The most intense discussions entering Duke’s ACC opener centered around how the Blue Devils’ would replace freshman star Jalen Johnson in their lineup. Somewhat surprisingly, a convincing victory made little headway towards answering that question. It did, however, help crystallize other parts of Duke’s best lineup. The Blue Devils perimeter play was the best it’s been all year thanks in no small part to the three guard combination of Jordan Goldwire, DJ Steward, and Jeremy Roach.
Much of the offseason was spent speculating that Duke might put forth a small-ball lineup, with Matthew Hurt as the biggest man on the court. But those arguments typically took for granted Johnson and sophomore Wendell Moore providing complimentary size to Hurt at the traditional “3” and “4” positions. With Johnson injured and Moore struggling mightily (perhaps due to a sprained ankle Mike Krzyzewski mentioned after the Notre Dame game), Coach K embraced a new version of small ball on Wednesday night with great success.
The trio of Goldwire, Steward and Roach each played more than 29 minutes, with a combined 39 points and just four turnovers. Their floor spacing also translated to better three-point shooting opportunities, not just for that trio (who went a combined 6-for-11 from deep) but for the Blue Devils as a whole (shooting 53.3% from beyond the arc). Perhaps more importantly, the three guards each have unique playing styles that compliment each other: Goldwire is a defensive stalwart with offensive limitations, Roach is a terrific slasher and passer but merely an average shooter from deep, while Steward is a true threat from beyond the arc. And with the offensive ball movement looking unrecognizable from the struggles against Michigan State and Illinois, it’s clear the trio is starting to develop some much-needed chemistry.
Truly elite point guards may possess the capabilities of Goldwire, Roach and Steward in one package, but Tyus Jones isn’t going to suddenly join this Duke squad. Instead, the Blue Devils’ best five, at least in the immediate future, looks likely to include the three smaller guards that complimented each other beautifully against Notre Dame.
-Duke’s complimentary pieces will be key to determining whether this three guard lineup is viable in the long-term. Coach K likely needs to trust his traditional bigs enough to put them out there for 10-15 minutes a game against bigger opponents, and Patrick Tapé and Mark Williams continue to earn that trust in limited minutes. Neither has been flashy or made big plays, but they also aren’t making glaring mistakes, which is all that’s needed from them with this team. Williams’ potential continues to be tantalizing in the long term, however: if he can continue to develop the beautiful jump-hook he showed against the Fighting Irish, he will be a force at some point in his Duke career.
-Moore still appears to be in the doghouse, only seeing the floor for 9 minutes on Wednesday, although that may be because of his ankle. His improved defensive effort and productivity on the glass (four defensive rebounds in those limited minutes) was a step in the right direction, as was his restraint on offense. But most encouraging was that he appeared more energetic in the huddle and on the bench, at least based on what ESPN’s cameras caught. With how this team is developing, Moore’s long-term role may no longer be as a starter, but as a Swiss army knife off the bench, able to play both as a smaller forward and a bigger guard. If he can first earn, and then embrace, that role, Duke’s potential increases significantly.
-In the latest Joey Baker watch: one solid defensive play, keeping his hands in a passing lane to generate a steal, and one nice drive to the bucket. Nothing flashy on other end, but enough to keep him in the rotation until his shooting stroke reemerges. With Steward looking like a starter, Baker may have to develop into the offensive spark off the bench, and his defense will have to continue to be passable to get him the playing time necessary to grow into that role.
-Tapé may have officially started, but Jaemyn Brakefield played starters minutes off the bench and looks to be the most immediate benefactor from Johnson’s absence. He may not have the wingspan or pure athleticism of Johnson, but at 6-foot-8 he’s capable of filling a similar role as either a stretch-4 or more traditional small forward in different lineups, and he remained hot from beyond the arc. But it was his solid defense and work on the glass (five defensive boards) that may be most needed in Johnson’s absence. While a given game’s starting five looks to be mostly symbolic for the time being, Brakefield seems to have earned his shot in the first five sooner rather than later.