will be the $64,000 question.
We continue to say prayers each night that Marques Bolden will opt for Duke. He again impressed us with his play in the Jordan Brand. He has good athleticism and hands, is unselfish on the court, and can score in close. He would give Duke some much-need depth on their always-iffy front line.
And speaking of front-line players, we have to say a word about Omari Spellman, a Villanove recruit that we watched for the first time in the Jordan Brand. While still somewhat out of shape, this kid truly impressed us. He has bulk, jumping ability, and really soft hands. He is dominant underneath, and can put the ball back in after clearing the glass. We love kids like this, and wish we saw them more often wearing Duke uniforms.
Grayson Returns. We love Grayson Allen. There have been very few Duke players over the last 20 years that we have really placed upon a pedestal. Elton Brand was one. Kyrie Irving was another, although we have to add a large asterisk due to his limited playing time. And now there is Grayson.
Duke fans loved to exalt the skills of J.J. Redick. In fact, Allen is a much better athlete and therefore a much greater talent. He can score inside and out, is a terrific passer, and has the quickness and toughness to be effective on the defensive end. We were blown away the first time we watched him in the Blue/White as a freshman, and thought that he was quite possibly the most talented kid in that celebrated class. Unfortunately, it took his Coach far too long to comprehend that fact.
Oddly enough, burying Grayson on the bench most of that season may have served one very beneficial purpose. It meant that Wisconsin (and virtually everyone else for that matter) was utterly unprepared for his dominance in the title game. He took over, and the Badgers could only watch in amazement. So perhaps the entire season was just part of a diabolical chess game being orchestrated by El Greco! Sure, right.
Anyway, we expected great things from Grayson as a soph. Our one concern was his ability to hit from long consistently. While he had shown a nice touch in warm-ups, he usually had trouble connecting during his limited court time as a freshman. Our hope was that was just a combination of loss of confidence and a feeling of pressure. And so it was, as Grayson proved this season. We said before the season began that we would like to be able to see him reach the 40% threshold from three -- he wound up at around 42%. That is outstanding, as was his free throw percentage of over 83%.
The one thing he needs to work on now is the intermediate game. If he can consistently stop off the drive and toss in that 10-15 foot shot, he will be absolutely unstoppable. We saw a brief glimpse of that this year. We want to see a lot more. It would make him a lottery pick.
Having Grayson back for next year's campaign is huge ... and that's an understatement. While one now expects all kids who are potential first-rounders to go pro, we had a strong feeling that Grayson would resist the temptation. The very first time we watched him enter the court in a Duke uniform, with a smile radiating joy and pride, we knew that playing for Duke was more than just a means to an end for him.
So, welcome back, Grayson. Have we told you that we love this kid?
The 2015-2016 Post Mortem. Gentler souls will no doubt be lauding this team for reaching the Sweet Sixteen sans Amile. We will not be among that group. Coach K's stated goal each year is a National Championship. While that is not a realistic annual occurrence, a team stocked with High School All-Americans should be expected to go a long way. Success does breed high expectations, and when those are not met, it is appropriate to be disappointed. And we are disappointed.
We have repeatedly committed the absolute sacrilege of questioning the decisions of Coach K. We must do so once again. While Duke lost three of its fabulous frosh after last season, only the departure of Tyus should have been a real surprise. In short, K should have been anticipating a major front court restock with Amile being the only quality front-line kid on the roster. But what happened? Well, they signed Chase Jeter, about whom we had offered repeated warnings. They also inked Sean Obi and Antonio Vrankovic -- we never had a chance to scout them, but had to assume that K and his staff would adequately do so. Wrong! Both kids rarely got off the bench.
We must emphasize that high school ball is replete with talented kids who never make the McDonald's roster. That roster is usually reserved for kids who bloom early and develop a rep accordingly. But a good scout needs to be able to pick out the late bloomers who will make an impact at the next level. K has never shown himself capable of doing that. It really hurt this year.
The other issue we have had over the years is with K's insistence on playing a very short roster. No playing time, even in blow=outs, invariably leads to transfers. Some of those have been of negligible importance in the past. But who out there does not believe that having Semi Ojeleye on this year's team would not have made a real difference? K chased him out of town and it hurt.
Of course, it is unfair to lay everything at the feet of K. When Tyus unexpectedly left, Duke had to scramble to sign a point. They persuaded Derryck to enroll early, but that just didn't pan out as hoped. Also, they did pick up Brandon to replace Winslow, but even there we lost a lot ... Brandon wound up scoring a bunch of points, but he was next to worthless on the other end. In contrast, Justise was a very effective defender and rebounder by the end of the prior season.
So when Amile went down, Duke lost its only real front court talent. We said at the start of the season that we thought he would be the "quiet MVP" of the squad. Not the best player, mind you -- in our view, Grayson had a solid lock on that title. But no team can win without any inside game, and when Amile was lost, so was its inside game.
