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A Look At Duke Basketball After Two Exhibitions

What is Duke working with and where can it go?

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Duke completed its preseason exhibition series Wednesday night with a 119-54 victory over defending CIAA champion Livingston. The next time we see the 2015-16 Blue Devils in action, it will be for real against Siena in the season opener.

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It’s always hard to know what to make of the two exhibition games. For the last nine years, Duke has played one of the extra games against the reigning Division II national champion. That almost always insured a strong, confident opponent – even though in most cases, the defending champs are trying to replace key players.

Florida Southern, which the Devils beat 112-68 last week, is missing four starters off the team that won the DII national title last spring. Livingstone played with just one returning starter off last year’s CIAA champs (the Blue Bears have four other veterans who will rejoin the team after first semester).

So take the two lopsided victories with a grain of salt. Both wins were impressive, yes, but they came against two teams that Boston College – far and away the weakest ACC team this season – would likely manhandle too … well, at least the Eagles would probably beat both teams.

Still, the two games (and the public Blue-White scrimmage) offered us a chance to watch Mike Krzyzewski try and rebuild his defending national champions. This too is an entirely new team, built around six freshmen, a transfer and four returning players – but even the quartet of veterans all have new roles. You might as well compare this team to Coach K’s 1991 national champs as to last year’s title squad.

This is a unique team.

"We’re a real young team," Krzyzewski said after the Livingstone win. "This is the youngest we’ve been in a long time … in a long time. Our older guys are young in experience – as far as starts. Maybe – and this is just a guess – this might be the youngest in terms of [returning] starts that we’ve had since Dawkins and those guys were freshmen."

Let’s check that.

Duke returns four players from last year’s champs (five if you count walk-on Nick Pagliuca, but for the time being, let’s leave walk-ons out of the equation). Those four players come into this season with a combined 77 career starts – 59 for Amile Jefferson and 18 for Matt Jones. Neither Marshall Plumlee nor Grayson Allen has ever started a game at Duke.

Upon review, the 1982-83 team that K referenced had far more experience at hand. Seniors Tom Emma (51 starts in his first three seasons). Mike Tissaw (43 starts) and Chip Engelland (28 starts) had 122 starts between them. And that does count junior Doug McNeely (16 starts), sophomores Dan Meagher (10 starts as a freshman), Todd Anderson (7 starts), Greg Wendt (4 starts) and Jay Bryan (2) starts. That’s a grand total of 161 starts coming into the season – more than twice as many as this year’s team.

Of course, the 1982-83 Blue Devils played very young because Krzyzewski elected to go with his kids instead of his veterans. Four of the top five players in minutes played were freshman. But he did have veteran options.

That was very much the case a year ago.

Three freshmen played major roles all season and a fourth (Allen) saw significant action late in the season. But Krzyzewski started that season with a strong veteran core – senior Quinn Cook had 60 career starts before the season and junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon added 50 more. Amile Jefferson (33 career starts at that point) and sophomore Matt Jones (four career starts) completed the veteran core.

I actually found two Duke teams that might challenge the 2015-6 Blue Devils as Coach K’s youngest team:

-- The 1999-2000 team technically returned 142 previous starts, which is a lot. But 141 of those starts were by two players – Shane Battier and Chris Carrawell. Redshirt junior Nate James had one career start. So that team had a very small veteran core, although it was quite an exceptional trio of returning veterans.

-- The 2006-07 team is the only Duke team I can find with less returning experience than this year’s team. Remember, that was a team without a senior. Junior DeMarcus Nelson was the sole upperclassman, but he was often injured in his first two seasons and came into the year with just nine previous starts. The most experienced players on the team were sophomores Greg Paulus (33 starts as a freshman) and Josh McRoberts (31 starts). The only other player with starting experience was redshirt sophomore Dave McClure, who had started three games in 2005.

That’s 76 career starts – one less than the 77 starts that Jefferson and Jones provide to this year’s team.

Most of the other very young Duke teams in recent years – 2000 and 2015 especially – have fared very well, but the 2007 team ended up with a disappointing season by Duke standards (22 wins, fourth-place ACC finish, first-round exits from the ACC and NCAA Tournaments).

However, that team suffered a significant setback when Paulus – the team’s most experienced player (by a shade over McRoberts and Nelson) and expected to be the leader at point guard – broke his foot in October and missed all of preseason practice. He returned in time to play in the opener, but it took him a long time to mesh with the teammates he was due to lead and the team never really came together.

That’s relevant because of what’s happened in the two exhibition games this year – veteran Matt Jones suffered a groin injury in the Florida Southern win, then Amile Jefferson injured his ankle in the early minutes of the Livingstone win.

Take those two veterans out of the equation and Coach K does not have a single player on his roster who has ever started a game at Duke before!

That’s a scary proposition.

