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. Ah, the fancies of the young ... and all it takes is Miami to dash them. The Hurricanes were aptly named, blowing away all pretense of Duke being a top echelon squad. We had been impressed by the pocket coverage afforded Daniel Jones in the Northwestern contest, but it became all too apparent thereafter that it was just a matter of the Northwestern defensive line being particularly slow. The Duke offensive line against the Canes once again spectacularly underachieved. The other main issue is with the Duke receiving corps -- why is every wide receiver recruited by Cutcliffe a veritable Munchkin? It is absolutely insane. They have absolutely no chance to go over a defensive back for a reception ... no, the only opportunity on a fly route is for them to gain a few steps, something we rarely see.
Yes, Cutcliffe has elevated the stature of Duke football, albeit from utter fecklessness to mediocrity.
The 2017/2018 Team. [Note: This was written prior to the commitment of Marvin Bagley III] Since it's looking like Mr. Bamba will be heading to other pastures, we are assuming that we now have next year's roster. The good news is that the kid Duke needed most is on board -- viz., Trevon Duval. Grayson, though an excellent passer, was a more effective player in the shooting guard slot, and we hope that having a true point in the backcourt with him will free him up to becoming the scorer he was two seasons ago. Duval and Allen should be a potent twosome. While we were not exactly overwhelmed by what we have seen of Gary Trent, the backcourt is not our concern at this stage.
As usual for Duke, the frontcourt is more problematic. The last-minute signing of Jordan Tucker was interesting. We have not watched him play, but the various mix tapes make him appear to be a good outside marksman ... but the operative word must always be "appear" when one is just relying on highlight tapes. Actually, the most interesting thing about those tapes is that despite Tucker playing the small forward shot, there is not one jam shown by him. Not one. Nada. When have you ever seen a tape like that without one? It certainly makes us question his athleticism, not to mention his ability to grab some boards. But again, we will have to wait to see.
In any event, we were far from inconsolable when Kevin Knox spurned Duke. Yes, the kid is athletic, but he never showed us real skills. That, plus the fact that he will be itching to jump to the pros as quickly as possible, did not endear him to us. Javin DeLaurier has similar talents, and if the Duke coaching staff can somehow keep his feet on the floor on defense, he could easily substitute for Mr. Knox. But with the Duke staff, that's a big "if."
As our readers know, we were high on Marques Bolden before the season, and disappointed in the way he was handled by K. By all rights, the center slot should be his to run with, and it is imperative that he get a lot of playing time and leeway to build his confidence. Unless he is crushed by K, he could turn into an excellent player. Having Vrank to provide back-up and depth will be a godsend.
Wendell Carter will almost certainly start at the power forward slot, and should be solid for Duke if he develops the muscle to compete at the ACC level. He has the athletic ability, so the only question is whether he has the bulk. Certainly, Harry Giles didn't last season, so his athletic talent was largely for naught.
As for the others, we continue to be intrigued by Jack white. He did not get enough PT last season, and we suspect the same will be true this year. Justin Robinson aside, we have not seen the others play, so we will have to withhold all judgement. But with K's track record on under-the-radar kids, our expectations will be low.
Should be interesting. Not nearly as impressive on paper as last year's squad, but last year's squad was all paper and no play. Maybe it will be different this season.
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.
The natural and almost inevitable result of being demoted is to make a kid overly conscious on the court about making a mistake. And yet it is just that abiding concern that causes the player to play so timidly that he actually makes more mistakes. It is a nightmarish revolving door, one in which Grayson is sadly trapped. This Grayson Allen, the kid pulled after about thirty seconds of play against Wake Forest, bears no resemblance to the cocky and confident kid that we saw early this year. It is a tragedy caused solely by K.
As long-time observers, we know only too well that once in the K doghouse, escape is virtually impossible. Thus, any recruit matriculating at Duke needs to make an immediate evaluation based on his PT from the start. It truly pains us to say this, but it probably behooved Poor Grayson to announce a transfer after the first semester so he could play somewhere else in the latter part of next year. We think the kid has a bright future. It just appears that it will not be at Duke University.
Another Departure. Frankly, we're surprised it took this long for Semi to bail. We expected it to occur after last season.
Followers of this site know that we had been all over K last season to give Semi additional PT. Yes, we know the kid does not have a great handle, but he has size, strength, leaping ability, and a lovely soft shooting touch. Ironically, he shot better in his limited time last year than he has thus far this season. But the point is that Semi could have played some valuable minutes inside for this team. He is certainly much more skilled than Marshall, and using him as a fill-in center would have been worth a good look. But that would have been too much to expect from El Greco! Now, Duke will be even thinner in front court depth than it already was.
Readers who scroll down will note a slightly tongue-in-cheek piece we did a long time ago about the benefits of playing basketball at Duke. Well, there is also a major risk as well. The simple fact is that K is constitutionally incapable of going with anything more than a 7 to 8 man rotation, regardless of talent level. If you're not in that magical group, you will waste away on the pine. The latest victim is poor Grayson, a phenomenally talented kid who is getting virtually no PT. It is a wonder he has not also elected to depart. We're sure he has had many second thoughts about his decision to come to Durham. It truly is a shame, not only because of his talent level, but also because of his manifest enthusiasm in wearing the Duke uniform.
Anyway, we do wish Semi great success elsewhere. We hope to see him blossom in another uniform.
Anthony Boone Redux. If you wish to scroll down a bit, you will come across a rather scathing note that we posted a few weeks back about Duke's quarterback play. After today's pathetic loss to Virginia Tech -- a game that Duke should have won going away -- it is appropriate that we double down.
We said it before and we will say it again. Duke has been winning the past two seasons largely despite, rather than because of, the play of Anthony Boone. In case that failed to penetrate, let us repeat that with even more emphasis. DUKE HAS BEEN WINNING DESPITE, RATHER THAN BECAUSE OF, THE PLAY OF ITS QUARTERBACK.
If there was any doubt about the foregoing proposition, there should be none at all following this debacle. The fact is that the vast majority of Boone's down-field passes are inaccurate ... and have been on a weekly basis. Yes, some of those throws may still have been catchable, though thrown behind the receiver or higher than desirable. An extraordinary percentage, however, have absolutely no chance whatsoever. (And that doesn't even take into account the extraordinary number of batted balls and near picks.) Recognizing that failing at game's end when Duke was forced to throw, Virginia Tech was able to bring everyone up to the line and dare Boone to float a completion behind them. Of course, that was never to be.
We truly don't recall a winning team having a quarterback this inept as a marksman. True, Boone will pick up some first downs on the ground, but then we know that Thomas Sirk can do the same. And it is simply inconceivable to us that Sirk could be as dreadful a passer. So why does Cutcliffe remain with Boone? Probably just a kind of stubborn inertia -- i.e., "I made my decision and we have been winning with him in the backfield, so let's not change anything." Well, that inertia has just bitten our dear Mr. Cutcliffe on the rear end. Big time.
As a further note, we were also beside ourselves about Duke's offensive play calling down the stretch. When the team went up 16 to 10, they also went into a virtual "prevent offense," consisting of slow hand-off runs up the middle that were virtually guaranteed to gain nothing. The option runs, which were creating havoc with Tech's defense early on, inexplicably disappeared from Duke's playbook after the half. Even the ESPN analysts managed to pick up on that ... which means it should have been apparent to a third grader.
Anthony Boone is who he is. He is no doubt playing to the best of his ability. The blame therefore needs to rest solidly on the Duke coaching staff for their decisions on whom to play and what to call. Duke football has come a long way under Coach Cutcliffe, but it should nevertheless have come even a bit farther.
The Keys. Heading into the start of exhibition play, we have identified four keys to Duke's success this season:
(1) Keeping Jahlil healthy
(2) Keeping Jahlil out of foul trouble
(3) Getting the ball inside to Jahlil
(4) Getting Jahlil to convert at the line
OK, perhaps, this is a bit of hyperbole ... but not by much. This team will largely go as far as Mr. Okafor can carry them. However, since he will be routinely doubled, we hope that the supporting cast will be able to nail open jumpers with regularity. That's why the use of a three guard offense with Rasheed, Grayson, and either Quinn or Tyus on the court looks so appealing. Add Amile for rebounding support and some inside scoring and you have a most intriguing lineup.
The Open Practice. In what will almost certainly become an annual event, Duke fans were treated yesterday to an open practice. It was interesting to see how Duke practice sessions have morphed over the years from largely drill-oriented to largely game situation based. As such, the event was every bit as intriguing as the Blue/White scrimmage ... indeed, perhaps time even better spent since all the extraneous nonsense was dispensed with.
In addition to the game enactments, we did like the fact that the bigs were required to try to score while being hacked by opponents. This is something that occurs constantly in regular games, so it is vital that bigs be able to fight productively through contact. Unfortunately, it is not something that Duke's front line has been able to do proficiently at all .... though it appears that Mr. Okafor may change that very quickly. Yes, it's very early to jump to conclusions, but we have never seen a center any better at absorbing contact and still scoring than this kid. We are absolutely amazed at what we are witnessing.
Aside from Okafor, who was as brilliant as he appeared in the Blue/White, we were also impressed generally by the talent level of the squad. This has to be the most athletic Duke squad that we have ever seen. We love Grayson Allen's game in particular. This kid can do it all -- dribble, jump, shoot, and drive, all with remarkable quickness and athleticism. In the unlikely event he stays four years, we would not be surprised to see his jersey in the rafters. Tyus Jones also continues to impress with his maturity on the court -- like both Jahlil and Grayson, he looks much more like an upperclassman. Justise Winslow did not do a lot to distinguish himself in the practice, but neither did he show badly in any way.
As for the returnees, Rasheed continues to look really strong. Quinn, who has been wildly erratic on offense, was shooting well. We pray that's a harbinger. Amile did not really score in the scrimmages, but did pull down boards ... and that will be his key role anyway. Matt Jones, who had just a horrible season on offense, did hit a few from the outside. However, he continues to struggle big time at the line with that bizarre flinging release of his. The Duke staff should have started reconstructing his form a long time ago. Indeed, we saw too many foul shots being missed overall yesterday. But we were delighted to see that each player who missed a foul try had to make one in front of all his comrades at the close of practice.