Duke simply became a one-dimensional jump shooting squad without Amile. That is a certain recipe for disaster in and of itself. But it was compounded by the failure of some players to step up. Luke Kennard, who was recruited as a skilled marksman, became a consistent rim clanker. And Derryck generally could not hit a jumper to save his life. This team had no chance.
What about next year? Well, a lot will depend on the decision that Grayson makes. We'll talk more when that decision comes. Stay tuned.
The 2016 McDonald's Show. We look forward to the annual McDonald's game simply because it allows us to assess the athletic skills of those players in whom we have an interest. The game itself is just an exercise in pure hot-doggery, and this year was no different.
Before getting into any player analysis, we have to get something off our chest. We have long been frustrated by the tendency of the announcers in these all-star contests to ignore any semblance of play-by-play, making it almost impossible to figure out who is doing what. That was spectacularly apparent throughout the first half of this game, where the ESPN crew (including our own Jay Williams) completely ignored the game itself, instead interviewing guys on the bench and offering a stream of consciousness commentary on whatever popped into their minds. We were waiting for a debate on their favorite brownie recipes. If you think we exaggerate, you weren't really watching.
Anyway, let's talk talent. We had previously seen Jayson Tatum on a number of occasions, and have had somewhat mixed reactions. On the one hand, we appreciate the fact that he has pretty good height for a "small forward." We also admire that fact that he is a fluid kid with a nice handle. On the downside, we have never been particularly impressed by his outside shot or his ability to convert when guarded closely, nor have we been overwhelmed by his quickness. Those concerns were only reinforced in this game, where Jayson got stripped repeatedly and had several shots blocked. Almost all of his scoring came at the charity line, and there we do have to commend him ... he was simply automatic. Compared to Brandon Ingram, we will look forward to seeing him walking to the line..
Harry Giles could not appear in the game due to his season-ending injury. Too bad, because we have no qualifications about Harry other than his tendency to sustain injury. Other than that, he is a major talent. If healthy, he will be a godsend next year.
We were looking forward to a chance to scout Frank Jackson, and were particularly excited when we read that he won the Slam Dunk contest. It's not that we get an adrenaline rush from jams, but at least it signals a level of athleticism that we have all too often found lacking at Duke. It turns out, however, that what really impressed us about Jackson in the game was his jump shot. He was 5 for 7 from long, and his stroke was textbook. His point guard play was decent, though he made a few ill-advised passes. Still, we expect him to start at point next year, and look forward to great things.
Those who follow recruiting know that Duke is still hoping to sign Marques Bolden, so we were anxious to see what he could do. While he did not dominate, we were nevertheless impressed with his athleticism, coordination, and hands. If Duke can somehow pry him out of that Kentucky orbit, he would be a great addition to the squad. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
The Achilles Heel. We are about to tread on very dangerous ground ... but then we never shy from controversy as long as truth is served. We know (by virtue of Mr. Vitale) that K is the greatest coach in any sport. Indeed, he is probably the greatest coach in the history of sports, wherever played in this galaxy, universe, or any alternative universe. Now with the obligatory genuflections out of the way, let's be brutally honest for a moment.
In our Evaluations, we offer the scandalous view that K is probably not the best judge of basketball talent. We offer some brief support, which we won't again belabor. But the current squad offers a case (or cases) in point. To be sure, Duke has a wealth of back-court talent. While young Derryck Thornton's point guard skills are still lacking, any reasonable person would have assumed last season that Tyus Jones would be back for at least another year. So no criticism on that front.
The problem is the front court. In contrast with Tyus, every sentient being knew that Okafor was a one-and-done. That means that K had to be aware that he would be relying on Amile and Marshall up front, with Jeter, Obi, and Vrankovic as back-up. And, ladies and gentlemen, that is the rub. Only Amile, in that group, was a player of any skill. Marshall was a big body with decent hands, but otherwise without much athleticism. As for Jeter, we had seen him several times in international play before he signed with Duke, and we were very clear in this site that we thought he was a long way from being an effective player at the major college level.
Coach K has been phenomenally successful in snatching High School AA's. Many have proved to be outstanding players. But recruiting analysts also make repeated mistakes, mistakes that we have called in advance over the years (eg, Chase Jeter, Chris Burgess, etc). Alas, K seems much less discerning. And when he does on occasion take a kid who is not a McDonald's athlete, they rarely (if ever) turn out to game changers. Yet there are tons of great athletes under the radar. Duke was just defeated by a Clemson squad without a single Mickey D.
So Jeter's weakness should have been obvious. But what about the other front-liners. Well Sean Obi is now a Junior, yet he apparently lacks the skills to get a minute of court time when Duke's bigs are otherwise in foul trouble. We never got to see Sean before Duke gave him the scholarship, but we assume that K watched a lot of tape prior to making the decision. Sean's lack of athleticism should have been absolutely apparent on tape.
