After a long summer break, Duke basketball is finally back. This year’s new team now has one week and two regular season wins against Siena and Bryant under their belt, and are gearing up for a tremendous early season test against final four favorites Kentucky tomorrow night. Although the level of competition for Duke’s first two games is not as high as what they will face during ACC play, there were still some important takeaways and observations one can take from their first two performances.
Grayson Allen In Attack Mode Bodes Well For Duke
After what seemed like a few adjustment games in exhibition play, Grayson Allen has come out to start the regular season on a mission. He has taken a leadership role on a young team devoid of proven scorers by using his superior athleticism and strength and tenacity to attack the rim every chance he gets. Allen’s new found aggression puts tremendous pressure on opposing guards to keep him out of the lane, and he has undoubtedly taken advantage of new rules in college basketball that are honing in on eliminating hand-checking offensive players on the perimeter.
Allen’s relentless driving has resulted in several positives for Duke; the sophomore guard has been able to get to the rim and finish, kick the ball out for open perimeter shots and draw and abundance of fouls. His ability to not only get into the paint but to be in control, and make smart, unselfish decisions once he gets there will be critical for Duke all season long. The prevailing question is will still be if Allen can sustain consistent offensive production for the Blue Devils as one of their go-to players.
It is also worth noting Allen had a couple electrifying dunks during the first two games. It is safe to say we can get used to seeing a good amount of those from him throughout the season.
Amile Jefferson Has a Chance To Have a Very Productive Season
While Duke as a team ended their previous season on a high note with a National Championship, Amile Jefferson ended it with an individual high note of his own with his game altering defense on National Player of the Year Frank Kamisnky. Now entering his senior season at Duke, it is clear that Jefferson is ready to be a high-level contributor on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Already an excellent rebounder and defender during his first three years at Duke, Jefferson enters this season projecting to be a consistent double-double machine for the Blue Devils. He has already gotten off to a good start recording back-to-back double-doubles in Duke’s first two regular season games (19 points, 12 rebounds against Siena and 11 points, 11 rebounds vs. Bryant). While never a featured player on offense, Jefferson has gotten most of his points during his time in Durham on offensive put backs. But it seems as though Duke’s senior foward will have an opportunity to score in a wider variety of ways this season.
Jefferson is not Jahlil Okafor by any means, but with craftiness around the rim, good footwork, considerable length and a few solid moves in the post, he does have the ability to score around the basket. He is also adept at facing up when he gets the ball around the foul line and using a quick first step to beat his man off the dribble. Combined with his relentlessness on the glass, passion for the game, leadership qualities, versatile defensive ability, substantial basketball IQ, and three years of experience under his belt, it looks as though Jefferson, the consummate Duke senior is ready to put it all together during his last college basketball season.
Brandon Ingram is at His Best When He Focuses Attacking the Basket First and Doesn’t Try to Force Threes.
Most freshmen players go through a period in the beginning of their college careers where they adjust to the increased speed of the game and the more physical play. They also settle into the roles they have on their teams and figure out how to play to their strengths.
We saw somewhat of a micro version of this process for Duke freshman Brandon Ingram in the short period of time between the Blue Devil’s first regular season game to their second. In the first game against Siena, he settled for too many contested three-pointers, which he shot 1/9 on, and seemed a little bit rushed and out of control.
The following night against Bryant, we can assume he absorbed some good advice and constructive criticism from Coach K and the other Duke coaches, because Ingram came out looking focused and determined to play to his strengths. With incredible length, athleticism and skill for his size, Ingram has the ability to make plays going to the basket and get to the foul line often.
It isn’t that Ingram should never shoot threes, because he is a good shooter, as he displayed against Bryant last week when he went 4/6 from the perimeter. He just has to make smart decisions about when to shoot and when to drive to the rim. It has only been two games which is a very small sample size, but it seems as though Ingram is a solid percentage perimeter shooter when he catches the ball in rhythm, with his feet set within the flow of the offense. Based on his contrasting performances against Siena and Bryant, it seems like that percentage will drop significantly when he settles for contested threes, threes off the dribble and threes that are not within the flow of the offense.
When he takes these type of low percentage perimeter shots, he is failing to take advantage of the natural talent and skill that he possesses. Ingram will be at his best when he attacks the rim first, and takes set, in rhythm threes when they come to him, instead of trying to hunt three pointers as his first offensive weapon.
Duke Still Has Question Marks About Their Half-Court Offense and Defense
Over their first two games, Duke forced an abundance of turnovers on defense, and scored a ton of points in transition. Hopefully that will be something that they can continue to thrive on throughout the season. It is always good to have the ability to get easy baskets in transition, but to have balance, a team must also be able to generate offense in a half-court setting.
Last year, with Okafor down low and Tyus Jones, a polished consummate point guard running the show, the team had no problem scoring in the half court. This year’s squad though doesn’t have that perpetually poised point guard or enormous low post presence. They will have to rely on penetration from their guards, kick-out threes, drop-offs in the paint and some offensive rebounding by their experienced front line (plus Jeter). What happens on the nights when the threes aren’t falling, or when Allen and/or lngram are having an off night offensively? Can other players (Jones, Jefferson, Kennard) step up and carry the load, or will the offense sputter out? It is on those nights that we will see how tough this young group is. They dynamics of Duke’s half-court offense as the season progresses will be one of the determining factors in how high the ceiling for this team is.
As for their defense, Duke forced many turnovers in their first two match-ups, as was mentioned above. But they also made far too many mistakes and miscommunications on the defensive end that resulted in layups or open threes for opponents. A learning curve on defense is to be expected for a team integrating as many new and young players as Duke is this year, and despite showing inconsistencies early, this Blue Devils squad is full of long, athletic, quick players and has the potential to be a very good defensive team.
The best case scenario for this team is that the younger players learn and are able to pick up defensive rotations quickly, meshing with a quality returning group of defenders in Plume, Jefferson, Jones and Allen, allowing Duke to develop a formidable and consistent defense by the end of the season. The worst case scenario is that the freshmen fail to improve on defense quickly enough, and Duke remains inconsistent on that end throughout the entire year, which would likely douse any Final Four hopes this team may have.