While he did not take part in the game scrimmages, we did get a chance to watch Sean Obi for the first time. He definitely has some bulk, though our fears about his jumping ability (or lack thereof) were certainly confirmed. He is a kid who will have to rely on positioning, blocking out, and that body mass to be effective. We see him as a rebounding back-up rather than a starting center.
In all, it was a good showing for the team, both offensively and defensively. This group should be a lot of fun to watch.
Blue/White 2014. One always has to be very careful about drawing conclusions from this game or any other exhibition contest. Nevertheless, we could not help but be a bit giddy about some of the performances we saw. The freshman in particular acquitted themselves very well, most notably Mr. Okafor.
We thought that Okafor would be effective inside on offense based on the many times we watched him in high school. However, his performance in this exhibition was even several notches above what he has shown in the past. He was just magnificent on the offensive end, putting up everything with a wonderfully soft and accurate touch. He was even nailing jumpers facing the basket, including a few banks. John Wooden would have been very proud. Indeed, Okafor was so on fire that we can't imagine him maintaining anything like that level of accuracy once the season starts. Still, he showed us a great deal and we are most pleased.
Winslow was also very effective. He is quite athletic and can contribute in a number of areas. The one downside is that his shot does not fall as often as one would like. But he takes it to the hoop very effectively. We remain concerned about his ability to convert on the line since he will be there a lot -- the officials were not calling a lot in the exhibition, so we were not able to see if his charity shot has improved at all.
We love Mr. Allen's game. He showed tremendous reflexes on a couple of errant passes, and his ball handling was outstanding. He only hit one of his jumpers, but we do like his shot. He can become an outstanding player.
We thought that Tyus Jones had a rock solid outing. He looked vary comfortable with the ball and handled the pressure well. He even nailed a three and made another score in close. We don't remember a missed shot. While Quinn did some nice things as well, we think that Tyus was even more consistent.
As for the returnees, Rasheed was clearly the star. If he can maintain at this level, he should have a big season. He was hitting from the outside, as well as driving very effectively. He victimized Winslow a couple of times, blowing by him for scores. Rasheed has had a real problem in the past forcing things, but his play this evening was definitely at a higher level. Nice to see.
Amile was his usual low-profile but effective self. With Okafor in the lineup, he will get time at the four, and we expect to see him grab a lot of weak side boards. We've always liked Amile, and he should flourish playing a more natural position.
Brother Marshall had one nice rebound score, but otherwise struggled big time trying to guard Jahlil. The difference between their offensive games is staggering ... Marshall tried some moves, but launched only bricks inside. When he subs for Jahlil against good competition, the talent drop-off will be immense.
We were pleased to see Matt Jones hit two outside jumpers in the contest. We only remember him doing that once or twice last season. While we loved his D, his offense was simply dreadful. Perhaps a summer of work will yield fruit this year. We'll see.
And then there's Semi. Our readers know that we think he got shorted last season. The kid is just an outstanding shot, and he showed it again this evening. He swished a three as well as his only two free throws. We would love to see him get more PT, though we won't hold our collective breaths.
In all, we really liked what we saw on the court. This team is really athletic and, for the first time in what seems an eternity, it has a dominant inside player. We can't wait to see these kids play for real.
Duke Football. We are so pleased that the phrase "Duke Football" is no longer an oxymoron. Cutcliffe has done a remarkable job turning this program around more quickly that we had imagined possible. The latest step forward was the home victory yesterday against Virginia, putting the Devils at the top of the Conference heap. Just imagine what this team could do with a top flight quarterback.
The sad truth is that Duke has been winning the past two years largely despite, rather than because of, the efforts of Anthony Boone. Last year's landmark win over Virginia Tech was a perfect case in point. Boone had one of the worst outings at the QB position that we have ever seen ... he had no business remaining in the game after the break, and we said so at the time. Yet the Devils managed to pull it out. And so it has gone.
If Duke were strong at QB, we believe that they would have won the Miami game this year. They would also have rather handily defeated Virginia yesterday... True, Boone completed a good number of passes. But that's only because most of those were simple flares behind the line of scrimmage. Completing a downfield pass is very problematical ... not only is Boone often inaccurate, he can be wildly inaccurate. It is painful and very frustrating to see him miss receivers by five yards.
A positive about Boone is his ability to pick up yards on the ground from time to time. It is also conceivable that he may suddenly become a pinpoint passer, even in big games. We truly hope so, but nothing we have seen gives us comfort.
The great irony is that Cutcliffe is known particularly for his development of quarterbacks. We are not privy to practice play and have not had an opportunity to see much of Sirk, but it is a bit mystifying to us that this is the best Duke has. With a better than average QB, Duke would be a top 25 team; as it is, we have to believe that they fall a bit short.
OK Anthony, throw down the gauntlet and make us eat these words .....
The U17 Championships. We caught the final three USA team games in the U17 (under 17) tournament in Dubai. It was our first opportunity to see a number of Duke recruiting targets: Tyus Battle, Henry Ellenson, Diamond Stone, Harry Giles, Ivan Rabb, and Jayson Tatum.
We were actually much more impressed by this squad than the U18 team that we watched earlier this year. While they were certainly a bit rough around the edges at times, these kids were just more talented than their older comrades. Unfortunately, the best of the lot is not a kid with a Duke offer -- Malik Newman. Despite a cold showing in the second half of the final game against Australia, Newman was just sensational over all. He can easily play the point or the 2, has a great handle, can drive beautifully, and is deadly from the outside. He is a phenom, and will star wherever he goes. We assume that he is not being recruited by Duke because of a lack of interest on his part; if not, one would have to question the sanity of the Duke staff.
Each of the Duke recruits had their moments. Diamond Stone, a 4/5 who joined Newman on the all-tourney team, is a load near the basket. He has a big body, is an effective shot blocker, and has good hands with a soft shooting touch. Alas, that soft touch failed to yield positive results as his shots almost invariably failed to drop. Still, we would love to see this kid in a Duke uniform.
Ellenson, also a 4/5, is an interesting prospect. While not quite as thick as Stone, he is still very solid physically. He also has good hands and handles the ball well for a kid of his size. He was absolutely brilliant in the quarterfinal game, scoring 12 consecutive points at one stretch by going strong to the basket. His final two games, however, were much less productive. Ellenson's main drawback is his lack of a shooting touch. Even so, we like his athleticism and toughness.
Harry Giles is another 4/5. We were not overwhelmed by his performance in the first game, but the more we saw of him the more we liked. While a lot thinner than Stone or Ellenson, Giles was nevertheless quite effective off the glass. He also showed a nice, soft shooting touch within 15 feet. He can also handle the ball well for his position. He has had some knee issues, so his durability may be in question. But we do like this kid.
The final power forward being recruited by the Devils is Ivan Rabb. Apparently, Rabb is coming off an ankle injury, though he did not show any outward signs during the tourney. He was in the final rotation and did not see as much PT as the others. Indeed, he did not offer much to praise until the final game when he opened our eyes with some lovely offensive moves around the basket. He seems to be a very fluid athlete, but (perhaps due to a lingering injury) was not a dominant force underneath. We look forward to seeing more of him in the future because we sense some major potential.
Jayson Tatum is a 3 with good size, some nice athleticism and a decent shot. He still needs to fill out physically and must learn to play smarter, often forcing shots. He also needs to finish in a crowd. He missed countless attempts in close, including two stuffs on a single possession. But he's young, and as he fills out and gets stronger, we would expect those deficiencies to become less pronounced.
That leaves us with Tyus Batlle. Like Rabb, he struggled for playing time. Battle played effectively in the semifinal game, but was otherwise rather invisible. He showed that he can nail a key jumper from time to time, but really did not demonstrate much else. He certainly did not wow with his ball handling skills or his ability to penetrate. That's not to say we were turned off, but it is difficult to predict just how much his game will grow with additional maturity.
The Other Jeter. Well, well, well. Usually we celebrate a big name basketball signing, but in this case we will leave the champagne in the bottle for a while. We had a chance to watch Mr. Jeter play three games in the recent U-18 tourney, and let's just say we were greatly underwhelmed. He was probably the weakest link on the US squad, and he really did not contribute positively. Read our comments on the tournament for a bit more detail.
Based on what we saw, it is hard for us to imaging Mr. Jeter being an effective front court ACC player any time soon. To the extent this ties up a scholarship and/or induces another prospect to cast his fortunes elsewhere, we believe that this will not be a felicitous event. We just hope that we live to eat our words.
The U-18 Tournament. The FIBA international U-18 tourney has just concluded in Colorado Springs, and the US mowed through all of its opponents to win each contest going away. Of the 12 players on the US roster, three are headed to Duke (Jones, Winslow and Kennard), and another has been offered by Duke (Jeter).
Despite the victory margins, we were underwhelmed by the US performance. Their shooting was abominable and they missed a plethora of charity shots as well. They also committed far too many turnovers with selfish play. It really was a matter of terribly weak competition rather than stellar basketball. Nevertheless, we write not to critique the US team, but rather to offer observations about the Duke recruits.
We have now seen Tyus Jones on quite a number of occasions and that has given us an excellent sense of his abilities. As everyone knows, he is a consummate point who is always looking for an assist. Unfortunately, he does so to the point of being a bit too unselfish for the good of his team. On many occasions you will see him pass up an open shot off the drive to dish out to the perimeter. Despite his small stature, Jones can make those driving floaters, and he needs to take them -- they are percentage plays, particularly since Jones is also very steady at the foul line.
Jones has excellent court vision and makes some lovely passes. Alas, we also saw him make a number of very lazy passes in this tourney that led to turnovers. We also saw him make a few turnovers off the dribble. While Jones is a capable ball handler, we have never thought that he has a great handle. He is not someone who can drive through a double effectively. He always needs to play smart and within himself. Given his physical limitations, he will be a good FOUR YEAR player for the Devils.
Justice Winslow is a gifted athlete who will be very effective on the defensive end. The bad news is that his offensive skills leave a lot to be desired. He does not have a good shooting touch, and often struggles at the line as well. He can get away with it against weak competition as in the U-18, but will be challenged offensively in the ACC. Think of Matt Jones, who really sparkled on the defensive end for Duke last season, but barely got playing time because of his nonexistent shot. It may be more of the same with Winslow.