Lastly, there is Antonio. Again, we did not see him at the high school level, so we could not offer an evaluation. But here is another kid who, it seems, does not even merit a minute of PT even in dire circumstances. If Duke decided to recruit him solely as a project, why is he not redshirting this year? It simply makes no sense.
The bottom line is that K has, to be absolutely frank, done a very poor job in recruiting front court talent so that the team could be competitive at the highest level. True, things would be much better if Amile were on the court. But Amile and little else leaves way too much room for error. It should have been obvious.
While it's instructive to analyze the current squad, there is nothing that can be done at this point. Looking ahead, both Amile and Marshall will be gone next year. It would be foolhardy to assume that Chase, Sean, or Vrank will turn into major talents by that point. So we will have to rely on the new kids on the block. We love Harry Giles, but his long history of major injury is extremely ominous. Jayson Tatum is a great talent, but he is not an inside banger. DeLaurier also looks good on video, but can he tough it inside as a freshman? The point is that Duke will not have a glue guy like Amile in the front court to do the dirty work. Hopefully, Giles will stay healthy and Duke's talent will prevail. We just can't help but worry.
Amile-less. Duke has just lost its crucial front line player. Another foot injury ... what else is new at Duke? We have long wondered why these injuries seem so extraordinarily prevalent on the Cameron floor. Probably complete coincidence, but still quite troubling.
Anyway, the good news is that aside from Utah, Duke's schedule is quite forgiving over the next few weeks. And even Utah is rather suspect given their recent dismantling at the hands of Wichita State. So Duke may be able to escape the noose for a while, but Amile's absence will certainly be felt in the long run. And we worry about the long run since we have been given absolutely no prognosis for his recovery. There is just no way to envision Duke being a championship team without the services of Amile at 100% efficiency. Duke's front line is simply too weak.
But that brings us to the point of this brief essay. We have long been critical of K's refusal to play more than seven (occasionally eight) deep on the roster, even when building a large lead that should have allowed others to get PT. One result of that was the transfer of Semi Ojeleye last season. As readers will remember, we were very upset about his lack of court time. True, his ball handling was mediocre, but he had a strong body, good leaping ability, and a wonderful soft shooting touch. Make no mistake about it, he was effectively chased out of Durham by being forced to sit on the pine without respite. Indeed, as we have noted, Grayson may well have followed suit had it not been for the banishment of Rasheed.
Because of the one year sit-out rule, we have not had an opportunity to see Semi flex his muscles for SMU. That will be coming momentarily. But who could seriously argue that his presence in a Duke uniform would not be a godsend at this point? Duke has nobody else who can provide the quality minutes it needs up front without Amile. El Greco! has received the fruits of his decisions. Let's see if he can somehow emerge unscathed.
The Recruiting Bonanza Continues. When K first announced that he was taking leadership of the US basketball program, we were concerned that it would adversely affect his commitment to Duke. In fact, the opposite has occurred ... after the most recent international victory of the US team, K's recruiting successes have surged. Actually, success breeds success as well: the unexpected triumph of the Duke squad last year only reinforced the wave of kids accepting offers.
Now we have Harry Giles, although that was for a long time virtually assumed. As our readers know, we have been extremely high on Giles for a long time, having seen him multiple times in different forums. We thought he was probably the best impact player in the 2016 class. But there is a big caveat. At best, Giles will be one and done; at worst, he will be Kyrie Irving revisited. Having watched the game for many moons, we have generally found it true that certain players are inherently injury prone. With his second season-ending ACL tear, Giles has been a poster boy for that dictum. Let's all collectively pray that the one year we have Harry on the team will not find him on the bench with a pair of crutches by his side. With both Plumlee and Amile departing after this season, a healthy Giles will be crucial for another title run.
2016 Blue-White. It was a great night to be white. But that's really beside the point, isn't it? The key to this performance is not who wins, but how individuals look ... again, always bearing in mind that this is just an exhibition.
So, who was that masked man? We thought that Brother Marshall looked remarkably fluid in the open practice, but this was unbelievable. He appears to have morphed from a caterpillar to a butterfly. We knew from high school that he would be a very long range prospect, and it appears that he is finally panning out. If he can continue to perform at this level post-exhibitions, it really could elevate this Duke team to elite status. We'll see.
The other probable front court starter, Amile, also had an impressive outing. He was driving to the hoop with a flourish and, even more important, was making foul shots. We were most worried about Duke's inside play this season, but what we saw from Marshall and Amile gives us some new confidence. Sean Obi and Antonio Vrankovic can also come in and, while not at the same level, provide respectable back-up minutes when needed. Against smaller opponents, Duke could easily use Ingram at the 4 position and go with three guards, effectively giving Duke a four guard offense given Ingram's ball skills.
Speaking of Ingram, his talent showed in a number of areas: he has a fine outside touch, can drive well, and he really elevates. He did try to force the action a number of times and was shut down by good defense in the process. A key to his development will be learning, as Justise did over the course of last season, to take what is given to you and not to try to do the unfeasible. But he is a major talent and will shine when surrounded by others capable of scoring.
