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Wendell Moore Continues His Rebound, This Time Literally

Plus, what might Duke’s lineup look like when Jalen Johnson returns, and further context on continued turnover woes.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Wake Forest
Wendell Moore had a resurgent week, first scoring the ball against Boston College and later on the glass against Wake Forest
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

If Mike Krzyzewski didn’t coach basketball, he might’ve made a great politician. Case in point: Coach K knows exactly how to get across his message and his talking points in media availability, regardless of the questions the media poses. Which is why Duke fans should take notice of his emphasis on Wendell Moore’s performance following Duke’s most convincing ACC victory of the young season, a 79-68 win over Wake Forest.

Many expected Moore to claim the spotlight as a sophomore, but his early season returns were disappointing to say the least. After his stellar performance against Boston College, it appeared he may have turned a corner. Yet against Wake his offensive struggles returned, with Moore shooting just 1-for-7 from the field and turning the ball over four times.

However, unlike earlier in the season, Moore didn’t let his offensive struggles translate to the defensive end.

Moore’s effort on that end was obvious even through the television lens, and was the likely impetus behind his 28 minutes of playing time despite his shooting woes. It’s no coincidence that Saturday was only the second time this season the Blue Devils have held an opponent below 70 points. But his improved effort also manifested in the box score with eight rebounds, leading the team.

The 25 points Moore scored against Boston College were likely more mirage than reality: the former five star recruit arrived in Durham with the reputation of a defensive specialist and complementary offensive option. But Saturday showed that the best version of this season’s Duke squad requires an engaged Wendell Moore even when his offense falters. On a team that has a go-to scorer in Matthew Hurt, an emerging secondary option in DJ Steward, and the impending return of budding-star Jalen Johnson, Moore’s ability to cause havoc defensively and use his athletic 6-foot-5 frame to bully smaller opponents on the glass may be his most important contribution to the Blue Devils’ success.

Rich Randomness:

-Speaking of Johnson, it sounds like he is nearing a return to the floor. So what might the Duke rotation look like when he returns? The biggest clue may be that Coach K elected to have Moore come off the bench against the Demon Deacons even after his Boston College performance, both to start the game and the second half. Coach K has rewarded complementary players with a spot in the starting lineup (when said lineup is not set in stone) in the past, making Moore’s absence more notable. This potentially means Coach K has determined Moore’s best role is as a super sixth man, especially with the success of Duke’s three guard lineup featuring senior Jordan Goldwire alongside freshmen Jeremy Roach and Steward. Look for Duke’s starting lineup down the stretch to include those three guards with Johnson sliding into the front-court alongside Hurt. Moore’s versatility will allow him to still play 20-30 minutes per game off the bench, as he can spell one of the guards to give Duke a larger lineup or spell Hurt or Johnson and create a smaller group of Blue Devils. Jaemyn Brakefield, Joey Baker, and Mark Williams will likely then see their minutes fluctuate based on the opponent and the performance of that core six.

-Naysayers will point to Duke’s continued turnover troubles as evidence for the low ceiling of this team. But everything is different in this pandemic year, and fans must take into account that this was only this squad’s sixth competitive game together. Compare that to Duke’s sixth competitive game (including two exhibitions) last season, where Duke has 17 turnovers against a lesser Georgia State squad, or the 15 turnovers the Zion-led Blue Devils had in 2018 at the same point in the season against San Diego State. Especially with all of the cancellations, the appropriate point of comparison for this team is not against past squads three games into conference play, but rather those in the early stages of the non-conference schedule.

-In another edition of the Joey Baker watch: one three-pointer and no major defensive lapses in 12 minutes. As mentioned previously, this team could take a significant step forward if Baker can develop into a shooting specialist off the bench, a potential that has been tantalizing Duke faithful for his entire career. Baker, however, needs to merit enough minutes via his defensive effort in order for his offensive repertoire to develop, and Saturday was another passing grade in that department.