This was our first opportunity to see Luke Kennard in action, and we are now big fans. Like Jones, Kennard is perhaps too unselfish, and that failing was compounded by the fact that his teammates often failed to look for him. Nevertheless, he did a lot of very good things on the court.
Luke is just a very sound player. He has good height for a two guard and has a nice handle. He is very smart, doesn't make mistakes, and always seems to be in the right position. That was evidenced in the quarterfinal game when he led the squad in rebounding just by virtue of going to the basket aggressively for missed shots. Kennard also has a beautifully soft outside shooting touch, and he will be sinking treys regularly for the Devils. While he may not be spectacularly athletic, we think he has tremendous upside. We can't wait to see him in a Duke uniform.
We have in the past questioned K's judgment of high school talent, and Chase Jeter is another case in point. To state it as diplomatically as possible, the kid is terribly challenged at both ends of the court. He has no shooting touch, either from the field or at the line, and often fumbles passes. His slight frame also renders him a defensive liability and an ineffective rebounder. His playing time for the U-18 squad was rather limited, and appropriately so.
Our readers may remember that we also thought that Tony Parker was terribly overrated, and we were not at all disappointed that he spurned Duke for UCLA. We would not regret a similar decision by Mr. Jeter.
Jordan Brand. We suffered through the final high school all-star game, a truly disgusting display of utter selfishness. If you enjoy watching a kid try to dribble the ball up court through multiple defenders and attempt to score without even contemplating a pass, then you would have adored this monstrosity.
As in the McDonald's game, all four Duke recruits were present. Both Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor started for the East. Both reinforced our prior opinions. Tyus is a remarkable passer with an ability to create and score off the drive when needed. His outside shot is more iffy, as is his defense.
Jahlil, the recipient of the most effusive adulation from commentators, is very capable in the lane on the offensive end. He does have excellent footwork and agility, and his hands are soft. Unfortunately, the other half of his game is something else again. He rarely gets a defensive rebound and his effort in that regard can only be described as virtually nonexistent (a perfect match for the Duke program). He also rarely blocks shots and is simply not much of a defensive presence at all. As such, Jahlil does not look as if he will deliver all that Duke needs in the lane. One can always hope that things will change at the next level, but our experience tells us not to count on it.
Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen both came off the bench. Winslow actually made a couple of jumpers, but was largely invisible otherwise on the court. Allen started terribly, with three rather quick turnovers. He then settled down and played fairly well, but was not a dominant player by any means. Still, we really like his potential and expect him to have some very good games over the course of a long Duke career.
All four kids bring a lot to the table for Duke next year. We just don't think it will be quite enough.
Bye-Bye. It was pretty clear from day one that Jabari would be a single season guy. Nevertheless, he milked it over the past couple of weeks before making the inevitable announcement. Rodney Hood quickly followed suit. In the space of a day, Duke lost its two best scoring options.
While both players are quite talented, we must also acknowledge their limitations. Rodney can be very effective on the offensive end, particularly when his trey is dropping. However, he is next to worthless on the glass. He is a 6'-8" kid who plays about 6'-6". Nevertheless, we would expect him to have a decent NBA career so long as he can stay out of the offensive tank.
Jabari is also a mixed bag. He started the season on fire, but soon cooled considerably. From mid-season on, he had trouble making any shot that was not within a foot of the hoop. His final three point shooting stat was a dismal .358. What's more, he would rarely finish plays with contact, and his ability to make athletic shots in the lane was rather limited -- does anyone, for example, remember him making a reverse lay-up all year? Virtually all of those attempts hit the bottom of the rim or missed the hoop entirely. What's more, he was certainly not a defensive stopper inside. Yes, he led the team in scoring, but took 500 shots to do so (almost one quarter of the team's total). Jabari had some quite impressive outings, but we think it ridiculous that he was named a First Team All-American.
The problem is, what remains for the Devils is less than overwhelming. Rasheed is, overall, the most promising of the lot, but his game has been wildly inconsistent. We suspect that Semi has a lot of upside, but K has resolutely refused to give him any real opportunity to shine; indeed, we are frankly shocked that he has not announced a decision to transfer.
There is some real talent coming in, although even there we have noted some limitations. We would love to be as sanguine as many analysts have been to date about Duke next season, but at this point we can't really expect more than a good squad that is unlikely to challenge for a national title. More later.
Nike Hoops Summit. The USA against the World ... well, except for the fact that the World team consisted mostly of US college matriculants. This was a great game if you love missed shots. But at least there was a lot more passing and defense than you see in the McDonald's exhibition.
On display were three Duke recruits: Okafor, Jones, and Winslow. Winslow actually had a good overall game. He showed his handle and his defensive prowess. However, his one great flaw continued to shine -- his shooting touch, or lack thereof. Yes, he made a long desperation three as the clock was running out on the first half. But that was just an answered prayer. Every other jumper was off the mark. He was very active around the basket, but had a number of shots blocked. He is pretty clearly going to be a good defensive player for Duke, but whether he will be a significant contributor on the other end remains questionable.
For most of the contest, Jones was utterly unimpressive. However, at crunch time, he decided to take over. He looked to score and did so on several drives. That is exactly what we had been waiting to see and it certainly warmed our little hearts. Jones may not be the quickest kid on the court, but he will be bringing a lot to the table for the Devils.
That brings us to Okafor. Despite all the hype, we still have some reservations. He will be a major improvement over the other Duke options, and he will provide some much-needed scoring in the post. Nevertheless, he continues to show an inability to convert on his shots with contact. More importantly, he does not rebound with any vigor, nor has he shown himself to be a major defensive presence. We are therefore not as wildly enthusiastic as he ranking would suggest. We hope that this is one case where the results actually exceed our expectations.
More after the Jordan Brand game.
McDonald's Game. We always look forward to this contest because it gives us an opportunity to scout commits, some of whom we may never have seen before. This year the game featured all four of Duke's signees.
We have watched Okafor on a number of prior occasions. While not the most athletic kid, we are delighted by his sheer bulk: 270 pounds and at least 6'10" in height (they are now listing him at 7 feet, but that is almost certainly an exaggeration). We absolutely love the fact that he recognizes his place is down low near the basket -- spare us, O Lord, from centers who feel the need to venture to the wings to try threes. We also like his footwork around the basket and his willingness to dish out body contact. Our concerns, however, are his normal inability to finish shots with contact and his modest leaping ability. Duke desperately needs someone who can dominate the boards and block shots. Whether Okafor can provide this kind of defensive presence remains to be seen.
We had seen Tyus Jones on just one prior occasion. We were impressed then and continue to be so. He is the consummate point guard, a truly brilliant passer with a very good handle. While he rarely looks to score, he does have the ability to sink shots when needed, an excellent extra bonus. He also has a real height advantage over Quinn. We would be most surprised if he is not starting from day one.
The game provided us our first glimpse of the other two kids. Grayson Allen is particularly intriguing. He moves well with the ball, is an excellent leaper, and appears to be a scorer rather than just a mere shooter -- we were impressed by one 10 foot shot off the side of the lane after a nifty move. While reputed to be a good long range shot as well, he did not show us that side of his game at all. We must therefore reserve judgment entirely on his jump shot since we never take reports at face value. Remember that Matt Jones was also reputed to be an excellent shot.
Justise Winslow was the final signee on display. We are not sure what his impact will be at this point. He is truly a "tweener" -- a small forward who is too small to be a force on the boards and who may not have the shooting ability to score from the outside. Kids like that often struggle when they get to the next level. Justise did show the ability to drive to the hoop, but those drives will all too often result in blocked shots when facing tough opposition. The fact that he missed three out of four foul shots in this game leaves us rather concerned about his stroke. Given the limited minutes he was on display, we can draw no firm conclusions, but he gave no indication that he will be a dominant player.
The Tourney Begins Again. As El Greco! has acknowledged in the past, the NCAA tourney is the yardstick by which his team is ultimately to be measured. Of late, that yardstick has not been kind to Duke.
Perhaps this year will be different. Perhaps Adam Sandler will do Hamlet. We won't count on either. Yes, on a given night, this Duke squad is capable of beating anyone. Unfortunately, they are even more capable of losing to anyone on a given night. And the tourney requires six given nights. We hate those odds.
This team has a number of weaknesses that are likely to prove crushing. First, they are all too prone to go into the offensive tank en masse for long stretches. Second, they have absolutely no interior defense with no true center to reject shots. The result is that everyone drives on them, and Duke does not ever go to a zone to inhibit those drives. Finally, the team does a terrible job in protecting the defensive glass.
We would love to see another miracle occur a la 2010. But we would not waste any NCAA pool entry fees betting on it.
A Breath Of Fresh Air. Don't know how many of you had an opportunity to watch the PAC10 Championship Game between Arizona and UCLA. UCLA won a very tight game, primarily because of Arizona's inability to make free throws. But that's not the purpose of this Note ... no, folks, we write instead to comment on the world of difference between the officiating in the ACC and the PAC10.
We have been tearing our hair out for years as a result of the insane number of fouls called in the ACC. The game there is dominated by the officials rather than the players, and it is a rare possession when a whistle is not blown. From our standpoint, the game becomes essentially unwatchable. Indeed, it is only due to historical loyalty that we continue to view the Duke games. And we are now to the point where we almost always choose to watch on tape delay so that all the halts in play can be skipped.
Contrast that with the PAC10 Championship where the kids were actually allowed to play ball. There were only 28 total fouls called in a very physical match. In the Duke-Virginia debacle, there were 43 total fouls. The difference was night and day. The PAC10 game was an absolute pleasure to watch -- exciting and athletic play, with a real flow. It was like old-time ball again. We loved it.
Alas, as long as ACC fans continue to accept the present situation without loud protest, nothing will change. And since the overwhelming majority of fans appear to be sheep, we suppose that the status quo will indeed prevail.
Free Semi. Yes, Free Semi. That has been our cry for some time now. It clearly has not been heeded. Against N.C. State, Semi was inserted for all of 30 seconds in the first half. We thought surely he would come in when Duke had built a 30 point lead with 6 minutes left, but inexplicably he stayed on the bench for another minute. That is hard to fathom.
We acknowledge that Semi may be a work in progress putting the ball on the floor. However, he has tremendous athleticism and a remarkable shooting touch. We believe he is probably the second best pure shooter on the team, and is money at the line. This kid has got to get PT or he will almost surely follow Alex Murphy out of Durham ... and we wouldn't blame him a bit.
