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New Decade, New (Deeper) Duke

Duke is becoming a 2020 favorite, but in a fashion unlike any we’ve seen in decades

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Virginia Tech
Joey Baker’s emergence has been key to Duke’s new identity with a deep, multi-pronged offensive attack.
Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s thematically fitting that, as the calendar flips to a new decade, Duke fields a team unlike any that we’ve seen in at least that long.

After a 33 point drubbing of a Miami team in Coral Gables, a venue in which the Blue Devils have historically been prone to upsets, Duke is atop the ACC standings and has claimed two road wins in conference. If you put the outlier that was Stephen F. Austin aside, this team has arguably put together the most impressive resume of any team in the country this season, and one of the most impressive starts to a season in recent Blue Devil memory. Even with that disappointing upset, Duke is the consensus No. 2 team in the country in the polls, up to No. 4 in the NET rankings, and appears to be in the driver’s seat for a No. 1 seed come March.

That dominance is something few expected of this team back in October. The fact that Duke is dominating with depth is something many hoped for, but few had faith would come to pass.

Indeed, Coach K’s emphasis on tight, 7-8 man rotations in ACC play has been well documented (and much derided by many fans). Last season, Duke’s four star freshman all played nearly 30 minutes a game by year’s end. The 2015 National Championship team famously finished the year with only eight contributing scholarship players, with the three star freshman and Quinn Cook all playing more than 29 minutes per game. This was even more extreme for the 2010 National Championship team, with the star trio of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler all averaging more than 35 minutes per game.

There couldn’t be a more extreme contrast with this year’s squad.

Take the Miami victory as an illustrative example: in a conference road tilt, no one played more than 27 minutes, 10 players played more than 10 minutes, with six playing more than 20 minutes. The scoring load was similarly balanced, with 11 players scoring a bucket.

That story is true over the full season. Tre Jones is the only player exceeding 30 minutes per game through 14 games. The four Blue Devil freshmen average between 22 and 24 minutes per game. And Duke’s remaining veterans all play at least 14 minutes per game, with Jack White leading the way with 19.

But even that doesn’t tell the full story, because the scoring load is just as evenly balanced as the minutes. All 10 members of Duke’s rotation average at least three points a game, with leading scorer Vernon Carey averaging 18 points a game. But Carey doesn’t have to shoulder the full load every night. Five different Blue Devils have led the team in scoring in a game this year, which becomes all the more impressive when you realize that last season, Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett led Duke in scoring in all but one game all season.

No matter how deep you go into the numbers, the story remains the same: this Duke team is deep and different from any in the recent past. And when you go past the numbers to watching this team, it becomes hard to see how Coach K could pair the rotation down, if he even wanted to.

Jordan Goldwire won’t play big minutes every night, but his presence is critical in certain matchups where his defensive presence can disrupt the opponent. While he may never be a plus-shooter, he’s no longer a liability on offense, shooting nearly 28% from beyond the arc this season (up from 12% last year). And, as evidenced against the Hurricanes, he’s more than serviceable in spelling Jones at the point, be it for rest or foul trouble.

The same is true for shooting specialists Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell. Neither is yet consistent enough to be relied on each game. But Coach K has used the two with a “hot-hand” philosophy that has been quite effective, giving bigger minutes to whomever makes shots on a given night. And while neither will ever be defensive stalwarts, both (especially Baker and his impressive motor) have shown improvement on that end over the course of the season and are no longer major liabilities. Some combination of these two shooters should continue to see at least 15-20 minutes on the floor each game down the stretch.

For all his limitations, Javin DeLaurier still plays a crucial role for this team as the big body off the bench. Ironically it’s the senior who’s averaging the fewest minutes per game of the 10 rotation players for the Blue Devils, but in those limited minutes the captain still spells Carey, rebounds effectively, and is a plus (albeit foul prone) defender. He’ll no doubt continue to see his 10-20 minutes per game down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the six Blue Devils playing the most minutes all serve unique, important roles that aren’t likely to evaporate. Jones is the team’s undisputed leader, and Carey its most important piece. Stanley and Moore may both play on the wing, but their games are distinct: Stanley is a better scoring and shooting option, while Moore is a more developed defender and has shown flashes as a facilitator. Hurt’s minutes may fluctuate based on the matchup, but his role as a true stretch-4 is cemented. And Jack White does nothing except make winning plays, even if they don’t show up in the box score; but, perhaps more importantly, he has shown he can play a variety of positions, from the wing to a small-ball center.

Looking at that picture, who could Coach K squeeze out of the lineup? It’s hard to see any scenario, barring something unusual, in which the traditional tight conference rotation emerges. Instead, Duke will continue to use its varied puzzle pieces depending on the matchup and momentum on any given night. That’s a far cry from recent years in which the Blue Devils were hamstrung if one of their stars was having an off game.

It’s a new look for Duke in a new decade, and it doesn’t appear to be a fleeting New Year’s resolution. In a year of surprises across the NCAA landscape, perhaps its fitting that the Blue Devils have found a way to surprise their fans even while maintaining their recent high standards of success.