Another kid who really performed well was Luke Kennard. When we first saw him, we felt that he was a very capable ball handler. Last night, however, he really demonstrated that handle. Given his remarkably accurate jumper, he is going to be a major offensive weapon. Yes, he launched a few too many last night, but we expect that he will learn to play unselfishly with other scorers on the court. If not, we will be the first to call him out.
As our readers know, we have been high on Grayson since day one. He showed his tremendous athleticism in this game on both ends. The one thing that does concern us is his inability to nail outside jumpers during game time. We saw that last year, and again in both the open practice and this exhibition. He is a tremendous weapon off the drive, but needs to supplement that by being an outside threat as well.
The other returnee, Matt Jones, had a fairly standard performance. He was very tough defensively, but struggled to make shots on the other end. He is usually either red hot or ice cold, and last night he should have been wearing a jacket. He is also the weakest of all the Duke guards on the dribble.
And that brings us to Derryck Thornton. The kid continued to show us that he does have real skills. He seems to have a good handle and he has what appears to be the best jump shot of any Duke point in many moons. Nevertheless, his youth and inexperience showed big time last night. He clearly is not used to playing against the kind of defensive size and skills that he saw in the exhibition, and a number of turnovers resulted. It will be a matter of time, but we are convinced that he will become a fine player.
The bottom line is that the more we see, the more we are impressed with this team's potential. This should be a very interesting season.
The Open Practice. We are not going to try to draw too much from a Duke practice. We have cautioned against doing so from exhibitions and other early games, and a practice is even more prone to create illusions. However, the session did give us an opportunity to see Derryck Thornton for the first time. We certainly liked what we saw. He showed a nice handle and an ability to score off the drive and with a mid-range jumper. The big question mark, of course, is whether he will make good court decisions against tough opponents.
We also continue to be impressed by Luke Kennard. He is better with the ball than most think, and his jumper is money. He may not start, but he'll get a lot of minutes.
As our readers know, we love Grayson Allen. He is a phenomenal talent. In the practice, he was not shooting well at all until late, but his ability to drive and pick up fouls provides ample compensation. Last year he was buried on the bench. This year, he should by all rights lead the team in scoring.
Brandon Ingram is a major talent. The big drawback has been his lack of bulk. Thankfully, he has already put on at least twenty pounds. He is now actually visible in profile. We expect a big season from him once he learns to play with intelligence.
We also liked the looks of Matt Jones, who was stroking it nicely, and Brother Marshall, who actually looked somewhat more athletic. It is our expectation that Marshall will be among the starting five when the season opens.
One big question is Freshman Antonio Vrankovic. He was conspicuously missing in action during the practice. We can't help wondering if he will wind up as a redshirt as the season opens. We'll see soon enough.
Football Part II. Duke probably should have lost this game against BC. The Eagles was probably robbed of a TD in the first half when the official ruled the BC receiver did not maintain possession in the end zone. And in the second half, the Eagles missed a very makeable field goal that would have put them in front in the waning minutes. And once again, the Devils were absolutely miserable on offense in the second half.
What particularly bothers us, however, was the abysmal play calling by the Duke staff. This has been a continuing problem. Last week, Duke had a shot to build an imposing lead by converting a third and one. Instead of keeping it on the ground, the Duke staff let Sirk throw long. Against Tech, a run on that play would have been about 80% to make. But the staff instead opted for a 10% shot that failed and stopped a Duke drive. It was sheer idiocy.
The opposite was the case against BC. It was absolutely clear early on that Duke would not be able to run against the Eagles. So what did the Duke staff call on every crucial short down? A run up the middle! Duke had it first and goal at the BC one after the fumble recovery. We knew that the Duke staff would call nothing but runs up the center. Sure enough. Predictably, Duke did not score and set the stage for the BC comeback. BC was just not gracious enough to accept the proffered gift. Lucky Duke.
Football Season Opens. Yes, we know this is a basketball site, but every so often we can't resist tossing in a note or two about the football squad. The team opened last night with a solid 37-7 victory over Tulane on the road. Despite the one-sided score, there were warning signs from the Devils. The offensive line looked dreadful, rarely giving Thomas Sirk any time to set up and look for multiple receivers. And, as always, Duke had to blitz to get a lot of pressure on the opposing QB. The mark of a great program is getting strong linemen on both sides year in and year out, and this is where the Devils really need to make major strides.
We had been very vocal critics of Anthony Boone over the past couple of seasons and, for that matter, Coach Cutcliffe as well for not trying Sirk in his place. Against Tulane, we felt that Sirk reinforced the validity of our argument. Sure, he missed a few passes, but overall we thought he did an outstanding job in his first start. He showed himself to be far more accurate that Boone, not to mention being a better runner. We realize the season is very young and Tulane is hardly the toughest competition, but it was an encouraging performance. If he can get some protection from his line, we think he can perform very well as he learns to make smart decisions on the field.