Instead, K seems determined to give Marshall more time. Unfortunately, all Marshall has shown thus far are inches. And those inches have not been used to make a difference on either end of the court. As we have noted, Marshall appears to lack the reflexive quickness needed to be effective. We sincerely hope that we are wrong, and that Marshall will magically step up. But nothing in his high school or college play gives us much confidence. So we therefore repeat our call for Semi, and that he be given a real shot ... not the pseudo shot given other non-favored players in the past who are yanked at the first slight miscue and who wind up spending most of their court time looking at the bench.
Battle of the Recruits. We always look forward to watching a preview of the incoming players, and ESPN2 gave us the opportunity on Thursday to see both Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones in action. We should probably be a bit circumspect about reaching definitive conclusions based on just one game, but then we are always happy to get out over our skis.
It was the first time we have ever seen Tyus (except in meaningless highlight films), and we liked a lot of what we saw. He had a very poor offensive showing in the opening half of play, but made up for it with an excellent second half, which included three treys (one a four point play). Since we love the little niceties, we were also quite enamored of his foul shooting -- he is absolutely gorgeous at the line, generally hitting nothing but net. He is the guy you will want at the stripe in crunch time.
While he may not be Kyriesque with the dribble, his handle seems capable enough. He also has quick hands and he anticipates very well on defense. He will almost certainly lead the team in steals next year. Tyus is also an outstanding passer with great court visibility.
The downsides? His man defense leaves something to be desired, though that fact has been in the open for some time. He is really going to have to focus on coverage or he will be a back-door magnet. Aside from that, his only other visible drawback is his relative lack of size. We would love to see a couple of extra inches, but even at 6'-1" he probably towers over Quinn.
As for Jahlil, our reaction is a bit more guarded. We love the fact that he is a true center with real bulk, and that he does not long to drift to the outside. Except as noted below, he realizes what his strengths and limitations are and he plays accordingly, We did not even see him attempt anything from more than two feet, and he did not even think about it. We love that.
Aside from pure size, Jahlil appears to be a capable athlete with fairly soft hands and an ability to get off the floor quickly. He is also a smart player and passes the ball often and capably. On the other hand, he is not a great leaper, and we were frankly disappointed by his defensive play. We expected to see a dominant force in the paint defensively, but he really did not reject much ... we only remember seeing one block. And while he does have decent hands, they are not particularly quick: he did not come up with any of the loose balls that he had an opportunity to grab. He also has a most unfortunate tendency to try to dribble the ball up court after grabbing a rebound -- his handle is very awkward, so he is a turnover waiting to happen. He got away with it several times last evening, but he won't at the next level.
We also liked what we saw of Jahlil at the line. Without knowing any background, it is clear from his extraordinary concentration and deliberation that this has been an area of major focus for him. While he did miss a few, he showed a very soft shot with a nice arc that will place him in great stead next year. As we all know, a center who can't sink free throws is a major liability, and Jahlil should be a capable performer.
It is interesting to compare Jahlil with Myles Turner, who is still (technically) on Duke's recruiting radar for next year. Myles is much thinner than Jahlil, but is actually a better shot blocker. He also has a wonderfully soft shooting touch. He may well be a better long term prospect than Jahlil, though the one and done scenario means that he will probably not fully realize that potential until after he leaves college.
And, on a completely separate note, we found it most refreshing to watch a game where the kids were actually allowed to play by the officials. Jahlil's squad, Whitney Young, was not even whistled for a foul in the opening half. It just served as another reminder of the ongoing desecration of college basketball.
Adieu, Alex. So Alex Murphy will transfer. The only surprise is that it took this long. When you don't get real minutes in your first year under K, the handwriting is on the wall given his penchant for short rotations. We therefore expected Alex to be gone after last season. But hope does spring eternal.
Unlike some other Duke transfers, we will actually be sorry to see Alex depart. Not that he has made a difference at Duke -- his absence of minutes precluded that anyway. But there were a lot of glimmers that gave us real hope that he could become a contributor.
The hard truth is that Alex has a rather dreadful shooting touch. His career line from beyond the arc is around 20%, and he was even less than 50% from the line. Sadly, he never seemed to learn of his limitations, and we have repeatedly blamed the coaching staff for not laying down the law on what shots he should be taking. On the other hand, Alex has good height and athleticism, and we have on more than one occasion seen him go to the hoop effectively. That is the Alex Murphy that we had hoped to see develop. Unfortunately, it just won't happen at Duke.
We are now watching Semi Ojeleye languish on the bench. The kid may have a good attitude currently, but good attitudes quickly wane. Unless K gives him some real PT, we may well be seeing another transfer announcement after the season. And that would be a real shame.
Congrats. They may do it with smoke and mirrors ... maybe they sacrifice a chicken or two before each game ... but regardless, the Duke football team continues to win. And this time for the ACC Coastal championship over a very surly North Carolina squad. What could be sweeter?
We expected the worst to happen at the end given the opportunities squandered by Duke. Twice within the 10 and unable to push it into the end zone, in part due to some very conservative play calling. And speaking of conservative calls, why did Duke not go for two when they scored their TD after Carolina's two point conversion? A two point lead at that point was not worth much more than one. We've never been overwhelmed by Cutcliffe's intelligence, but we do have to applaud him for getting everything possible out of this squad. Aside from the defensive secondary, these kids are not very talented ... they just find a way to win. But that's what counts. Bravo!
License to Lie. The NCAA rules are so invasive that virtually every aspect of the relationship between player and team is regulated. Why then have schools always been permitted to lie about their players with absolute impunity? We refer here to the practice of misrepresenting the physical stature of those on the roster, often quite blatantly. Does anyone out there believe that Quinn Cook is anywhere near 6'-2", or that Amile is really 6'-9"? OK, this may not be the biggest issue out there, but we just cannot imagine why schools have always had this license to mislead both opposing teams and their own fans.
The NCAA should pass a simple rule obligating each school to measure ACCURATELY the height and weight of each of its players during the first week of October, and then publish those results and use them in all programs and web sites. The NCAA can randomly spot check by visiting schools and conducting its own verifications, with penalties assessed for deception. As consumers of college basketball, we want accurate information just as we do about anything else, and we resent the falsification that routinely goes on. Let's make the world slightly better and put an end to it.
The Great Vacuum. We knew when Brother Marshall signed with Duke that he would never be a real force in the middle, though we did hope for a bit more than what we have seen to date. What is really galling is that despite all the Mickey D's on the Duke roster, K has no recruit capable of exercising any kind of defensive/rebounding control under the glass. Yes, we do expect that to change next year with Okafor, but unfortunately we still have this season to suffer through. And we're bound to do a lot of suffering before this one is finished.
We have been less than complimentary about the play of Josh Hairston for a long time and have questioned his excessive playing time. We wish that were not so because Josh seems like a great kid who plays as hard as he can. The problem is that while effort is important, talent is paramount. The stats (as of November 28) tell the story about Josh: 0.22 points per minute played (above only Plumlee, Murphy, and Thornton), 0.146 rebounds per minute played (less than one half of Parker's average), and a truly pathetic 0.269 fouls per minute played (the next most dismal being Thornton, of course, at 0.167). And please, all you sycophantic Dukies, spare us some nonsensical reply about intangibles.
The problem, however, is finding a good alternative to Josh on the front line. Coming into the season, we had high hopes for Amile. Those have been largely dashed for a couple of reasons. First, it's becoming all too clear that he does not have the size or leaping ability to be effective defensively at the center spot. And second, he has been an unmitigated disaster at the foul line. All the opponents have to do is foul Amile and it is equivalent to forcing a Duke turnover.
Since it is now apparent that Marshall will not fill the void, that leaves only two options for the middle. One is Alex Murphy, who does have some toughness and athleticism. In fact, we like him much better inside where he does not have the opportunity to launch one of his hopeless trey attempts. The other is Semi Ojeleye. Semi's weakness seems to be the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the hoop. But in the middle, that is not so much a concern. Yes, Semi does give up another inch or two, but his strength and athleticism should compensate. In fact, he is the one kid on the team other than Jabari who is capable of playing above the rim.
Let's take a look at the same stats that we itemized for Josh, but this time for Semi: 0.429 points per minute, 0.229 rebounds per minute, and 0.057 fouls per minute. All significantly better than Josh, although we do have to offer the caveat that they were racked up in somewhat different game conditions. But the point is that neither Josh nor Amile is going to be able to take Duke to the level required this season. It is therefore essential that Semi and Alex be cultivated. They will no doubt make their share of mistakes, but they must nevertheless be given time. Unfortunately, one thing we have learned about K over the years is that if a non-favored player makes a mistake, he is almost immediately yanked. We are therefore less than optimistic that this deadly vacuum will be filled.
The Essential Components. The decision by Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor to attend Duke next year was absolutely essential for the school to have any national championship hope. Remember that Jabari will almost certainly be a one and done, leaving the team with absolutely no inside presence following his departure. We shudder to think how vulnerable the Devils would have been under the glass without the addition of Mr. Okafor.
Despite all the spin from Duke sycophants, the fact is that Coach K has not been able to recruit a dominant post figure since the illustrious Elton Brand. Our expectations for Brother Mason were high before his matriculation, but his weaknesses quickly became all too apparent. The reasons why his numbers turned out to be relatively impressive were primarily due to (1) his extraordinary number of minutes played (a testament to his excellent conditioning and durability) and (2) the lack of any post competition. When Mason played against top competition, he often struggled. Jahlil Okafor now gives the team the dominant center that it has so long lacked and so desperately needs next year.
While perhaps not quite as crucial to the team's success next year, Tyus Jones will be a most important piece of the mosaic. Based on his high school play, we expected a lot from Quinn Cook. While he has performed well at times, his hallmark has been inconsistency. He has neither been the scorer nor the playmaker that we had hoped. That is certainly not to say that he is a poor player, but he has not been one to take the team to the next level. While we have not had a chance to scout Tyus (we will this season a bit), we do expect that he can be that guy.
We are sure that the Duke coaching staff is breathing a collective sigh of relief right now.
Whistleball. We have long grumbled that ACC basketball was becoming unwatchable due to the constant stoppages for foul calls and time-outs. As those of you who have been watching the exhibitions this year know, the powers that be have decided to double down on the agony. No longer does it just seem that every instance of contact was being called ... every instance of contact is in fact being called! It is a rare possession indeed when a whistle is not heard.
