A common assumption about Duke's team is that you take Dahntay Jones out,
plug Luol Deng in, and the machine rolls on. That's okay and rational, but
the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
First, while everyone else of consequence returns, except Andre Buckner, who
made his legacy when he took on Matt Doherty, an act of defiance, we learned
later, that Doherty's own team likely envied, it's not exactly like they are
returning as the same players. To a man, they're all improved. Duhon
and Redick are quicker, Ewing is stronger, Dockery is more under control,
Melchionni is shaping up to be a classic overachiever, and Williams,
Randolph, Horvath and Thompson are all much bigger, stronger and bring
more evolved big man skills to the game.
So it's not exactly the same group. Then add Deng in and while at least
in the short term you give up something on defense (but not necessarily in the
long run), you gain an enormously versatile player who can do pretty much whatever
After watching him a bit, we are starting to see some of the things that have
people buzzing. He's a very unconventional player in some ways - he's
extremely lanky, and often it seems he's not moving that fast. But there
are two sides to that coin: a) being so long his speed is deceptive, and b)
being so long he sometimes doesn't need to be that quick.
Deng's versatility will make him really key to this team, and his teammates
seem to relish what he offers. But it's not like this is a team that
depends on a freshman star or anything.
After erratic sophomore and junior years, Duhon seems determined to live up
to his potential, and if he does that, Duke will be in great shape. He's a
highly skilled passer, a better shooter than he has shown, and a guy capable of
leading this team.
Another guy who is stepping up as a leader is JJ Redick. We watched him in
the EA exhibition game, and he was very demonstrative. Aside from his
startling range, Redick has gotten much quicker, has improved defensively, and
is emerging as a much, much better player than he was last year. Toss his
shooting out for now: the kid is becoming a superb ballplayer.
And Daniel Ewing is also proving to be a leader. He's been on winning
teams his entire life, and he's a big part of that. He just does what the
team needs, whether it's scoring, defense, rebounding, whatever it is, he's
doing it. He's worked hard to get stronger, and that can only help.
The big weakness last year was generally thought to be the frontcourt, and a
year's experience plus a lot of weightlifting has addressed a lot of that.
When Shelden Williams arrived last year, he was an obvious talent, but his
offensive fundamentals were really weak. They improved during the season,
though, and he has obviously put a lot of time in since then. He has a
nifty little turnaround jumper now; last year, he didn't really seem comfortable
pivoting. Michael Thompson has put a lot of effort into his game, and it
shows: he's able to really play at this level, where last year, maybe because he
lacked confidence, he couldn't quite do it. Now you see him periodically
running the court, finishing breaks, rebounding powerfully, working around the
basket. Like Williams, he's also just about as big as a house, so there's
no getting around him. He's almost as big (and perhaps at a similar point
in his development) as Brendan Haywood was as a sophomore.
Then there's Shavlik Randolph. Last year, we saw flashes of brilliance,
but like everyone else, we had no clue what he was dealing with
injury-wise. To be frank, we had heard rumors, and a couple of people told
us during his senior year at Broughton - watch him, he's got a
hitch. There's something wrong with his gait.
That didn't prevent him from hunting people down and doing tomahawk blocks in
traffic. He showed a lot of athletic versatility early on, before his
problems became more serious.
Now he's bulked up a lot, and is said to be at about 85% of capacity.
We saw him go toe-to-toe with Shelden Williams in the Blue-White game, and it
got pretty nasty at times. Yet he never backed down. Shavlik will be
getting in shape as the season moves on, but we hope he'll round into form
And while we didn't really think he could, after watching Deng play just a
bit, we recognize he can play in the post, too. We saw him post one guy,
then do a fascinating drive where he seemed to take off somewhere near the foul
line, kind of dip the ball down under a defender, then just sort of unfold his
body on the way to the basket. You know, it wasn't a dunk, it wasn't a
breathaking block, or Grant Hill breaking up a 4-on-1, but it was, nonetheless,
breathtaking. You just can't imagine seeing someone - we were going to say
stay in the air so long, but that's old news. But maybe to stay in the air
and be so relaxed. Jordan would have reached to his limit. Vince
Carter would have, too. Deng? He never really did. He brought
his arm down to get through, then brought it back up and just sort of unrolled
it. He never fully extended himself, and never really needed to.
Just wait. You'll see what we're talking about.
So with weapons like Redick (bombs and drives), Ewing (a superb midrange
game), Williams (an emerging power player rapidly mastering his position),
Randolph (highly skilled big man) and Deng (smart beyond his years and with a
deep bench, what is the key for Duke?
Our guess is it's Chris Duhon. Despite the raves about Deng - and they
seem entirely justified based on what we've seen - Duhon is the absolute key to
making this team work. He is capable of some truly terrible games, but he
is also capable of three great things; four really: 1) defense; 2) passing; 3)
shooting; 4) leadership. In the second half of the exhibition game, we saw
Duhon put on, at times, a clinic. Last year, he spent so much time
worrying that he never quite got into the groove, and his game suffered.
Duke could go with Ewing and Redick, and Ewing has point skills, but not the way
Duhon does. Neither does Dockery, at least not yet.
A second key for Duke is how well everyone adjusts to their roles, because
they'll all change. Deng's ascent could irritate veterans on a less
cohesive team, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Horvath is a guy who
has busted his butt and is still a reserve. A lesser guy would carp on
that. Ewing and Redick supposedly had some troubles seeing how they could
play together last season, but at the end, they were both just deadly
weapons. Redick's eruption in the ACC Finals was a performance for the
ages, but Ewing put the team on his back to get them there. See? There's
that winning thing again.
Finally, Duke poses some extreme matchup problems, starting with Redick.
Herb Sendek told his players to pick him up at the center court logo, and he
wasn't joking - and you could see why in the tournament. Redick, and also
Ewing, Randolph, Duhon, and Deng make a zone a very bad idea. So don't
look for a lot of zone against Duke.
In the matchups, after you figure out if you can double team (and if so,
who), you're left with Shelden Williams, who is just getting huge, and powerful,
inside. Deng can shoot from the perimeter or drive to the basket with
equal aplomb - or pass it off, too, for that matter. To whom? Well, to
Redick or Melchionni, both of whom get macho about driving; or to Williams, or
to Ewing for one of his gorgeous mid-range shots. By the way, for everyone
who says modern players have forgotten the middle game - Daniel, take a bow.
And if Dockery is in the game, and the court is spread, he's very hard to
And can we take a minute to talk about Melchionni? What we love about
this kid - and we're guessing K loves it, too - is he plays with a burning
intensity. There was one game last year where Coach K benched
everyone (NC A&T). Melchionni was ready, stepped up, and got the
job done. Get used to that. A kid with his mental toughness is a
really good find. The more he plays, the better the overall chemistry of
the team will be, because no one will play harder but he'll make everyone want
At the Blue-White game, Coach K said this team "has an opportunity to be
really good," and he meant it.And they do. But it's not as if
Williams still has to prove he's not foul prone. Randolph still has to
recover and contribute. Duhon has to regain his composure and a sense of
purpose on the court. And as much as we like Melchionni, he's still
got to guard guys like Rashad McCants.
And no matter what, Duke will count on young players to make key shots and
make big plays. But that's okay, because the kids are alright. And as the
year goes on, they'll be a lot more alright. Could they pull six straight
- could Horvath be the only player ever to win five rings? It won't be
easy, but it'll be possible.
We know we keep repeating this idea, but it's a big deal: Duke basketball is
in a golden age. If you can go and you choose not to, and you love
basketball, man are you going to miss some great hoops. This is a fun
bunch now, and they're just getting started.