Aside from Sirk, we were particularly impressed by Duke's kicking game. That is such an overlooked part of any team, but oh so important. Last night, Martin's leg alone was enough to ensure victory. Shaun Wilson also did a nice job running the ball for Duke, finding room by using a lot of nifty jogs. The problem is that the Duke backs are very small and will be challenged by better defensive squads.
One decision did have us scratching our heads, however ... the election to bring in Boehme and move Sirk to a wide-out spot on short and goal. That simply made no sense whatsoever. Indeed, it almost cost Duke a touchdown until Sirk was reinserted at QB on third down.
[POSTSCRIPT: Duke has now lost its first game, 19-10 to Northwestern. Duke actually dominated the first half, but three major mistakes allowed Stanford to stay within 4 at half. More mistakes, together with very conservative play calling, cost Duke the game in the second half. We can understand why Duke tried to subsist on flare passes in recent years given the dubious abilities of Mr. Boone, but apparently nothing has changed. Northwestern has an excellent defense, but Duke was not going to win unless it tried to throw downfield at times. Until late in the game when Duke was in desperation mode, the only downfield shots it was taking were very low percentage long lobs to its dwarf-like wide receivers. Cutcliffe is constantly reputed to be the finest quarterback coach in the country. One would never have known. Oh, well, the bloom is now off the rose. We can return our attention to basketball.]
Jayson Tatum Commits. It's official. Tatum to Duke. And that is wonderful news indeed.
We saw a great deal of Jayson at the U19 and were certainly impressed as our reports indicated. However, watching him play in the Peach Jam raised our respect an additional notch. While we are still inclined to believe that Harry Giles is the top prospect in next year's class, it is a close race between him and his pal Jayson. We think that both are substantially better prospects than Josh Jackson, the third ranked 2016 prospect by ESPN.
In the Peach Jam semis, Tatum's AAU squad faced up against Giles. Leading his team back from an enormous deficit, Tatum was clearly the star of the contest. After making his Duke commitment, he then came back later in the day to score 18 in the first half of the final game before he and his teammates ran out of steam and collapsed after the break. Nevertheless, it was quite a showing overall.
As we had previously written, Tatum is one of the smoothest players that we have seen in a long time. It is that very silkiness that disguises the athleticism he possesses. He has a wonderful handle for his height and uses it very effectively to drive to the hoop or stop short for a fall-away. He has great court vision and is an excellent passer. And he is simply lights out at the foul line. The only thing lacking at the moment is a consistent outside shot, though his form and stroke are very nice and his shot soft and high. This kid is just a terrific prospect. If he can convince his best friend, Mr. Giles, to join him in Durham, Duke will have a phenomenal class next year.
U19 Tourney. Play started on June 27 in the U19 (under 19 years of age) international tournament being held in the Middle East. Perhaps fittingly, The U.S. opened against Iran. It was a blessing that our President is not coaching the U.S. squad because the game would never have ended; as it was, it seemed interminable.
The only positive note for the U.S. was its defensive play. Oddly enough, the Americans were not forcing any turnovers in the first quarter of play. As a result, the game was amazingly tied at 15 at the first break. Then the barrage occurred -- the Iranians were politely giving up the ball virtually every time down the court. The final was a 30 point U.S. win.
The problem is that it should have been a 60 point spread. The U.S. demonstrated yet again its total reliance on quickness and its absence of fundamental skills. The team's shooting was just abominable. While our attention was briefly distracted a couple of times, we remember seeing only two outside shots hit by the U.S. the entire game. To complement the ineptitude, they missed dozens of attempts in close, and their foul shooting was abysmal. Same old, same old.
Duke has two key recruiting targets playing in this tourney: Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles. Tatum is a very tall and fluid wing player. We love his overall athleticism and handle. However, we bemoan his shot. He rarely hits from the outside and has a problem completing in traffic unless he has a dunk. He has got to work big time on that jumper. If he can develop any consistency with it, he has great upside.
The kid we really like is Giles. We had seen him in international competition in the past and been impressed, and our favorable view was only solidified by this game. Yes, he did miss his share of shots, but he has a soft touch and remarkable quickness getting the ball to the hoop.
Both Caleb Swanigan and Chinanu Okuaku are getting into the game before Giles. We have never been impressed by Swanigan ... he is simply a body on the court, rarely productive. Our impression of Okuaku today was similar. Giles, on the other hand, is a real weapon. He is easily the most talented big on this squad. He should be Duke's primary target this year.
Just caught the USA victory over Croatia, the second contest for the Americans. A 22 point win, but it was essentially an even game after halftime. Yes, the US made a few more outside shots in this one, but their shooting remains less than stellar.