Now to be sure, we have for many years rued the fact that college players were allowed to imitate their professional counterparts and engage in hand checking. That has no business in the game of basketball, and is something that you simply did not see in the OLD DAYS. But the current officiating standards go far beyond that -- any body contact against a ball handler, no matter how incidental, is getting called. We felt that offensive players driving to the hoop had a very unfair advantage in the past, but it is now even worse. Put simply, it is almost impossible to play man defense on a driving player without getting called. That is insane.
Any savvy coach should be thinking of zone defense given these crazy standards. But we all know we will not see that from Duke. Fortunately, the team has enough depth to carry it through in most cases.
Dukies in the Draft. We had deliberately withheld our thoughts about the draft stock of Duke's graduating seniors in the most unlikely event that some GMs might be perusing this site. But now that the 2013 selection process is over, we will offer our candid thoughts.
Brother Mason was selected at the 22 spot in the first round by Brooklyn. A great venue for a terrific young man. We were most grateful that Mason elected to return to Duke for his senior season, although it was certainly to his benefit as well. He was simply not ready for the pro game as a rising senior, and made good use of his final year to make some overall improvement. We continue to be amazed by his durability and conditioning, which is no small virtue. He played an extraordinary number of minutes for the team at the very physical center position. He is also, by all accounts, a kid with great character and seems highly coachable.
Alas, there are also some serious downsides. Although Mason is well-coordinated, there is, shall we say, a real paucity of quickness, both in hand and foot. That makes him a very weak defender and a kid who is rarely able to snag a loose ball or very errant shot. And although he has good leaping ability, he is not quick off the floor in competition.
The other major drawback for Mason is that he has no shooting touch. Fortunately, he was able to develop a nice little hook shot by his junior year, although it usually ceased to be a weapon when he was forced away from the basket by defensive pressure. And guess what ... there will be a lot more of that physical defense at the pro level. Mason rarely sparkled against tough opposing centers, and that will be his universe come next season.
For those reasons, we would be most surprised if Mason were any kind of impact player at the next level. We hope that Mason proves us dead wrong.
The other Duke draftee was Ryan Kelly, in the second round by another major market team -- the LA Lakers. As we have noted on this site many times, we were early advocates for Ryan, but later in his career became rather disaffected.
Ryan has two positive attributes. First and foremost, he is a very savvy defender. He seemed to intuitively understand a crucial aspect of defense that other kids seem never to grasp: when and when not to leave the floor when guarding an opponent. He also is capable of putting the ball in the basket from long range. We all love to remember and recount his success in the McD's three point contest and, four years later, in the miraculous reappearance against Miami.
Unfortunately, that outside shot was prone to vanish for lengthy periods ... and we are talking about games, not minutes within games. Ryan was just wildly inconsistent on offense his entire career. And when the outside shot was not dropping, Ryan was rarely able to pick up the offensive slack in other ways. He is not quick afoot, and his attempts to make driving scores were usually not fruitful.
The other issue with Ryan is that he has never been tough physically. He always shied away from the boards and the physical contact underneath, and for that reason pulled down few rebounds for the team. On top of that, he has not been a durable performer -- a history of injuries in college normally turns into a history of injuries in the pros. The bottom line is that unless he can miraculously turn himself into a consistent three point shooter, he is likely to struggle in the pro ranks.
And that brings us to Seth. From our standpoint, he was probably the most pleasant surprise on the team last season. We were amazed by the improvement in his handle and his ability to score off the drive, and his outside shot became relatively consistent. Yes, he does suffer from the trait generally shared by Krzyzewski recruits (a lack of quickness) and that does limit his defensive abilities. But while he will probably never be a star, we feel that he may actually be able to help some teams. Whether that is in the USA or a foreign league remains uncertain at this time, but we do hope to see a lot more of Seth.
The Jordan Brand Classic. A very entertaining game and a much, much better viewing experience than the McDonald's fiasco. We were actually able to spot players on the court and the announcers made at least a passing attempt to provide some play-by-play. Both of the future Dukies acquitted themselves well, with Jabari Parker being named a co-MVP. We do think that award was largely due to the fact that they had to name someone on the winning squad, but Jabari did have a nice line: 8 for 13 overall with 7 boards and 2 steals. He does not have the quickness of either Wiggins or Randle, but he has very good athleticism and is quick off the floor. He did force a couple in this one and did not hit anything from the outside; however, he did show that he could play very effectively with the big boys. We really look forward to seeing him in blue.
We have had reservations about Matt Jones. He clearly has a nice outside stroke and is also money at the line, talents he showed in this game. He finished with 14 points -- 2 for 3 from behind the arc, 6 of 7 from the line, and one driving score. That's the good news. The bad is that he spent most of the game just hanging around the weak side, waiting for something to happen. Matt is just not a kid who creates shots, and that is likely to be a major drawback at the next level. Once Matt gets past the first couple of cream puff opponents, he will face very tough defense on a regular basis. We are just not confident that he will be able to produce against that kind of competition. Let's hope that we are pleasantly surprised.
Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle, both playing for the East squad, were the two high scorers for the game. The reason? Quickness and leaping ability. As our readers should be well aware, we place a premium on quickness, though unfortunately our sainted coach seems of a different mind. And speaking of quickness, we really loved the show that Kasey Hill, the point heading to Florida, put on -- his speed and handle were just outstanding. Donovan made a fine catch indeed.
McDonald's. We always make it a point to watch the High School AA games that are broadcast. The first and most illustrious is the McDonald's contest, which was held on April 3. We are most disappointed that neither this game nor the Jordan Brand classic to follow will feature Semi Ojeleye, the wing from Kansas who will be matriculating next season. The low level of his school's program has kept Semi out of the national spotlight; as a result, we have never had the opportunity to watch him play. That is a rarity for a Duke recruit.
However, Duke's other two incoming freshman were selected for both of the games. We will offer a few thoughts from watching the McDonald's contest, although our ability to analyze was needlessly constrained by a couple of issues. First, the television play-by-play of the game was absolutely execrable. The announcers did nothing but ramble on endlessly about everything but what was happening on the court (and yes, Duke's own Jason Williams was one of the three culprits).. As a result, the viewer was almost never told who was handling the ball at any time, nor who had just taken the shot ... that is, unless the shot was rather spectacular. Now that might be all well and good if it were easy to follow particular players on the screen. But alas, both Duke recruits were on the West squad, which featured psychedelic uniforms that could only have been designed by a Helen Keller protege. It was virtually impossible to discern uniform numbers as a result.
Despite those handicaps, we were generally able to follow the play of Jabari Parker. He started for the West, and immediately came out of the gate in impressive fashion by blocking two shots. Unfortunately, that opening 30 seconds may have been his highlight reel as he really had an off night on offense. He finished with 10 points on only 4 for 13 shooting. Even so, he continued to impress us with his range of offensive skills. He is certainly not a kid with extraordinary quickness, but he is nevertheless very athletic. He handles the ball very well for a player his size, and is able to drive past defenders with great agility. Completing the play is another issue, however, as this game made quite evident. We haven't seen Jabari often enough to know whether his problem finishing in competition is chronic, and we pray that this was just an aberration. In all, we remain quite impressed with him and expect him to make a major impact next season.
Matt Jones is a different story altogether. We had only seen him once before, and though we admired the softness of his shot that night, we did not see many go through the hoop. We were concerned about his ball handling and lack of quickness, and after last evening our concerns have even intensified. We have lamented the fact that K has often recruited skill players who were simply not quick. We believe that is a major detriment at the college level. We are increasingly concerned that Matt may fall within that mold ... that he may be a somewhat shorter and thinner version of, say, Andre Dawkins. We may have a better sense after the Jordan Brand contest, particularly if the uniforms and play-by-play commentary allow us to track his game. We'll follow up.
The Way Not To Play Defense. We have been saying for several years that the only Duke big who understands proper defensive technique is Ryan Kelly. Apparently he either learned this through personal observation or coaching PRIOR to his matriculation at Duke. For it is abundantly clear that it is beyond the ken of the Duke coaching staff.
The first thing a big man needs to learn on defense is when and, more importantly, when NOT to leave his feet. This is a lesson that Mason Plumlee (like his departed brother Miles) has apparently never received. Mason has simply never met a head fake that he does not like. The results are predictably disastrous.
We are not going to take this occasion to lay down the simple principles called for. We are not being paid to coach this team. If we were, Mason would be quickly disabused of his schoolyard tendencies. But the fact that the vaunted Duke staff is apparently unable to impart this invaluable instruction borders on the incomprehensible.
The Recruits. All right, how many of you watched the ESPN telecast of Simeon H.S. vs. DeSoto H.S.? We have to admit that we probably would not have done so except that it provided a unique opportunity to catch a glimpse of incoming Dukie, Matt Jones (DeSoto). The added bonus, of course, is that Simeon is currently the top-rated high school squad and features Jabari Parker. Parker is set to announce next Thursday on ESPNU, and K is hoping he'll put on a Duke cap. And speaking of K, he was at the game, along with Wojo and Capel. Nice to see that Duke has an unlimited travel budget ....
Well, if Simeon is the top high school team, then basketball is in a sorry state this year. They lost by a comfortable margin to a DeSoto squad that is not very good at all. The fact that Parker is just returning after a long injury was a major factor, but a great team needs a great suppoting cast, and that Simeon does not provide.
Parker just had a dreadful outing. He had fractured a foot in July, and still hasn't returned to form. In fact, that's a major understatement. He did almost nothing right, except for a few nice offensive moves. It's just that they weren't converted. Indeed, we don't recall him making any shots from the field, and many of the misses did not touch iron. He finished with more turnovers than points. He's clearly neither in form nor playing shape, and was inserted for only a few minutes at a time. It's going to be a process for him.
As for Jones, our sense (which is normally spot on) is positive. He is a tall and still rather slim kid with pretty good athleticism and hops. But most importantly, he has a wonderfully soft shot and can score both inside and out. Oddly enough, despite leading all scorers, he only made one outside shot and had few other attempts. It was remarkable to us how hesitant he was to assert himself offensively, particularly since his teammates are not exactly dazzling offensive talents. We like unselfish players, but there is such a thing as being too unselfish. Anyway, we would expect him to be a major scoring threat at Duke.
