With a fine exhibition performance and a commitment from a high school superstar, it was already a great day to be a Duke fan. But then we got the rare privilege to watch a game with Larry Bird. No, not sharing popcorn or anything, but just to see him courtside was amazing. He's beyond an icon to us. ItÂs a good bet that a lot of the players felt pretty motivated as well.
LetÂs start with the new kid: Deng did a lot of tremendously smart things, including passes, defense, and rebounding. He also demonstrated his down low game, taking the ball to the hoop on several occasions and using his length ÂheÂs really long Â to get the shot off against taller opponents.
We have been trying to figure out who he reminds us of, and while it makes sense it is an imperfect comparison, but youÂll understand if after youÂve seen him play: Manute Bol.
Manute was terribly gawky and also quite stiff, and you canÂt say that about Deng. But you can point to his overall movement Â sometimes he looks a lot slower than he really is - and his long arms and legs, and yes, he is vaguely remiscent of Bol. But heÂs no Bol. HeÂs a very sophisticated, smart player who uses his length to get open and to maneuver to the basket. One of the cooler moves he did was when he sort of ducked under the defenders and then just unfurled himself towards the basket. HeÂs definitely unlike anyone else Duke has ever seen, and thatÂs really beyond question. Already.
After a somewhat lackluster first half, or at least the majority of it, Duke woke up late behind JJ Redick and Daniel Ewing, who are both maturing into really fine guards, and ran up a 15 point lead. EA cut it down Â these guys are actually pretty good Â to nine for the half. Duke shot 85.4% from the bonusphere in the first half. Defense (and turnovers) were a serious motive.
But then in the second half, Duke pretty much exploded, and you really got a feel for how this team can be. In a nutshell, damn good.
WhatÂs cool is watching how they run, because just about everyone can do it. After a certain point, it was almost a blur Â was that Duhon or Dockery? Did Shelden make that steal or Shavlik? Who told Lee Melchionni he could take the ball down the middle? How does Deng play the middle of a break so well?
To the rest of the players now:
Duhon: We thought DuhonÂs first half was shaky, but his second was really, really solid. He ran his team with aplomb and made a number of really sharp passes. Several were dropped, but knew how to do it. He was dropping some beauties. After a disappointing first half, he was brilliant at times in the second. He ended up with 10 assists.
Redick: to us, Redick may be the most improved player on the team. He is much quicker, much more confident in his entire game, and is turning into a vocal leader. Watch him on defense Â heÂs like a raffic cop, waving people through, telling people where they need to be. HeÂs very good at it.
Ewing Daniel Ewing came off the bench Â Duhon, Redick, Randolph, Williams, and Deng started Â but he was one of the better players on the floor. Just as always, he shot well, and wisely, but his defense was really sharp, and like Redick, he is emerging, we think, as a leader.
Dockery: Sean Dockery continues to supply tremendous energy off the bench, and to apply great ball pressure. Now, though, he is learning to tone down the wilder aspects of his game for the sake of the team.
Williams: Shelden has mastered a little turnaround jumper which really adds a lot to his game. Standard elements Â blocking shots, rebounding are areas where he has a long reputation. The offense Â and fouling less Â really help his game.
Randolph: Shavlik is still recovering from surgery, and is estimated at 85%. So heÂs a bit behind, but heÂs strong enough now to muscle with anyone, and periodiically he can run past his opponent.
Lee Melchionni: This kid was a steal last year, and heÂs better this seaon. He has a real nose for the basket, and isnÂt opposed to running over someone to get there.
Randolph & Thompson: Neither showed revolutionary growth, but both some great improvement.
All in all, after a slow beginning, it was a great pertormance, and certainly something to build on.
Notes Â this team will see almost no zone: with four starters able to hit the three, and others In reserve you can count on itÂ .Deng also reminds us, physically, somewhat of Tony LangÂ ..the only point when Larry Bird seemed to really sit up was near the end of the first half, when Redick started to play smart defensive basketball and tossed up a few JÂs as wellÂ .to everyone who didnÂt come tonight (there were way too many empty seats) Â this is an unusual groupÂ you are going to miss a lot if you donÂt make it to gamesÂ