As Barry Jacobs reminded us in a column recently as well as in the Duke's Fan's Guide To ACC Basketball 2012-13, coming into this season, Mason Plumlee is one of the relatively few players to hit a higher percentage from the floor (57.2% than the line (52.8%). That's still true this season. However, the numbers now are 77.4% from the floor and 77.3% from the line. It's still quite early, but Plumlee appears to be in the midst of a dramatic improvement. Nowhere has this been more clear than in his performance against Minnesota.
Despite this being his worst shooting game from the floor thus far (54.5%) Plumlee put up highly impressive numbers: 20 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, a block and a steal.
Moreover, with the exception of perhaps two fouls, he played a very smart game. He was assertive with the ball, taking it straight up rather than double or triple pumping as he did earlier in his career. He's able to help break, showing excellent ballhandling skills. And he was 8-10 from the foul line, something that a younger Plumlee, had he caught a ride in a certain DeLorean from two years ago to Hawaii Thursday night, would never have believed.
In a word, as Coach K said after the game, Plumlee has matured. He's become very impressive and is looking like a likely lottery pick.
His next challenge: to control his fouls, particularly foolish ones.
Although he is not 100% due to his leg injury, Seth Curry is also looking like a different player. Without going overboard, this is the first time in his career that he can truly be compared to his brother Stephen, not entirely because Stephen is clearly better, but in the sense that he's also elevated past his natural limitations.
Curry has slowed down and is playing at a completely different level. Remember the videos we saw when he was at Liberty? At that level, he was shredding people - dribbling behind the back, crossovers, overwhelming less talented players.
He found out that he wasn't able to do that at Duke, that other players at this level were as talented. He's been a very solid player here and a reliable scorer, but at this point, his understanding of his abilities and exactly what he can do with them is hugely impressive.
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Again, not to go overboard, but there are some players throughout the history of the game who have greatly exceeded their physical talents. Just 6-1, Isaiah Thomas was able to go inside on just about anyone. Larry Bird's hand-eye coordination and brilliant conception of where players would be when he put the ball there put him on another plane entirely.
Closer to home and more prosaically, Jon Scheyer could force the game to assume his own pace, and when he did, he could play mistake-free basketball as long as anyone we can remember.Â Kendall Marshall has never been an elite athlete, but he could, from anywhere on the court, put anyone in a position to score in the blink of an eye.
Curry is also not an elite athlete, but he's showing an understanding of the game we have not seen from him previously. He's playing at an remarkably high level.
Ryan Kelly is not getting the attention the other two are but he, too, has improved a lot. His shot has always been reliable, but now his timing, his ability to balance outside and inside, an improved ability to drive and a better ability to handle mismatches have put him on a new level too.
We're also struck with the different player Quinn Cook is now that he's healthy. He's not putting out the huge assist/turnover ratio he had last year, but a healthier Cook is gambling more and like any gambler, some work and some don't. The key for him is knowing when he can get away with it. But watching him is becoming a lot of fun.Â Did you catch that spin move in the lane, in traffic? Gorgeous.
You'd expect Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry to shoot well from three point range, and perhaps rookie Rasheed Sulaimon. Kelly is off his career pace currently at just 27.3%, but everyone knows what he is capable of. Curry is hitting at a 40% clip and Sulaimon at 44.4%.
And Cook? Currently 50%.
More impressively, he managed five steals, something that last year, with his knee still recovering, he could never have done.
The other half of Duke's dynamic young backcourt, Sulaimon, was again solid, shooting 4-7 and finishing with 11 points.
During the game, one of the announcers said that one of Duke's advantage is that their players know their roles better than most teams. Fair point, as far as it goes.
Duke now has a post player, a big man who can go inside-out, a senior guard who is playing his best despite a lingering injury, a young point guard who is in the process of leaving flash behind for substance and a rising freshman star who can do a lot of different things.
But there are other roles which haven't yet been fully fleshed out. Josh Hairston has nailed down a role as the most experienced big player on the bench, and a guy who will do the dirty work inside. Tyler Thornton is a bulldog on defense and is doing what he has done for his entire time at Duke.
Beyond them, though, we have yet to see how Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy will find niches. Both should; they are talented players. Jefferson may need to fill out, but he has immense potential.
And may we remind you that we have not yet seen Marshall Plumlee.
The coaching staff is reportedly thrilled with his progress, and if his brother coninues to stack up silly fouls, his role is ready-made: be the second Plumlee. Miles did it fairly well during his career. We have a suspicion that Marshall may be better.
Let's be clear about the Gophers: this is, by his own admission, Tubby Smith's best team at Minnesota. They're big enough and talented enough to give anyone in the Big Ten - IU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State a serious game and to win a few as well. They're no pushover.
That Duke was never really threatened by them, that they handled them with relative ease speaks volumes about where this team is.