The downside? Well, even though his ball handling is respectable and supposedly much improved, he does tend to get stripped much too often. He was also charged with several traveling violations, though the officials were whistling every head fake -- it was bizarre. He also is not blindingly quick, and quickness is something we dearly love. However, all things considered, we like what we saw and think he is going to be a great addition to the Duke team.
Rebounding Redux. Analyst Ken Pomeroy recently published some interesting stats regarding an issue of which we have complained ad nauseum since the inception of K's reign -- viz., the failure of his teams to control the boards in a manner befitting their talent levels. The problem has always been particularly agonizing on the Duke defensive end, where opponents frequently get repeated attempts to score due to failures to block out and a simple failure to attack the glass with sufficient intensity. Actually, the Pomeroy stats, damning as they are, would be even more telling were he to eliminate those contests where Duke was playing a throw-away opponent.
What is particularly galling is the reaction by the K sycophants (you know who you are) to this evidence. We are told by those on another Duke site that, well, rebounding is something that just may have to suffer in Duke's scheme. What? WHAT? Are we to take from that oblique comment that a squad cannot simultaneously play lock-down defense and rebound? Try telling that to, say, a Tom Izzo. No, ladies and gentlemen, it's just not a zero sum game. It is, rather, the inability of the Duke staff to coach this important discipline well. One of the problems of elevating anyone to the stratospheric levels, as we have done with Coach K, is that it invariably leads to myopia ... and Duke devotees have that affliction in spades.
Can you win without really effective rebounding? Sure, and the Duke teams under K have proved it. It just becomes unnecessarily more difficult. It sort of defeats the purpose of playing stellar defense for 35 seconds when your opponents are just given another shot and a fresh clock. But can we reasonably expect to see improvement? Well, after lo these many years and with a staff populated by K proteges, we would have to bet against it.
To Jump or Not to Jump. Time for the annual guessing game ... who will try to bolt to the next level. Given the lack of athleticism on this year's Duke squad, there are but two possible candidates: Austin Rivers and Mason Plumlee. We would argue that both should stay put for another year. We will, of course, explain.
There are two generic candidates for an early jump. The first is the mega-talent who has the mental and physical maturity to play effectively against more developed and more talented opposition. Think Kyrie, for example. The other is the egregiously overrated kid coming out of high school whose weaknesses will be subject to continuing exposure the more he plays. Even with a disappointing freshman season, the latter player will still be grabbed by some myopic GM who is fixated with "potential," real or imagined. The question is, where do Austin and Mason fit in these criteria?
Austin has an NBA career ahead of him, though it is not entirely clear at this point whether it will be at the journeyman or all-star level. However, Austin still needs to refine and improve aspects of his game to be effective at the next level. He made a living in high school taking it to the hoop, but discovered early on at Duke that driving successfully is much more difficult against the big boys. Now throw Dwight Howard in the picture and continue the extrapolation.
The fact is that Austin has got to enhance both his outside and mid-range game, not to mention improving his shot at the line. Whether the kid will ever become a long-range marksman is open to question given the awkward mechanics of his shot. But he really should be able to develop his ability to score within 15 feet. We can count on the fingers of our collective hands how many field goals Austin scored from mid-range. Most were little floaters, but they were very hit-and-miss. We never saw any drive, stop and fall-back shot -- that would be devastating in his arsenal, and is something he should spend the summer working on. Even his court vision could use additional work; he should be very effective dishing off the drive, but he simply has not been in practice. In short, we believe Austin needs at least another season to grow his skills.
Then there's Mason. Mason really is a kid who falls within the second of our generic categories above. He came to Duke full of accolades extolling his supreme athleticism. But then we actually got to see him play against top competition. He really would have been well-served to bolt after his first season while those GMs at the next level were still salivating. We suppose that while it is still possible that he may be drafted in the first round this year, it is by no means certain. If he can somehow elevate his game so that he becomes a relatively consistent presence on both ends (and we have to admit that we are very skeptical), that would do wonders for his draft status. Of course, that will require another season. If Tony Parker does not show up, Mason will be THE post guy for Duke, so he will have a lot of PT to showcase himself.
Rivers Redux Redux. Well, well. Rookie of the Year in the ACC and first team ALL-ACC. That is a remarkable achievement. We just wish that it were truly warranted.
Austin came to Duke with a load of potential, but also with some fundamental flaws. One of those was mental -- his strong inclination to force things, to create nonexistent openings. The result was a ton of turnovers early in the season. Thankfully, however, he did learn from those mistakes: while we would still never characterize him as judicious, he at least exercises some discretion before trying to go between two or three defenders. And his defense improved considerably after the first month of play. Indeed, aside from Brother Miles, Austin is the only Duke player whom we believe actually improved over the course of the season.
But first team All-ACC? Well, let's look at his numbers. He played more minutes than anyone on the squad (over 33 per game) and had a scoring average of 15.4%. His three point percentage was 37% and his free through percentage was only 65%. He had 70 assists to 77 turnovers. Those are very respectable numbers for a freshman, and probably do justify his rookie honors. But they are not first team ACC caliber.
Austin was on the first team for three reasons. First, he was the recipient of constant hype throughout the season, even when it was not fully warranted. Second, there was the BIG SHOT against Carolina. And last but not least, there is the fact that someone from Duke, a team that was vying for the ACC championship down the stretch, just had to be on that first team. As the leader in points and minutes, Austin was that guy.
Out of the Zone. OK, since we're speaking of defense, whatever happened to Duke's scattered prior experiments with the zone? True, Duke's zone was never a particularly pretty thing, though it seemed to improve a bit after K's association with Boeheim on the USA Basketball program. It also proved effective at times against opponents accustomed to playing against Duke's man D. In fact, we had posited in the past that a study might well find that the Devils had a better stop percentage in the zone than in man, although the infrequency of Duke's zone play would render those stats somewhat problematical.
The point is that at least Duke was occasionally willing to go into a zone in the past, even for up to a few consecutive possessions. Yet this season, with Duke's man defense playing as poorly as we can remember, with opposing players driving around Duke defenders with impunity, and with frequent failures to switch properly off screens, the zone has been conspicuously absent. We can only remember one instance when Duke briefly went zone for a single possession; there may have been a couple of others that have escaped us, but the total could still be numbered on one hand.
El Greco! is often praised for his flexibility, his ability to adjust to his team's strengths and limitations. But like so many other trumpeted proclamations in this world, that is more myth than reality. The fact is that like most of us, K has a way of doing things, and that way will be maintained come hell or high water. We don't know that a zone would be any kind of panacea for this team's defensive struggles, but it couldn't hurt to experiment. Indeed, this team is a veritable poster child for such experimentation. Yet, inexplicably, we have seen nothing this season. We would be most curious as to the reasons.
Duke on Defense. Now that we are roughly midway through the season, we feel obliged to offer a few thoughts about what we have seen on the defensive end of the court. In our game commentaries, we have chastised the team at times for failing to switch smoothly on defense. That continues to be a problem when facing teams with a true motion offense -- as opposed to the largely motionless one-on-one offense that the Devils employ. (Duke's motion offense is one of life's great misnomers, but we digress ....)
We have also repeatedly cited the team's susceptibility to dribble drives. Opponents routinely blow by Duke defenders, often leading either to a blocking foul or a dish to an open teammate. Nevertheless, Duke will simply not go into zone coverage. Yes, we know that Duke zones are always less than stellar, but we still would like to see this team experiment since their man coverage has faltered badly at times. And even if the team insists on playing man, we believe that they need to play it a lot smarter. There is simply no good reason on balance to see a kid like Mason picking up his opponent 35 feet from the basket -- it is almost a certainty that he will be left chasing after that opponent from behind as the kid drives to the hoop. This team lacks the quickness to play that aggressively when their opponents are not within comfortable three point range.
Oh, and by the way, whatever happened to that old axiom about "sealing the baseline"? This team never seals the baseline; in fact, the kids are coached to overplay on the other side to GIVE their opponents the baseline drive. Since that is the shortest and quickest route to the hoop, we find that inexplicable. Clearly, K believes that a Duke big will always be there to rotate over to stop the drive. Well, guess what? A Duke big is not always there, and when he is there is often either a blocking call or an opponent left wide open underneath for a dish. Hard to figure, but then what do we couch potatoes know?
Rivers Redux. After the first several games of his career, we can safely say that Austin is no Kyrie Irving -- that is, the kind of extraordinary kid who can come in and take over a game from day one. Unfortunately, Austin's weaknesses have been dominant, and we say that notwithstanding his very generous "Freshman of the Week" award in the ACC.
Rivers' genius is his cross-over dribble. He is not a good outside shooter; in fact, we cringe every time we see him get ready to launch one. His troubles also extend a bit to the foul line. Notwithstanding his 8 for 10 performance at the line against Belmont, we would expect him to be closer to 65% over time. And that is not a good thing for someone who will need to make his living at the line, particularly since he generally is not able to finish off drives against good competition.
We had to listen ad nauseum to Doris Burke gush about Austin's "swagger." What we actually want from Austin is a lot less swagger and a lot more intelligence. In our summary of the Presbyterian game we applauded his ability to drive though multiple defenders, but warned that the result could be quite different against a Michigan State team. Well, guess what ... it was! Rivers cannot simply put his head down and try to thread his way through multiple defenders in the lane. The result, again against top competition, will be an almost certain turnover.
The Maui Invitational approaches and the field is strong. This will provide a further test as to whether Rivers can be the big player Duke needs him to be this year. So far, we have been less than encouraged.
The Quickness Deficit. We have been critical on this site about many of the recruiting decisions made by the Duke coaching staff … and of course in this context, the reference to “staff” is simply an attempt at courtesy. We have noted that despite having probably the highest High School All-American capture rate in the nation, Duke seems invariably to have a dearth of natural scorers (as opposed to pure shooters), as well as a paucity of guys who are aggressive underneath and quick off the floor.
Doug Gottlieb caused a bit of a stir within Duke circles last season when he questioned the athleticism of the Duke squad. When Duke went on to win the NCAA Championship (after a significant several year drought), one might have immediately concluded that Gottlieb’s comments were ill-founded. But were they?
