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Kennard Leads Duke To A 90-59 Win Over Virginia State

Kennard was spectacular as we began to have some inkling of the potential of this most unusual Duke team.

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NCAA Basketball: Utah State at Duke
After sitting out last season, Duke’s Amile Jefferson, shown here defending Utah State’s Jalen Moore, is back and ready to go.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

First the best news: although Grayson Allen and Matt Jones both left the Virginia State game with injuries, neither was serious. Allen landed on his shoulder early and then again late in the game; Jones tweaked his hamstring and was kept on the bench as a precaution.

It didn’t much matter in the long run. Virginia State, a well-coached team, kept up for a good bit of the first half before going into halftime down 15, 42-27.

Duke was led by Luke Kennard, who had an outstanding offensive game with 30 points on 8-17 from the floor with 3/10 from behind the three point line and 11-12 from the charity stripe.

In his return to the court after last December’s injury, Amile Jefferson scored just two points but had 10 rebounds, four assists, two block and a steal.

Jones’s return lasted just three minutes.

Allen played 22 minutes and finished with 13 points, two assists and a steal.

Chase Jeter saw 21 minutes, had eight points, with six from the foul line. His offense was still shaky but he was much improved.

Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Sean Obi sat out each either injured or recovering from injuries. In Giles’s case, he was both recovering from both an injury and a surgery.

The other freshmen made good impressions. Marques Bolden started a bit slow but was a dominant force in the second half. He was mobile, aggressive and solid on both ends. Bolden finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds (five offensive) and five blocks. His moves aren’t as refined as those of Jahlil Okafor, but Bolden is a very promising big man and already a better defender. By the end of the game, he realized that not only did he belong but that no one on that court could control him.

Frank Jackson came off the bench for 17 points on 6-10 from the floor including 4-7 from deep. He struggled to control the ball after Jones and Allen were injured and finished with four assists and five turnovers. Still, his potential was quite clear. In his first few minutes on the court, he stripped a Trojan in the open court and drove in for a dunk. His shot looks great. There’s nothing much to refine. It’s really sound.

Javin DeLaurier seemed tentative at first but as the game wore on he became more aggressive. He’s bigger, but he reminded us somewhat of Brian Davis. He brings a lot of energy to the court. He had two blocks and his best play was when he knocked the ball ahead then chased it down for a full-court dunk.

He will probably develop more slowly on offense but he should become a solid defender and rebounder early in his career.

Jack White played 12 minutes and while he didn’t make a huge statistical splash, he was solid. He handled the ball well and did nothing to hurt his team. He’s a player who bears watching. He could really turn out.

Antonio Vrankovic and Justin Robinson didn’t get in until the very end of the game and didn't have time to do very much.

In the bigger picture, even without Giles, Tatum and Obi, this is an interesting group. You could see a theme emerging inside as Jeter, DeLaurier, Bolden and Jefferson were dominant, and this was without Giles, who may be the best defender of the group (Jefferson actually is probably the best but Giles should surpass him in everything except experience).

Duke has had some amazing athletes over the years, but very rarely has it had a group quite like this. Duke’s roster is almost shockingly big by Blue Devil standards - five players 6-10 or taller and seven over 6-9. and nine over 6-7. Kennard is 6-6 while Allen and Jones are both 6-5. Jackson is the smallest regular at 6-3. Even the walk-ons are big - Brennan Besser is 6-5 while Nick Pagliuca is 6-3.

Al Featherston would have a better idea but this could be Duke’s biggest team ever.

Yet it’s highly mobile and athletic. Of the scholarship players, the least mobile guy is Vrankovic and he’s essentially a project, a guy who could turn out to be a good player after some maturation.

Otherwise, who is the last athletic guy on this team? Kennard? Jones? White? None of them are poor athletes. True, none of the three are elite athletes either, but Kennard and Jones have proved their worth more than a few times.

