Saturday night we sat here and wrote for a while, trying to get a grip on our thoughts about this team. Then we threw it out because it just seemed over the top.
Is it early? Yes, it’s very early. And we’ve always made a point of avoiding hype. We try to be reasonable about our expectations because we’ve never seen it as our place to to pump things up.
Nonetheless, this team has made a major impression. If we’re honestly skeptical we have to be honest about when we’re impressed too.
Well, we’re impressed. Actually, we’re very impressed.
This is a gifted team, yes. It can run - transition basketball is beautiful so far.
It can shoot. Grayson Allen and Gary Trent are the best outside shooters. Allen is shooting 66.7% and Trent checks in at 53.8%.
But all the big guys feel free to take them - Wendell Carter, Marvin Bagley and Javin DeLaurier have all tossed some up - so they clearly the staff is confident they can hit it (Marques Bolden is the exception here).
Trevon Duval hasn’t taken a three yet but he’s averaging 10 apg so far - with just one turnover.
As we said, it is early, but Bagley is putting up 24.5 ppg and 10 rpg. Trent is averaging 17 ppg. Allen, fully healthy, is shooting brilliantly and averaging 20 ppg.
Look, anyone can recognize the talent on this team. Duke has at least seven guys who are likely to be drafted and most of those in the first round.
What’s most impressive though is the maturity. No one is selfish. No one is coasting. Everyone seems to realize they have an opportunity to be part of something unusual and, potentially, freakishly good.
The offense is potent and everyone in the rotation can score. That’s not what impresses us.
What gets us wound up is the passing.
It’s a team game of course and the basic element of team play, in basketball, is moving the ball, and moving without it.
Yes it’s early but we think this could be the best passing team at Duke since the Duke Power Company in 1978.
In three games now (we had to miss the first exhibition due to a family conflict), we’ve seen all the starters make brilliant passes. We've seen freshmen big men who understand that passing makes them better and who know how to get the ball to someone for an easy shot.
We’ve seen Allen elevate his game to an incredible level. Toss last season’s injury-riddled season out. Take his sophomore year and add about 15-25% improvement. That’s where he is.
Look at Duval’s current 20-1 assist to turnover ratio. You can add in the first exhibition game just for grins - he’s 25-2 if you do.
As giddy as Duke fans should feel after what we’ve seen so far, there are things to consider.
First, despite his immense talents (one of which is his ability to tip shots in, which may not be fully appreciated just yet), we’ve seen the other teams push Marvin Bagley around at times. He’ll need some more strength as he advances. We’d be curious to see how many points he lost to physical defense over the weekend. That will be something you know you’ll see from Michigan State this Tuesday: they’re going to test him.
So will everyone else.
Secondly, foul shooting, so far, is atrocious. Duke is hitting just .500 and Bagley is hitting 22.2%. He’s obviously the biggest culprit here (side note: if he had hit all his free throws he’d be averaging about 30 ppg).
Third, Utah Valley repeatedly ran guys down the lane and consistently scored on the left side of the basket. We didn’t count but we’d think it was about 10-16 points on that alone.
And the bench isn’t completely sorted out yet. Bolden and DeLaurier are solid. We've seen flashes of the Bolden we saw early last year, a very sound big man who can beat you up inside. He’s a classic power player.
DeLaurier - we should call him Javelin DeLorean because speed kills. We watched him on one play defend the perimeter, slide down to defend the interior pass, then take down the rebound. He could be the best running big man in the ACC.
Alex O’ Connell is ahead of schedule. HIs biggest problem is that he’s rail skinny. He makes guys like Doug Collins and Mike Dunleavy (college versions) look like the Rock. He’ll need to gain some weight, clearly.
Having said that, he’s quicker than we imagined, he has a nose for the ball and he clearly understands the game. When he does bulk up, he should be able to play three positions. Don’t overlook this kid. He’s legit.
Jordan Goldwire is a guy who we think is exceeding expectations. He needs to be a bit smarter and not rush things, but he’s still young and never expected to play at this level.
Those guys right now seem like the rotation, but things change. We were also impressed with Jordan Tucker (quick and alert though thin), Antonio Vrankovic (he’s developed from a pudgy young big guy to a cut, powerful center who can hold his own in the post and who has great hands, and Jack White, who is 6-6 and powerful. Justin Robinson has become a solid and capable guy too. When he’s called on, he’ll do okay.
To be clear, we’re not suggesting that this team is going to go undefeated or is destined to win the national title. Duke has only played Elon, a much less talented though very well coached team, and Utah Valley, a team with realistic NCAA aspirations and loaded with older guys up to 24 including several who went on Mormon missions and are two years older than their contemporaries.
As far as undefeated goes, that could go up in flames Tuesday night when Duke plays Michigan State. And there will probably be moments when youth is exposed, like when 37-0 Kentucky was taken down by a vastly less athletic but much more experienced Wisconsin team in the 2015 NCAA Final Four. Those guys had been through so much and they weren’t about to buckle to Kentucky. There are teams like that on Duke’s schedule, notably Notre Dame.
What we are saying is that this team, unlike a lot of teams, can aspire to those sorts of goals.
It has the talent to do extraordinary things. And just as importantly, it appears to have the chemistry as well.
We really hope they stay healthy, focused and don’t get caught up in the hype that’s about to erupt. If they do, well, the sky’s the limit for this team.
And that’s no hype.