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DBR Catches Some Pickup Hoops

Well we finally got a chance to get over to see some pickup hoops ourselves
Wednesday afternoon. What did we think? Well, to be honest, a mixed bag.

Last year, our early criticism was that it was obviously a talented team, but
they didn't seem to communicate well early on.  As it turned out, Jason
Williams verified that, saying that Brand, Avery, and Maggette were sort of one
team and there were obvious groups on the team.

That doesn't seem to be the case this year.  We saw a lot of camaraderie
and support, and a couple of times, we saw the ball zip around the perimeter in
ways you don't normally see in pickup hoops.

That said, though these guys obviously enjoy each others company, and seem to
genuninely like each other, there's no question that this group isn't as
talented as last years, but we all knew that. Still, it was a bit startling to
see just how skinny the freshmen (Jason Williams aside) are.

We saw three separate games, and to us the most impressive players were
Battier, Williams, and Dunleavy.  Now on to the particulars.

Battier was pretty dominant.  You'd expect that in some ways - he's a
gifted upperclassmen with six underclassmen who aren't at his level (yet). 
But what surprised us a lot was his ballhandling and passing. We hadn't seen him
do much of either previously.  However, he handled the ball well and made
some passes which honestly startled us a bit. Not Birdlike, but hard bullet
passes which were usually on the mark.  The defense was what you'd expect
from Battier, with a few blocked shots thrown in.  All in all, a very solid
game with some new wrinkles. If you take his defense, add in the three point
shooting he demonstrated at times last season, and add in the passing and the
cutting, he's a greatly improved player.  It was surprising. At one point
he literally dribbled a circle around Casey Sanders. He also was demanding of
his teammates, which was great to see.  He'll need to yell a lot this year.

Jason Williams was also a pretty vocal guy. We were impressed with his
communication skills as much as anything, but he also made some wonderful
passes, and wasn't scared at all to take it in to the big guys.  He's not
tall, but he is powerfully built and quite confident.  He has a Cross
tattooed on his left chest (he was on skins obviously).  He led the break
usually and several times found Dunleavy for nice scores.

We told you they were skinny. Click on the image for a full
size picture of Dunleavy & Sanders

Dunleavy impressed us a lot. The questions about this kid all revolve around
defense, but in Duke's system, there is usually help available, and though this
is rarely understood anymore, you don't have to be blindingly quick if you think
quickly. Dunleavy does that.  He made several passes which were gorgeous,
hit a few threes, some tip-ins, we saw some off-handed layups - just generally a
kid who understands the game and, like others before him, notably Don Nelson and
Larry Bird, will exceed his physical gifts.  He is exceedingly smart on the
court, and a better athlete than we'd thought, though his athleticism had been
somewhat lowballed.  On the other hand, he is painfully skinny. He'll play
this year, but he'll be at a disadvantage. Next year, and his junior year, he'll
be a guy like maybe Iturbe at his sneakiest,  with a bit of Ferry and Googs
thrown in.  He has that kind of smart all around game, but it won't be
fully understood until he gains 20 or 30 pounds. 

Cwell played and did well, and was especially focused on the younger players.
He's clearly taking his leadership responsibilities seriously  

Nate didn't play; we heard he had a strained back.  He did shoot around,
as did Boozer, though since his foot injury (he broke a bone if you missed it)
hasn't healed, and won't for some weeks,  he didn't move fast or anything.
He just shot.  Physically he's imposing and clearly, even as a gimp, the
most suitable guy for inside play right now.

Matt Christensen was back, and he played reasonably well after a knee strain,
though it was difficult at times for him to maneuver under the basket. 
He's not the most talented big man Duke has had, but he's big and he's smart and
if he plays as smart as he did his freshman year, he'll be a contributor.

Nick Horvath is a gamer.  We heard today that he's had his nose broken
twice already. We couldn't confirm that independently, but he's a kid who's not
scared to throw himself in there.  He also runs well, and has a nice J,
which may come in handy.  He may surprise people and compete for a starting
spot by the end of the year if he improves rapidly.  Right now he's not a
particularly powerful inside player, but he is tough and Duke fans will like him
a lot we think. As he said after the ACC-SEC Classic, "wait til I gain 35

Of all the players there, the one with the most potential is likely Casey
Sanders.  Sanders is even thinner than Dunleavy.  However, while
Dunleavy is thin, he's played pickup with the Blazers, where his dad of course
coaches. Sanders hasn't had that kind of background.  As we said, he's
really skinny - his pants dropped down about three inches, and it wasn't like
there was much to hold them up.  At times he seemed uncertain about what to
do under the basket, and there's no way, currently, he can muscle with bigger
ACC players like Collier, Baxter, or Haywood. 

Also, his shot is untutored.  But we looked past all that when we
started to see a few flashes of what he can do.  First of all, he runs like
a dream.  He doesn't always understand what to do or when to do it, but
lifting, coaching and repetition will cure that. When you look at Sanders, you
see someone who is really thin at first.  But if you imagine 40 lbs on that
frame, the potential is frightening.  Casey will win time this year if he
plays solid defense, blocks shots, rebounds, and runs.  He is immensely
gifted but sometimes doesn't seem to realize it.  When he does, and when
the strength is there and the confidence and the knowledge, he's maybe the most
gifted big man Duke has ever had.  Duke has never had a guy who could run
that well.  He has a learning curve, but so much to work with!

There were a few other guys around. Ricky Price was there, though he didn't
play.  Andre Buckner played and has the potential to be a pest a la Wojo
(and you can be sure Wojo will see that too).  There was also a guy who
showed up, a goateed guy, who at first we thought might be Rafael Vidaurreta 
from Wake Forest.  He looked bigger from upstairs than he did down, but
he's still a big kid. We found out he'll probably walk on. He's maybe 6-5, and
his name is Michael Caroland.  At one point he absolutely decked Dunleavy.

All things considered, especially when Boozer gets back, there will be a
solid starting five - Boozer, Battier, C-well, probably James and Williams,
though it might make sense to let Nate be a wise hand from the bench. 
Either way, the starting five should be ok by December or so.  Until Boozer
is back, though, the inside is vulnerable (though maybe James could play inside
more than we suspect), as neither Sanders nor Christensen seemed able to stick
it in consistently.

But this year's strength is the communication.  Skinniness will be a
problem, have no doubt, but Williams, Battier, Dunleavy,  and C-well are
all good passers, and the Captains are taking their jobs seriously.  If
three guys can develop sufficiently to come off the bench, this team,while not
as powerful as last years, could be pretty good.  Moreover, it's a very
likable group of guys.  We think the fans will take to them quickly.

Injury Footnotes: when he left the court, Williams said he wasn't feeling
well, which might have explained his lack of explosiveness.  Still, he was
a dominant figure. Dunleavy limped early, James had a back strain, Christensen's
knee is well enough to play, and Boozer is on the mend.