The real bright spot for us was the play of Jayson Tatum. As mentioned above, we've had some concerns about his shot based on a few past observations. However, in this game, he nailed a few jumpers with his soft, high-arcing shot. He also made several beautiful driving shots. The kid really is silky smooth. A latter day Keith Wilkes with even more height.
Harry Giles failed to finish on a number of his attempts. Nevertheless, we continue to be impressed with his great offensive quickness and athleticism. He and Tatum have the best upside of any of the kids on this squad. Let's keep our fingers crossed for a Duke sweep.
Third game: USA by 42 over Egypt. Once again, it is clear that two of the youngest kids on the squad, Tatum and Giles, are the best prospects. Tatum missed several conversions, but they were tricky. He did make a few beautiful shots, however. He has size, handle, jumping and passing ability, and some nifty moves off the drive. The one thing you can't rely on is his outside jumper. The stoke and arc are good, but it is still too inconsistent.
Based on yet another showing, we reiterate that Harry Giles is the kid that Duke really must focus on like a laser. His moves in the paint are excellent and his quickness superb. He is a good free throw shooter, passes well, rebounds, and handles the ball very capably. He may not have the bulk of Okafor, but he is definitely a better athlete and offers a more complete package. The one thing you do not want to see him do is drift outside for a jumper. Yes, his shot is soft, but it rarely connects. If he plays to his strengths, he will be a major force at the next level.
EXODUS, PART II. It was always a given that Jahlil Okafor would have just a one-year dalliance with Duke University. However, at the outset of the past season, it certainly appeared that Jahlil would be travelling alone.
Everyone knew six months ago that Justise Winslow was an athletic kid. The problem was that his skills were very questionable. He had no consistent outside shot and his free throw shooting was iffy as well. He was not a good passer (and frankly still is not), not to mention the fact that he is rather undersized for the front line. All those factors militated in favor of at least a two - to - three year stay in college. That's not to say that he would not be looking for an opportunity to jump as soon as possible -- watching Justise and his demeanor on the court, we could not help feeling that he was less than an enthusiastic teammate. However, as we have described in prior posts, a remarkable transformation occurred over the final month or so of the season. Justise simply blossomed. Though he did not take a lot of threes, his shot became remarkably consistent, he was steady at the line, his board work was solid, and he was a force off the drive. His draft potential skyrocketed as a result, and his departure therefore became a virtual certainty.
That brings us to Tyus. When he signed with Duke, it was our assumption that he would probably be a four year player. After all, he was a small point, not really athletic or quick, and not a significant outside threat. The odd thing is that all those points remain valid. He has had some remarkable games when things counted most, but if you set those six or seven games aside, you are left with a smart and solid kid with good passing skills who does not make a lot of mistakes. He is a terrific free throw shooter, but his overall outside shooting percentage was a respectable but less than spectacular 38%. Yes, he is a great money player, but his effectiveness over the long course of an NBA season remains very questionable ... not to mention the fact that he will be guarded by even taller and quicker opponents. The fact that he is being viewed as a first round pick at this point is rather amazing, but it shows what kind of a bounce you get from a good title game performance.
A REMARKABLE SEASON. Despite its youth, Duke started the season with guns blazing. Nevertheless, after the departure of Semi and the exile of Rasheed, it was difficult to imagine that this team would have the depth to make a title run, much less carry home the trophy. At that point, the bench consisted of Matt Jones (who was admittedly playing at a higher level than last season), Marshall Plumlee, and Poor Grayson (who had little game experience). Mighty thin indeed. You also had a squad that continued to struggle defensively, and the offense seemed just too sporadic to survive a championship run.
Well, several fortuitous events occurred. First, Justise progressed beyond our wildest expectations over the final month. We discuss that a bit below. Second, Grayson, who seemed to have lost a lot of his confidence during his exile, stepped up and regained the swagger that we had seen preseason. Third, the Duke defense jelled at exactly the right time and proved to be decisive. And finally, the main roadblock in the tournament, Kentucky, was fortunately eliminated -- it was much like the 2010 championship where a relatively mediocre Duke team won because it luckily was able to avoid the big guns. Luck does play a big part in these events.
That is not to say that this championship was just the result of dumb luck. No, this is a gritty and capable squad ... better than the 2010 team and much more capable than the teams Duke has fielded of late. Coach K, whose recruiting decisions we have frequently questioned, far exceeded his normal efforts with this freshman group. We salute him for that, as well as his continuing genius for motivating his players to excel. We were also delightfully surprised by his willingness to experiment at length with the zone defense -- we did not see that coming from him, and it proved crucial in a couple of contests.
Now, it's not that winning erases all transgressions. We were very exercised by K's insistence on playing short squad ball throughout most of the season, even when Duke was sporting large leads. That stubborn decision not only led to Semi's transfer, but it also kept the kid we thought the most talented on the squad (Grayson) sitting on the bench. When we watched Grayson during preseason, our finely honed senses told us that this kid was a budding superstar. There was no excuse whatsoever to keep him languishing, as we believe his play against Wisconsin decisively demonstrated. Suffice it to say that we were not at all inclined to join in K's "Eight Is Enough" exclamation after the final game.