We firmly believe that Duke’s big win last year was more fortuity than the product of sound calculation. Think, for example, about the fellow who goes into a casino and bets his entire fortune on the roulette wheel. When the number he chooses magically comes up, does that vindicate the fellow’s judgment? Most would think not, and quite properly so. Now we must emphasize that we are certainly not claiming that last year’s team was talentless, just that it wasn’t good enough to win a championship absent the confluence of many fortunate circumstances.
The truth is that Duke tends to recruit players who may have skills, but they often lack real athleticism and quickness. We talk about “real athleticism” because athleticism on a basketball court means more than just the ability to jump high in the abstract. We know that Brother Mason can elevate, but by the time the need to move for a rebound is processed, an opponent usually has his hands on the ball. Quickness and reflexes are so very important in basketball, a lesson that was forever imprinted in the minds of all those who remember the legendary Texas Western NCAA Championship in 1966 – and yes, a “skilled” Duke team was in that same Final Four.
Duke’s most lopsided losses of this season were to very athletic squads, Arizona and St. John’s. The same can be said for the Georgetown loss of last season and the Villanova loss of the prior year. Duke just has trouble matching up with that kind of quickness, both offensively and defensively. And the latter – defensive quickness – is often overlooked, though watching opponents frequently blow by Duke defenders should militate otherwise.
We acknowledge that the foregoing is a broad generalization, and that certain Duke players do not fit the mold. We would point in particular to Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers, and also to Quinn Cook (though he is not on a par with the others), as players with the quickness to be effective true scorers and defenders. Whether those recruits signal a growing awareness within the coaching staff is, however, open to debate, and we will have more to say on this matter a bit later. But in any event, to dismiss these issues by pointing to K’s winning record is, we believe, far too cavalier.
Thank you, Coach Knight. We can write our critiques until we're blue in the hand, but when the same point is made by Bobby Knight ... well, then we have instant credibility. We have been chagrined for a long time about Duke's incessant double teaming of opposing players as they come off screens. Duke has never doubled/trapped effectively -- their attempts are as soft as a baby's bottom. The normal result is an outlet to a wide-open opponent, and a drive and dish for a lay-up. We saw this repeatedly at the outset of the Temple game. Finally, to his great credit, Knight pointed it out to his ESPN viewers. We say to his credit because no other "expert" commentator has ever picked up on it before. Well, Duke thankfully abandoned the double in the second half, and their defense was much the better for it. Does this mean that El Greco! has learned his lesson? Pardon us for our continued skepticism.
Duke's Motion(less) Offense. We couldn't help chuckling a bit when we heard one of ESPN's crack analysts recount how Seth Curry was recently given some sage advice by his older brother. It seems that Stephen was watching a Duke game and noticed that Seth was not moving around a great deal on the court. Well, DUH! Stephen might just as well offered the same critique to everyone on the Duke squad save Mr. Singler. Kyle is the only guy on the court running around screens; everyone else stands and watches. There is less activity in a Duke offensive set than in a DMV office on a Friday afternoon. Indeed, watch Andre on the court for a while and one is tempted to order an autopsy. So, friends, calling what Duke runs a "motion offense" is one of life's great misnomers. It is really more a pro-style attack -- go one-on-one and hope that raw talent will out. But oh, ain't their spacing wonderful ....
Cruelty? There are quite a number of folks who view this site that believe we are being unduly harsh in our assessments. The normal script goes something like ... These kids are not professionals, they are just students playing their hearts out on behalf of Duke and do not deserve to be criticised .... Really? Let's examine that for a minute.
Most of us dwell from time to time in a fantasy world of our own creation, and those who have convinced themselves that the scholarship players on Duke's squad are just students are among the most delusional. We assure you that nobody in the playing rotation turned to a friend in Freshman Chem one day and said, "Gee whiz, Johnny, let's go out for the team!" No, these young men have made basketball their singular focus since grade school, playing year-round on both school and travelling AAU teams. They do not receive a salary (we hope) for attending Duke, but they are granted a full scholarship with room and board that is worth well over $40,000 annually. Once at school, they room, dine, study, practice, and enjoy their leisure time largely with their teammates. Their dream is generally not a Duke degree, but rather an NBA draft selection -- and, in most cases, the sooner the better. So even if we accept the pretense that these young men are not professionals, they are the next thing to it.
The raison d'etre for this site is honesty. Those who want cheerleading have many other sites from which to choose. But by the same token, we do acknowledge that boundaries must exist and be respected. We never, therefore, impugn a player's character or desire (although we would not refrain from criticizing a lack of intensity in a particular game), nor would we make light of any other personal trait that follows a player off the court. But when it comes to performance on the court -- the sole reason these young men are at Duke --- we simply pull no punches. If a player has a commendable outing, we laud him. If he plays poorly, we criticize ... not the effort, but the performance. We note strengths and expose weaknesses. If by doing so we are deemed cruel, then we will just have to live with that judgement.
El Greco! It's official ... first announced by Dick Vitale and now confirmed by Len Elmore ... Duke is blessed to have the greatest coach on Earth. And even though the SETI efforts may still be ongoing, it is probably safe to conclude that He is the greatest coach in the entire universe.
According to Jewish religious tradition, it is blasphemous to refer to God by His proper name. Thus the substitutes: The Lord, Jehovah, Obama, etc. While it may surprise many of our readers, we too desire to eschew sacrilege. We will therefore scrupulously attempt to avoid referring to Duke's revered leader by His proper name; instead, we will do so by acronym. The Greatest Coach shall henceforth be ... El Greco! (And how perfectly fitting since it echoes the name of another immortal artist, sculptor, and architect.)
Now the Bible also tells us that our race is imperfect, constantly rebelling against the divine. We may accordingly find the temptation irresistable to challenge the will of El Greco! from time to time. (Oh impudence, thy name be Poindexter!) But we promise that when doing so, we will reverently genuflect.
The Free Throw. The key to a championship season is not whether you beat the Princetons of this world by thirty points or whether the victory margin is forty. No, the key is whether you beat the Michigan States by two or three or whether you lose by two or three. And when the victory margin is narrow, each contributing element becomes crucial. It may be a cliche to declare that little things make the difference between success and failure, but it is normally quite true.
Those who have followed Duke sports for many years may remember the incident involving a certain head football coach (think of a name rhyming with McGee) who effectively ran his best (nay, his only decent) place kicker off the squad. The coach then brushed the incident aside by blithely exclaiming that a new kicker is always coming down the road. The coach was an imbecile, but was probably representative of a large segment of the football coaching profession that considered kickers somewhat less than true "football players," and that consequently failed to pay adequate attention to that crucial part of the game.
We suspect that the mindset of the college basketball coach is disturbingly similar when it comes to free throw shooting. Yet free throw shooting has more than just an oblique effect on the outcome of a come -- success or failure at the line translates to the scoreboard immediately. True, sports columnists rarely point to missed free throws when dissecting a loss. But they should, particularly since free throw accuracy should be a given for all teams and for all players. Indeed, every college basketball player should shoot 75% from the line, and there is absolutely no excuse for the percentage to dip below 70%.
Free throw shooting may be an art, but it is one that anybody with the physical skill needed to play college basketball should be able to master. Unfortunately, the high school coaches who are capable of analyzing flaws and imparting proper technique, and/or are sufficiently motivated to do so in earnest, seem to be few and far between. Thus, freshman athletes often begin their careers with ingrained deficiencies, and those deficiencies are generally not given the necessary corrective attention by a college coaching staff that, due to NCAA limitations, has a very limited practice schedule before the season starts ... or that itself lacks the expertise necessary to make the required adjustments.
There are a number of independent professionals across the country whose expertise is free throw shooting technique. We would submit that every recruit who shot less than 70% from the line during his senior year should be very strongly encouraged to avail himself of the services of a capable instructor. Every major college head coach should have a short list of those worthy to teach. By virtue of NCAA Bylaw 220.127.116.11.1.4, no college may enter into any kind of arrangement with such an outside consultant lest that consultant be deemed a "coach" who is counted against the applicable NCAA coaching limit. Nor may a college offer to defray the expenses of a recruit to attend a consulting session. However, it would appear that simply providing a list of able instructors to the incoming athlete would not run afoul of NCAA requirements.
In the event that the incoming athlete is unable, for financial reasons or otherwise, to obtain expert instruction before matriculating, it is important that the college coaching staff itself be properly schooled on free throw technique. The NCAA Bylaw cited above specifically authorizes schools temporarily to engage consultants for the purpose of providing instruction to their coaching staff as long as there is no interaction with the recruit. Of course, the head coach needs to have the intellectual honesty to admit that such instruction would be beneficial for both himself and his staff -- and there, ladies and gentlemen, lies the rub.
Needless to say, expert instruction must be reinforced by extensive repetition ... specifically, hundreds of free throws each day during the off-season, walking to and from the line after every several shots, until the proper technique becomes ingrained and automatic.
So, are we intimating that the Duke staff has perhaps fallen short in this area? Well, last season the free throw percentages of the Duke big men, Zoubek, Brother Miles, and Brother Mason, were 55%, 66%, and 54%, repectively. Judging from their performance so far this season, things are not getting any better for the Brothers. That is a potentially lethal situation for a team in pursuit of another national championship.
A Paean to the Animal. There are few things we find more annoying than reading some commentary that breathlessly extols the ability of a center prospect to "run the court." Frankly, in our list of key attributes, that would rank somewhere between good grooming and the lack of incontinence.
In our view, the turning point for last season's team was the maturation of Brian Zoubek that occurred in the first Maryland contest. It suddenly dawned on him that his role in life was to grab every rebound within a radius of 100 yards, and he never looked back. Now, could Zoubek "run the court"? Only if he were playing in a Special Olympics contest. No, what Brian brought to the table was simply rebounding intensity and focus, and he did it so well that he led Duke to a national championship. He became an ANIMAL ... and, Mrs. Zoubek, we only mean that in the nicest way.
Elton Brand was probably the best and most valuable Duke player of the last fifteen years. Yes, he could "run the court." But that was not what made him so special; rather, it was his sensational half-court game -- his rebounding and his lovely turn-around jumper in traffic. He was a man among boys, an ANIMAL.
Does Shaquille run the court? Did Wilt run the court? Hardly. But did Chris Burgess run the court? And what about Josh McRoberts? ... and Casey Sanders? Yes, yes, and sort of ... and we rest our case.