Of course, it’s probably not that bad. Krzyzewski said Wednesday night that Matt Jones should rejoin the team in time for the opener and that the first indications are that Jefferson suffered no more than a sprained ankle – and while those can be long-term problems, the fact that he was walking without crutches after suffering the injury is a good sign.

The point is, this is a very young team – even with Jones and Jefferson back in action. It’s going to be even less experienced than last season’s national champs. Expect some ups and downs, especially early in the season.


-- Grayson Allen did not play particularly well against Southern Florida. He remedied that against Livingstone.

It’s my belief that he struggled in the first exhibition as he attempted to find his new role. A year ago, he would come off the bench, put his head down and drive to the basket – to either score or get fouled.

"Towards the end of the year, I was kind of putting my head down and driving," he last month. "I could do that because I was coming off the bench and there wasn’t a lot of attention on me. As I drive the ball more, there’s going to be more attention, so I have to learn to make the extra pass and see the floor better."

Allen had 14 assists in 35 games last season. He had 11 in the two exhibitions.

He was particularly effective on the drive against Livingstone – he got three assists on drives and kickouts, but he could have had several more if his teammates had hit the open 3-pointer a bit better in the first half.

But the real revelation was watching Allen push the ball up the court on the fast break. His speed with the basketball is astonishing. Livingstone might not be big or have particularly good shooters, but the Bears have a number of quick players – and on several occasions, Allen blew past defenders like they were standing still. He generally made good decisions on the break, either finishing himself or setting up a teammate.

His full stat line – 19 points (on 7-of-14 shooting), seven assists, six rebound and three steals -- was impressive. But watching his raw athleticism was to me, much more significant.

-- Brandon Ingram is the team’s most celebrated recruit. He’s projected as a one-and-done prospect, despite his slender – almost frail – frame.

Still, watching his early play makes it understandable just how unique a player he is. If you have access, go back and watch the end of half play he made against Florida Southern. Or just review his defensive presence against Livingstone.

Just as interesting to me was Coach K’s declaration Wednesday night:

"He’s a guard – a 6-9 guard. That what his future will be."

That’s interesting because Ingram actually played about 10 minutes of center against Florida Southern and about 10 more minutes at power forward. Of course, Florida Southern had gone ridiculously small at that point – five guards, none over 6-3 on the floor. Ingram played more small forward and guard against Livingstone – even initiating the half-court offense at times as if he was a point guard.

Offensively, Ingram can get to the basket and he can – as Coach K predicted – draw fouls (he had 23 free throws in the two exhibitions … the next highest total on the team was Derryck Thornton with 14). Ingram will be a truly great offensive player when he starts making jump shots – either 3-pointers or that 10-15 foot pull-up that he can get so easily.

In the two exhibitions and the CTC exhibition, Ingram is 2-for-14 from 3-point range. I’d guess he was 3-of-8 on pull-up jumpers. Hopefully, that will get better.

Defensively, he’s already a force. He had five steals against Livingstone – many coming as the point man in the 1-3-1 zone.

He was even more impressive in a limited, but significant role – defending the inbounds passer. In fact, watching him Wednesday night, I told Jim Sumner that Ingram reminded me of former UNC standout John Henson in that role – Henson was the best I ever saw at making life miserable for an inbounds passer.

After the game, Coach K agreed.

"He’s unusual – he’s got a 7-3 wingspan, but beside that, he’s got really good feet," Krzyzewski said. "So he’s not just tall, he’s wide and he can make use of that. Whether we’re in zone or man out-of-bounds under, he would be the guy on the ball, so you’re trying to take away vision."

Krzyzewski also said that the temporary absence of Matt Jones has helped Ingram grow.

"He’s had a really good week. With Matt not being able to practice, I think he’s asserted himself even more. He’s talking more … he’s grown up. He’s a really good player and he’s only going to keep getting better."

Ingram obviously needs to keep getting stronger. But make no mistake about it. He’s a key player – probably THE key player – on this year’s Duke team.

-- Derryck Thornton is the only true point guard on this year’s team.

He played well in both exhibitions. Obviously he shot much better (22 points on 8-of-13 shooting; 4-of-7 on 3s) in the Florida Southern game than against Livingstone (11 points on 2-of-9 shooting; 1-of-5 on 3s).

But Thornton will not be defined so much by his shooting as he will by how well he runs the team and how well he plays defense on the ball.

Thornton displayed a frightening carelessness with the ball in the CTC scrimmage – seven turnovers in 24 minutes, usually caused by dribbling into traffic. In the two exhibitions, he did a much better job protecting the ball – one turnover in 59 minutes.

Again, the competition is suspect, but the one thing both Florida Southern and Livingstone have are small, quick guards who can get after a ballhandler defensively. So, call Thornton’s development in that regard as a positive sign, if not quite proof that he’s ready for ACC-level competition.

I suspect that the focus on protecting the ball has caused the young point guard to be more cautious about distributing the ball. He had six assists in the scrimmage, but just four total in 59 minutes of exhibition play.