Blessedly, Duke was able to avoid injuries, so the loss of Semi was not critical and allowed eight to be "enough". However, when Jahlil (and perhaps also Justise) departs after this season, Semi's absence may have a real deleterious effect on next year's squad. Moreover, had not Rasheed been evicted, Grayson would probably have never had an opportunity to play, and may well have elected to transfer as well. That would have been calamitous. As for Rasheed, we do not know all the circumstances of his situation, but we do feel badly that he could not be a part of the final run. We often had qualms about his play, but we never felt he lacked effort, and he did have some big outings for the squad ... so whatever you may be doing at this time, Rasheed, we wish you Godspeed.
At this point, we don't know what decisions will be made about premature departures, and there is little value in speculating. Nor do we know if any kid that Duke is still recruiting for next year's class will opt to matriculate. When those decisions are final, we will add some thoughts about the prospects for next season. Even then, however, we must all bear in mind that informed guesses are not the same as crystal balls, and the same kind of fortuities (or lack thereof) that we saw this season may not reoccur. So let's enjoy this while it lasts.
McDONALD'S 2015. We always look forward to the annual McDonald's All-Star game because it gives us another chance to catch the incoming talent. This year was a bonus of sorts since ESPN televised a scrimmage as well on the day preceding the actual game.
Having watched the U17 games many months ago, we had already had the opportunity to see both Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard play a few times, albeit not for an entire game since they were sharing time with other top players. As we had noted rather pointedly, we were less than impressed by Jeter, and nothing we saw over the past couple of days has changed our opinion. Jeter is tall and a reasonably well-coordinated athlete, but he is still utterly ineffective when matched against major talent. He normally fails to convert on offense, and he almost never gets a board; rather, he is typically manhandled by his opponents underneath. It is really like watching a boy among men. Yes, there is potential with a lot of strength training, though it is hard to imagine him being effective next season in the ACC.
Kennard is more appealing. He has a decent handle, seems to pass well, and has an excellent soft jumper. Unfortunately, that jumper was not really successful in either the scrimmage or the game: the only long shot he converted was an uncalled-bank shot from the side (ie, a pure luck shot). He doesn't have the athleticism of a Grayson Allen, so it appears that he will primarily be a set-up shooter and not a slasher. Still, with his shooting skills, he could be a formidable weapon at times.
Of course, Duke is still talking to a couple of undecided players from the game. One is Caleb Swanigan, a solidly-built low post guy whom we had also watched previously. While Swanigan can hold his own better than Jeter underneath, his overall play has not impressed us to date. And then there is Brandon Ingram, a tall and painfully thin three guy. Ingram does handle the ball well for his size and has pretty good athleticism, but he is so painfully thin that he is virtually invisible when not facing the viewer directly. He also put on one of the most truly selfish performances we have ever seen in the first half of the McDonald's contest.
All in all, we remain quite concerned about Duke's front court next season. We'll have more to say when the dust clears after the season.
THE WINSLOW BOY. We have to admit that we had some serious reservations about Justise coming into the season. It's not that we had ever had a chance to see him in high school; rather, our impressions were based on scuttlebutt, his play in the McD game, and his pre-season efforts. We felt that he had a lot of nice athleticism, but we doubted his skills, and we were concerned that he was perhaps a bit undersized.
The first games of the season did little to disabuse us of our serious doubts. His play was incredibly sloppy and unproductive. The athleticism was there, but that was all.. However, as the season progressed, we saw a gradual growth ... stuttering at times, but very real. Yet it was not until the NCAA tourney commenced that the phoenix truly rose from the ashes.
For those who follow Duke very closely and remember the career of Bobby Hurley, it was much the same. It was not until the start of the tournament in his sophomore year that the light really came on for Hurley, and he morphed from just a pretty good player into a star. It looks as if Justise has him beat by a year.
What is truly amazing is not just that Winslow is playing much smarter -- one would hope that to be the case for a freshman with a season virtually under his belt. No, it is also that his skills have almost magically been honed. He has turned into a remarkably capable outside shooter, and his foul shooting, shaky at the outset, has now become very reliable. Add to that the kind of effort he has been providing on the boards and you get something very special.
We write this as Duke is preparing to go to the Final Four. Whether Justise can maintain the same level of play is unknown, and we pray that this note is not the functional equivalent of a Sports Illustrated cover piece. Still, we believe that these words of praise are called for. Justise has grown dramatically over the course of a few short months. Let's hope we get to watch some continued growth in a Duke uniform next season.
