Faced with the absence of Nolan Smith, Mason Plumlee, and Jordan Davidson, and down to eight scholarship players, Duke was in a worse situation than they might have expected against Greensboro. So why not do the unexpected?
When they called out the starting lineups, no one expected to hear the name Olek Czyz. Yet there the 6-7 sophomore was. And what's more, he played pretty well.
Czyz got 24 minutes in his first start, or more than half of what he got all of last season. He started with a steal and a driving dunk, and finished with six points, six boards, three assists and two steals - a solid performance.
More importantly, he didn't look lost on the court, and most importantly not on defense. Last season, you couldn't really say Czyz belonged. Friday night, he definitely did.
Duke of course had a lot more size, not to mention talent, than did UNC-G. That cuts both ways, of course. Against Findlay, they had trouble dealing with the size, not to mention playing without Smith, who is a critical backcourt performer. This time out, not so much.
Jon Scheyer handled the point, of course, but others pitched in. Kyle Singler brought the ball down fairly often, for one thing. And for another, Duke moved the ball beautifully.
One of the most felicitous aspects of basketball is passing, and Duke seems to have a nice grip on that. Duke moved the ball around the perimeter with ease and several guys had some very nice passes inside for scores. Maybe the only guy who didn't have a nice inside pass was Miles Plumlee, and we could be overlooking one.
Running and defense aside, Duke looked smart, aggressive, quick, and powerful. Again, this wasn't the case against Findlay, at least not in the first half, and we didn't except things to look so promising without Smith.
There's a lot to like, in other words.
Czyz's performance was great to see, but it was also great to see Andre Dawkins playing aggressively and with swagger. Dawkins finished with eight points, three boards and two assists. He also had a tremendous block and in general showed a lot more athleticism than he has so far. You can see where the reputation comes from.
Ryan Kelly got his first three and demonstrated, again, that he has a nice feel for the game. He's developing a nice habit of understanding where the game is going and a lot of his passes are one pass ahead with the next pass being an assist. He's not ready inside, but his outside stroke is very good.
Miles Plumlee continues to show great progress from last year. He's emerging as an excellent shotblocker, with three on the night, and an excellent rebounder, having led his team with nine.
Scheyer at this point is a known commodity,and Singler is too, although many will still be surprised to see what tremendous shape he's in. His transformation is the most remarkable since J.J. Redick chiseled his body into brilliant condition as a junior.
Brian Zoubek is at a disadvantage against smaller teams, but he played well and relentessly. With his feet in good health, you can see that, despite a significant lack of leaping ability, the guy can play under the basket.
The one guy who hasn't been mentioned thus far is Lance Thomas, who played a really, really nice game. He was a key defender as you might expect, but he also rebounded well and gave UNC-G's perimeter a lot of trouble defensively. He's also more than willing to hit the floor and do dirty work.
This guy has come an amazingly long way. When he got to Duke, his
skills were seriously limited. Now he's become one of those guys who might have a minimal statistical profile, but who can have a huge impact on the game, by harassment if nothing else. It's more than that, though. It's defensive effort, it's solid rebounding (seven), smart shooting (4-6) and leadership. He'll never get the full respect he deserves, but he deserves a lot.
Defensively, Duke played well although they didn't force many turnovers (14) and switched into zone more than Duke fans may be used to. They'll probably need to do that later, if only to conserve energy.
As far as the missing players go, Davidson should be back Monday, Smith Tuesday, and Plumlee as soon as his wrist allows. That's still up in the air, although Duke has huge resources for healing, as we learned when Elton Brand injured his foot and came back far faster than anyone thought possible.
Our hunch is that it won't be as long as it might be.
In the meantime, Duke used the absence of Smith and Plumlee to allow others to step up. Czyz got an idea of what role he could play, and the elder Plumlee got to be the focus in the post, where he's passed Zoubek. You may remember he started very early last year before losing his spot to Zoubek when his confidence evaporated.
Part of that was due to his inexperience and unfamiliarity with the system. At this point, if he can continue to stay out of foul trouble (we thought that was a potential major problem in this game across the board, not just for Plumlee), he's a really good defender and rebounder and his offense will come.
When Smith returns Tuesday, it'll be a different team, early though it is. Individually, everyone - and we mean everyone - is improving rapidly. Roles have to be sorted out, and weaknesses compensated for. Still, at this point, there is obvious potential. This is a fun team.
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