It’s a very atypical group for Duke in that sense. Think about the 2015 national championship team. The 6-9 Obi sat out after transferring and Marshall Plumlee was a legitimate 7-0. Jahlil Okafor was 6-11.

After that, 6-9 Jefferson came off the bench while Duke started 6-6 Justise Winslow and Matt Jones. The backcourt was 6-2 Quinn Cook and 6-1 Tyus Jones. Allen came off the bench.

In 2010, Duke started 7-2 Brian Zoubek, Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas, both 6-8, Nolan Smith, 6-2 and 6-5 Jon Scheyer.

Duke had the first two Plumlees as well, Miles and Mason, both 6-10, and Ryan Kelly, also 6-10. Andre Dawkins was 6-4 and Seth Curry was a 6-1 redshirt.

Kelly rarely played as a freshman though and both Plumlees were still uncertain big men. Miles was talented but inconsistent while Mason was timid offensively.

And while that was a reasonably big team, it was nowhere near as athletic as this group is even at the beginning and missing two spectacular talents.

Mike Krzyzewski has always opted for smaller athletes over less athletic big men. In the early days, this made competing with UNC difficult but as his system took hold, we saw lots of guys like Winslow - think Robert Brickey, Corey Maggette, Davis, Billy King among many others. You could go on for awhile - Kevin Strickland, Quin Snyder, Johnny Dawkins, DeMarcus Nelson, Dave McClure, Dahntay Jones, Reggie Love, Mike Dunleavy, Nate James and Chris Carrawell.

The immense value of these players is that their raw ability allowed them to compete against bigger players and smaller ones as well. So we saw Billy King break Mark Macon’s game and reputation in a single 40 minute game. We saw Brickey hold. his own against UNC’s massive JR Reid. We saw 6-6 freshman Chris Carrawell take on the great Tim Duncan and we saw Johnny Dawkins save a potential home loss to Notre Dame with a magnificent, one-on-one takedown of David Rivers, blocking a foul line shot to preserve the win. Two years ago we watched Justise Winslow and Matt Jones take on much bigger Badgers and control them as Duke beat Wisconsin to win the Blue Devils most recent national title.

Jones is on this year’s team and he’s one of those guys. Allen is 6-5 and highly athletic, but he’s got other responsibilities and can’t be moved around like a chessboard queen.

We wondered if it might be a problem but now we think it might be okay.

Don’t run too far with this idea but what Duke has this year is more like an NBA roster. The versatility has scaled up.

All the big guys, save Vrankovic, are highly mobile. Giles, Jeter, Jefferson, DeLaurier and Bolden are all very capable shot blockers. Jefferson is able to guard centers or forwards. Jones is capable of guarding forwards or guards. Either Jones or Allen can guard the point if needed. Jackson shows signs of being a potentially superb defender.

And actually no one is a particularly bad defender, which is a bit of a change: over the last few years Duke has had some guys who just couldn’t defend. For all his talent, Jabari Parker was at times laughably bad on defense. Okafor’s offense outweighed his defensive deficiencies.

The one-and-done trend has been good to Duke when it comes to getting great players but it’s impossible to maintain Duke’s traditionally potent defense when guys are only here for a year or two.

This year may prove the exception. The offensive talents of Kennard, Allen, Tatum, Giles and Jackson will draw more attention, but the reality is this: the defensive potential of this team is better. And the combination of size and versatility is something rare and exciting.

This could be an even more fun year than we anticipated - assuming the health issues get better.

We’ll learn more between now and the Michigan State game, but pay attention to this. In his first game, an exhibition against D-II Northwood, Bridges shot 12-14, had eight rebounds, had four blocks and three assists. He hit all five of his three point attempts and finished with 33 points in 29 minutes.

You might say well, D-II, but that’s an incredible stat line for anyone, and even more so for a freshman.

We’ll know a lot more after we see how Duke handles a versatile 6-7 talent capable of that sort of efficient rampage.