WATCHING PAINT DRY. We never thought it would come to this, but .... we can no longer stand to watch NCAA tournament games. Or perhaps we should say that we can no longer stand to watch these games LIVE. College basketball games have become interminable enough during the regular season with the inordinate number of time-outs. The upshot is that games which, on average, lasted about an hour forty a half century ago now routinely run upwards of two hours. But things get even worse during the Tournament. Not only do we get all those stoppages, but their duration also increases. The full timeouts run around five minutes. It is truly unconscionable and quite intolerable for us.
The point was very painfully brought home to your intrepid reporters at the doubleheader in Charlotte on Sunday. The first contest, Virginia against Michigan State, ran almost two and one half hours. It was absolutely mind numbing. There was no flow to the action whatsoever. Not only did we decide there and then that we would never pay to attend another such event, but we also promised ourselves that if at all possible, we would henceforth not watch another contest on the tube except on tape delay where we would be able to fast forward through the endless commercials.
Having been around the game for a long time, we so lament its marked deterioration. Yes, the players are bigger and probably even more athletic on average than they were many moons ago. But in the grand scheme of things, that matters little. What is really important is the drama and intensity of the game itself. By destroying the pace of the game, television and its NCAA lackeys have substantially drained basketball of that sustained intensity. For those who truly love the game, college basketball of yore was infinitely more enjoyable than it has now become. And that is sad indeed.
IS JAHLIL CAUCASIAN? Seriously, folks, has Jahlil won an opening tip all year? The kid really cannot elevate, though he makes up for it on the court with bulk and reach. K would be better off letting Justise handle the opening jump, but no doubt that would be embarrassing to Jahlil. Given the alternating possession rule, it probably doesn't matter all that much anyway. Of course, if you think this is bad, wait until Sean Obi suits up next year ....
MONEY. We had hoped that Tyus Jones would be a good player for the Devils this year. We never dreamed that he would turn out to be this good. Even more amazing has been the transformation since early January. Yes, Jones had a remarkable performance against Wisconsin, but immediately thereafter he went into an extended funk. He couldn't buy a basket for a while. That now seems like a lifetime ago.
Let's be honest. The kid is small and does not possess great quickness or special physical attributes. What he does possess is a truly extraordinary mental toughness that we have not seen in a Duke player in ages. When a big play needs to be made, he is the one that you want to see taking the drive or the outside jumper. As we have also pointed out in our game reports, he is also the player who seems to get big rebounds for the team. The norm for Duke has been highly touted players who often fall down when they need to carry the team in a crucial game; thankfully, Tyus has broken that mold.
So, should we expect that Tyus will never falter? Of course not, but we have seen enough to become comfortable that such will be the aberration rather than the norm. We therefore offer to Tyus something far more extraordinary than just a retired jersey in Cameron ... we offer him our unadulterated praise. In fact, he will no longer be known simply as Tyus Jones. How pedestrian. No, he will henceforth be "M" ... or "Money."
Rasheed Sulaimon, R.I.P. And then there were eight. Well, at least we can't blame this on yet another transfer due to insufficient playing time. But we can certainly lay much of the blame for where Duke now finds itself on the decisions by El Greco!
Who among you does not believe that Duke would have been better off against Notre Dame if it had Semi Ojeleye to call upon to help pick up the front court slack, particularly in view of the facts that Amile has not been rebounding effectively and is such a poor shooter that defenses drop off him by ten feet? After his departure, Duke was down to nine scholarship players and had a terribly thin front court. Fortunately, there seemed to be pretty good back court depth ... so much in fact that K allowed Poor Grayson to languish on the bench.
That now has all changed. With Rasheed's departure, Duke now has but one real outside shooting threat -- Quinn Cook, and even he is very erratic. Yes, Matt may occasionally hit, as may Tyus and Justise, but anyone who considers them really good shooters is living in a fantasy world. And Grayson, as we have noted repeatedly, seems but a shadow of the player we saw at the beginning of the season. We are not sure that he can recover his confidence and step up this season. We are not even sure how much of an opportunity K will give him to do so.
Now that K has finally embraced, to some extent, the use of a zone defense, we are once again hearing that ridiculous chorus about how adaptive he is. No, the fact is that he should have looked to the zone years ago. Will he come to realize that his practice of short-squading his players is also deleterious? Maybe, but we certainly won't hold our breath.
Grayson Allen, R.I.P. And on and on it goes. The trail of bodies left by El Greco! and his penchant for stranding kids on the bench and/or in the doghouse. The result has been a string of transfers over the years. In some cases, it was of little significance -- eg, Jamal Boykin. But when a more talented kid like Semi Ojeleye is driven away and Duke's front line is already thin, one must voice strong objection.
We have raved from day one about the manifest talents of Grayson Allen. He has marvelous quickness and athleticism, as well as skills. He shoots well from outside and can drive the basket and score very effectively, not to mention sink free throws when fouled on those drives. How do we know all this? Well, by watching his preseason play very carefully. Once the season began, he has effectively been relegated to the pine with no real opportunity to show his abilities ... and that despite Duke often having large leads that they were not about to relinquish.