We were disappointed to learn that Tyler Adams elected to "decommit" from Duke. We had not seen Adams play. We don't know whether he has soft hands, whether he is quick off the floor, and whether he has the requisite intensity to be a force at the college level. All we know is that he is around 6'8" and 260 pounds and that nobody has raved about his ability to run the court. On that basis alone, we were quite excited about his prospects.
Sans Adams, Duke will need to find that inside force that it usually lacks, a DeJuan Blair redux. This year's team has so much firepower that they should be able to make do without strong inside play, but in ordinary years that will not be the case. As a rule, perimeter players alone do not national champions make. You need an ... ANIMAL.
In The Zone. We have commented elsewhere about Coach K's seemingly congenital inability to stay in a zone defense for more than two consecutive possessions, even if it appears that the defense may be yielding fruits. The stubborn refusal to employ the zone was particularly galling in the second half of the Georgetown game. We emphasize the second half since in the first stanza Georgetown was so unconscious from the outside that no earthly defense was going to work. However, the Hoyas cooled considerably after half-time, as unfortunately did Duke's man defense.
As we observed in the Game Notes, Duke's man-to-man in the second half of that game was pathetic. It could more appropriately be called a sloth-to-man defense. Since Georgetown was essentially running a series of lay-up drills, we have to wonder if the Duke team did not quite realize that the second half had started. Clearly, the switch to a zone was called for ... check that, the switch to a zone was screamed for.
One often hears sputtering protestations that a zone compromises a team's ability to block opponents off the boards. Well, that argument might have some sway if Duke actually blocked opponents off the boards in its man defense. However, against good aggressive opponents, Duke has historically done an execrable job of blocking out. The use of a zone by Duke would therefore have little to compromise -- it's akin to saying that Duke's failure to use a high-post offense compromises Zoubek's outside shot. Indeed, our limited anecdotal experience tells us that Duke rebounds just as effectively when in a zone.
We therefore see no compelling reason for Duke to forebear from going zone, but we see dozens of reasons (read easy lay-ups) that argue otherwise. If there is a reason other than sheer intransigence, we would be most interested in enlightenment.
Watching Paint Dry. Once upon a time, the typical college basketball game would last less than an hour and forty-five minutes. Yes, that was in the day before the shot clock (ie, in the old days when a team with significantly inferior talent might actually win a game because it played with strategic intelligence). But it was also in the day before the ubiquitous TV timeout.
Not only are games unduly extended by unnecessary foul calls as noted below (see The Problems With Officiating), but the viewer is also tormented by a seemingly endless series of timeouts. The number of timeouts allowed will depend on the particular media agreement in effect, but it will invariably be too many. It becomes particularly agonizing at game's end, where we seem to get a timeout for every 30 seconds of playing time.
We therefore maintain that the following revised timeout rules be adopted:
1. In those rare contests (at least for Duke) where there are no media timeouts, each team will be allotted two 60 second timeouts per half which may NOT be cumulated. Moreover, no team will be permitted more than one timeout during the final two minutes of the contest. In the event a game goes to overtime, each team will be given only one 30 second timeout during that 5 minute period.
2. Where media timeouts are in effect, each team will be given one 60 second timeout per half (again non-cumulative) and, if applicable, one 30 second timeout per overtime period. The number of media timeouts should also be limited, ideally to two per half but certainly to no more than three. Media timeouts should not exceed 2 minutes. Lest it be argued that this would preclude games from being televised, we will point out that (a) we were able to watch many local games on the tube in those good old days before there were media timeouts and (b) fewer media timeouts will make commercial time more valuable and each spot should therefore command a somewhat larger price from sponsors. The present plethora of timeouts is more a testament to greed and lack of concern with fan enjoyment than it is to necessity.
Unfortunately, unless there is a general hue and cry from columnists and fans, the odds of the NCAA standing up to the broadcasters and implementing such a change are virtually nil. So all you sheep out there, sit back and enjoy your two and a half hour basketball game ... that is, if your four hour college football game ends in time for you to catch it.
Come to Duke! This is a note just for you lucky kids that are being recruited to play basketball at Duke -- for all the rest of you, the great unwashed, please go on to the next topic since we do not want you to be privy to these secrets.
OK tough guy, here's the bottom line: you would be foolish not to jump at an opportunity to grab the chance to play for the Blue Devils! Is it because you will have the unique opportunity to obtain a world class education while you are playing ball? Nah, you will probably go out of your way to take every gut course offered, so you are likely to grow very little intellectually. Of course, nobody on the outside will know that anyway, so you will be able to achieve the bragging rights of a Duke diploma without having to make a major academic investment.
But that is not the major argument for our case. We believe that Duke should be you first choice for two reasons: exposure and hype. No other team in the country is televised as much as the Devils (29 out of 31 of their regular season games this year). The large majority of those telecasts (20) are ESPN-affiliated (ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU). The remainder of those are either on an over-the-air network or on a regional sports channel that anyone with a cable or satellite subscription can pick up as part of a sports package. As a result, you will have more national exposure than your peers at other institutions.
A by-product of the exposure, particularly at Duke, is that you will get tremendous hype. As a freshman, you will be labeled a "diaper dandy" or the equivalent so many times that your head will spin. And if you become a Coach's favorite, you will be lauded far and wide for skills that you may not even possess. For instance, if your offensive talents turn out to be rather meager, K will judiciously mention at a press conference or two that you are an outstanding defender. Never mind whether that is or is not accurate, his saying so is all that matters because it will be blindly accepted and repeated by every commentator in the free world, and you will find yourself voted ACC Defensive Player of the Year. And regardless of your ability to actually play NBA-level ball, you will find yourself drafted by some myopic General Manager and signed to a lucrative contract that will fix you for life.
Now are there any downsides? Only two come to mind. First, you will not be able to major in Recreation or Communications, so you may have to make at least a passing acquaintance with some academic discipline. But we assure you that it will not be too daunting if you will make at least a passing acquaintance with a book.
Second, if you fail to become a Coach's favorite, you may find yourself in Purgatory. Typically, K will have an Elite 8 that will pick up virtually all of the minutes. If you are not in that group, you may get some first half playing time, but will rarely appear thereafter. And if you are unlucky enough to be placed early on in the K-House (i.e., the Coach's doghouse), you will probably never fully recover (see the sagas of Shavlik Randolph). But you will typically know this after your first game as a freshman. If you are really inventive and are willing to transfer to another school closer to home, you can always cite an ill relative and thereby avoid any NCAA transfer penalty.
So while there are a couple of caution areas, we submit that the case for Duke is overwhelming. If you are dumb enough not to recognize it, then you deserve to be a Tar Heel.
The Problems With Officiating. We know that it is considered good form to offer a sympathetic nod of the head to those that officiate college games, muttering something to the effect that it is a difficult task and that they handle things remarkably well under the circumstances. Well, .....we not so respectfully beg to differ. It is not all that difficult and in fact a great many do a remarkably poor job.
Actually part of the problem with officiating in general derives from the fact that standards of accepted play have changed over the years to the detriment of the game. It may, for example, surprise some younger fans that defensive hand checking is a relatively modern phenomenon, another execrable product of professional basketball. We submit that there is no compelling reason to permit that completely unnecessary physicality away from the basket, and the NCAA should so instruct its officials. In the miraculous event that were to happen, the play would quickly adjust for the better to the new standards. In fact, we would not be surprised to see a decrease in total fouls whistled once the adjustment occurred.
The foregoing aside, it seems to us that there are two major issues with officiating currently. One is simply that too many fouls are called in general. This is particularly true of the ACC, where games routinely degenerate into foul shooting contests. One regularly sees significantly more liberties being granted players in, for example, the Big 10 and PAC 10. On net, we believe that this results in a much better product for all concerned, but particularly for the viewer. Watching an ACC game can be a painful experience, and the pace often militates for the use of one's trusty DVR. So we exhort all officials: don't blow your whistle unless you have CLEARLY witnessed a SIGNIFICANT infraction occurring. In fact, we would go so far as to submit the following as almost axiomatic: THE QUALITY OF AN OFFICIAL IS INVERSELY RELATED TO THE NUMBER OF FOULS HE CALLS.
The other major problem with the way the game is currently called is that offensive players are given FAR too much latitude when going to the hoop. We are quickly reaching the point where a foul is called on every contested drive, and almost invariably on the defensive player. Never mind that replays often show that the defensive player had been virtually immobile. This is just absurd. Players need to be allowed to play reasonable defense, and should be permitted to move with an offensive player to seal off the driving lane. If this results in some body contact, well so be it! Of course, there is always a line that cannot be crossed and officials need to utilize some reasonable discretion in that regard. A defensive player should not be permitted aggressively to thrust his body into his opponent, nor should he be allowed to hack with his arms. But again, incidental body contact should not be the basis of a whistle.
While we generally do take strong issue with many of the fouls that are being called, there is one area where we believe that officials are improperly neglecting to call fouls. It too favors the offense and occurs when a player is trying to get to the basket. We refer to the practice of many centers (in particular) who believe they have the right to back egregiously into their defensive opponents who are desperately trying to hold their ground. Sadly, they effectively do have that right because unless the defensive player takes a theatrical flop, the back-in is never called no matter how blatant. This also is absurd, and wildly favors the behemoth center who may be playing against an undersized opponent. Basketball should be considered a game of skill and finesse rather than brute strength, and must be officiated accordingly.
A few final words on the subject of officiating. We trust that most fans have heard about the recent academic study that identified certain officiating biases. One, of course, is that the home team is generally favored on an overall basis, which should surprise nobody. However, more interesting was the confirmation of something that we have been indignant about for years -- viz., the practice of helping the trailing team play "catch up". There are several reasons why it is difficult to hold a large lead in college basketball. One is that the team leading often loses its intensity and momentum (think K's stall ball disasters) and basketball is largely a game of intensity. But another major reason is that officials will typically give far more latitude to the trailing team: they are allowed to get away with much more physical play and, conversely, the leading team is called for trivial infractions. While we certainly do not believe that this reflects a conscious decision on the part of officials, it is a very real phenomenon that is grossly unfair.
OK, time for a deep breath and stiff drink ... actually, given our level of disdain generally for officiating, we probably need to mix in a Valium or two.