In fact, he ranks just fifth on the team in assists in those two games. The leaders:

Grayson Allen – 11 assists (five turnovers)

Amile Jefferson – 7 assists (no turnovers)

Luke Kennard – 6 assists (two turnovers)

Matt Jones – 4 assists (no turnovers) … in one game

Derryck Thornton – 4 assists (one turnover)

Brandon Ingram and Marshall Plumlee both have three assists.

Thornton did not start either exhibition game. Against Florida Southern, Matt Jones and Grayson Allen shared the starting backcourt. Against Livingstone it was Allen and Luke Kennard.

The latter game was played at a frantic pace, but when Duke did go to the halfcourt set, Kennard, Allen and Ingram initiated the offense – even at times when Thornton was on the floor.

Does that mean Duke will share the point guard duties?

"I’d rather not say there is a point guard," Krzyzewski said. "I think we can initiate the offense with Amile. So instead of putting ourselves in a box and saying, ‘We only have this’, I’d rather say, we have all of this."

While Thornton is still growing into his role as point guard, he’s ahead of normal freshman pace defensively. Again, the competition is suspect, but he’s been matched up against small quick guards. He stays in front of the ballhandler by using his feet and his four steals in two games suggest that he knows how to use his hands effectively without fouling (just one foul in 59 minutes).

-- Luke Kennard has attempted more shots in the two Duke exhibitions than any other Blue Devil player. He has 31 attempts in two games, including 18 from 3-point range.

Krzyzewski was asked if the 11 3-point attempts that he launched against Livingstone were too many.

"I thought he should have had more," the Duke coach answered. "I thought he passed up about three. If they are there, he can shoot. We’ve always let shooters shoot. He’s a really good shooter. He can shoot it whenever he wants and his teammates will feel good about it."

Well, considering that Kennard hit six of his 11 3-point tries, how can anybody complain about his shot selection?

For the two exhibitions, the freshman from Ohio is 8-of-18 from the 3-point line. That’s 44.4 percent which would be a spectacular percentage if Luke can sustain it over the length of the real season (just for contrast, J.J. Redick’s top season from the 3-point line was 42.1 percent).

Krzyzewski hinted that Kennard’s 6-of-11 performance against Livingstone was a better gauge of his accuracy than the 2-for-7 night against Florida Southern.

"He was a little bit nervous at the start of the first game," Coach K said. "As that game progressed – and tonight – he was better. That’s why I like playing exhibitions and not scrimmaging. There’s something about playing in front of a crowd, putting your uniform on. You’ve got to get accustomed to that."

Kennard is certainly more than a 3-point shooter. He proved that against Livingstone – in addition to his game-high 25 points, he added nine rebounds, four assists and a steal (with one turnover).

One oddity about Duke’s 3-point shooting.

In the two exhibition games, the Devils were just 7-of-28 in the first half (a poor 25.0 percent), but in the two second halves were 15-of-28 (a spectacular 53.6 percent). I don’t know what to make of the huge difference, except to suggest it’s the result of a small sample size. Overall, Duke’s 3-point shooting (22-of-56) is a healthy 39.3 percent. Again, for reference, last year’s Duke team hit 38.7 percent from the 3-point line.

Again, small sample since and questionable competition, but still an encouraging start.

-- The hardest position to judge after the exhibition games is the post.

If the competition was questionable on the perimeter, it was abysmal inside. Neither Florida Southern nor Livingstone had another like an ACC-quality big man. Florida Southern played five guards for much of the game and Livingstone often used four.

Marshall Plumlee and company SHOULD have dominated as they did.

About all we can say is that Plumlee, Jefferson and freshman Chase Jeter bring exceptional quickness to the post position. All three are superb at running the floor.

We’ll have to wait and see how much of Duke’s 99-67 rebounding edge in the two exhibitions is an illusion based on the tiny size of the opponents and how much is real. And the fact that Plumlee, Jefferson and Jeter combined for four double-figure scoring efforts (and a combined 27-of-29 shooting) is a similar function of facing outmatched opponents.

Sean Obi, cited before the season by Coach K as a potential ninth man in the rotation, was painfully out of place in the two exhibitions. Unlike the other three big men, he doesn’t excel in a fast, fullcourt game. His value will come when Duke faces a strong, powerful frontcourt foe – somebody he can lean on inside.

So, there are still plenty of question marks to answer as Duke opens the regular season in a week. The first two games – against Siena next Friday night and Bryant next Saturday – aren’t likely to provide that many answers – although neither should be quite as outmanned as Florida Southern and Livingstone.

The first real test comes Tuesday, November 17, when Duke takes on Kentucky in Chicago. It’s a fascinating matchup between two very similar teams – both trying to blend an exceptionally talented group of freshmen with a small core of veterans, who are trying to expand their roles.

But that’s 12 days away and Coach K needs that time to get his two injured veterans healthy and to try and give his four freshman rotation players just a little more preseason work.