There's a lot to take away from the Duke-UCLA game, but perhaps the biggest thing is that we saw a glimpse of just how good this team could become.
At the beginning of the season, remember, everyone anticipated that Duke would start Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. Jefferson did start for awhile before being supplanted, but Sulaimon went into a deep, hard to understand funk.
Against UCLA, both players showed that they can bring extra dimensions to the team. Sulaimon cut his teeth as a defender, and on Thursday showed he could be fluid in the offense as a scorer and passer. And for the first time in awhile, Jefferson showed the tremendous IQ that Coach K raved about in the preseason.
It's certainly no knock on Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston to say that Duke could be better with the two younger players playing more. Both guys have had understated but solid careers at Duke. Hairston will be remembered as a really solid role player who could step in and be effective, and also as a tremendous help defender.
But we're not sure he's ever put together a stat line like Jefferson did against the Bruins.
Jefferson had 11 points on 5-6 from the floor, seven rebounds, two blocks and two assists.
He's a sneaky smart passer. As much as we love what Hairston has accomplished at Duke - think where Duke's defense, still shaky at times, would be without him - he's a limited role player. He understands and accepts it, but that's who he is.
Jefferson could become a lot more than that.
After the game, Sulaimon said he felt a huge weight was off his shoulders and teammate Rodney Hood said Sulaimon was "definitely" out of the dog house.
That's not Hood's call, but point taken.
The star of the night though was Jabari Parker.
Parker finished with 23 points, 10 boards and five assists.
What's remarkable about his game is that while he could certainly try to impose himself on an opponent, while he could shoot and swagger and bully, he doesn't really do that. He's skilled enough that you have to commit to ways to stop him, and when you choose option A or B he just takes C or D.
So stop the three and he drives. Stop the drive and he pops the three. Put a big guy on him and he shoots. Put a little guy on him and he posts up. Double or triple team him and he finds the open guy.
It's like a computer generating chess moves. You can appreciate it, you can emulate it, but chances are you can't do it and you can't stop him from doing it either.
He's on a different level than just about anyone we've seen in years. We don't know where he'll end up, but when you talk about precocious players who get the game like this, you think of these guys: Robertson, Bird, Johnson, DiGregorio, Maravich, Barry, and more recently, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and to an extent LeBron James.
The LeBron comparison is generally wrong. First, only LeBron is carved from granite. Only LeBron can play five positions. Only LeBron can go into a summer committed to lose weight and gain 10 lbs. of muscle.
Only LeBron could pick up tomorrow and play pro football.
Parker is not LeBron. Nor is he Rick Barry or Oscar Robertson.
What you can say though, and fairly, is that as a young player, he demonstrates an amazing grasp of the game, at least on offense (his defense is not there yet). Not to be mystical, but it's like the game flows through him. He never holds the rhythm unfairly or too long.
That's also why he's not the next Carmelo. If Anthony were a musician, he'd be the lead guitarist who couldn't shut up.
He's not there yet, but Parker shows signs of becoming a master at his craft. It would be exciting no matter when it happened, but in our era, with so many players with only partially realized skills, it's really unusual.
The other guy who is really coming on is Quinn Cook.
Cook had five assists and eight steals. We've always seen steals and turnovers as points denied and tend to add them to the rebounding (defensive) column to give a truer insight.
Duke had 41 rebounds to UCLA's 33. The Bruins had 13 turnovers. You can do the math.
Duke pulled away in the second half and ended up eviscerating UCLA, but if you think the final margin is the final story, think again.
After years of Ben Howland's effective but dull style, Steve Alford - and consider his background when you read this - turned up in Madison Square Garden with an athletic, mobile, fun team which likes to run as much as possible.
Even his own kid, Bryce, who is a bit shall we say overconfident, is really good.
There was a stretch in this game when UCLA looked like worldbeaters. The Bruins were running and gunning and exciting. Dunk City may have some competition.
Alford's team is a lot more athletic than we imagined. Quite honestly, we thought Duke would blow past them. Duke did, of course in the end, but UCLA ran with them the whole way.
The Alford hiring was controversial and not fully accepted in Westwood, but we saw plenty in this game to keep us intrigued.
As for Duke, the Blue Devils get Eastern Michigan and Elon for holiday games before heading to South Bend for the first ACC game with the Irish on January 4th.
If Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson keep surging, Duke's ceiling will get correspondingly higher.
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