Jalen Johnson’s return to the court lacked any fanfare. In fact, even the game’s announcers, participating virtually from their own homes, didn’t recognize he had returned to the floor until he put the ball in the hoop for the first time in over a month. He finished Duke’s loss to Virginia Tech playing only four minutes.
But Johnson’s return is a reason for optimism, even after the Blue Devils fell to 0-3 against ranked opponents this season. Johnson’s unique talents have been well documented and would be a boon for any squad, but perhaps more importantly is how his return allows many of Duke’s pieces to return to more natural roles.
Without Johnson, Duke’s lineup has seemingly been in constant flux, as have the responsibilities shouldered by its young core. Case in point: Matthew Hurt, Jeremy Roach, and DJ Steward all took more than 13 shots against the Hokies, with more than half of them coming from beyond the arc. But all that changes if a fully healthy Johnson returns and can build on the flashes of rim-attacking talent he showed early in the season.
With Johnson as a second scoring option to Hurt, Steward will draw less attention from opposing defenses. That means more open lanes to slash through and open looks from deep. Meanwhile, Roach will have to shoulder much less of the offensive burden, and can focus on being a facilitator and opportunistic scorer that seems to fit his young game better.
The benefits of these new responsibilities should expand beyond Duke’s stars and to it’s supporting cast. Jordan Goldwire has been put in an unnatural position without Johnson, having to try to create offensively rather than be a last option. While he has performed admirably, the law of averages finally caught up to the senior against Virginia Tech in his worst offensive performance in a year. If Goldwire does not feel the pressure to attack offensively, he can refocus on being a defensive pest and generating easy buckets off of turnovers. Similarly, Wendell Moore can refocus on his strengths, his defense and ability to finish at the rim, with Johnson shouldering more of the offensive load. And Jaemyn Brakefield, who has surprised in his freshman season but struggled in his first start last night, can return to the bench where he will be relied upon most to provide defense and energy in short bursts.
Beyond these new responsibilities, though, Duke fans have reason for optimism based on the improvement their young core has shown without Johnson and can bring to their more familiar roles. Roach, for one, did not crack double digit scoring until the Illinois game, but has not scored less than 12 points (and perhaps more importantly has not shot less than 40% from the field) since, showing he has what it takes to be Duke’s point guard. Steward, meanwhile, shot better than 50% from the field in two of the four games without Johnson (in which I include the four minute cameo last night).
Similarly, Hurt has shot better than 46% from the floor in each of those four games, and eclipsed 50% from deep in three of four.
If Johnson can perform anywhere close to his high ceiling, there is every reason to believe those performances from his teammates are sustainable with a better quality, albeit less quantity, of shots. That would give Duke a potent offense with four legitimate threats, and keep the Blue Devils in legitimate contention in the ACC.
-In another dose of context: Tuesday night was just Duke’s eighth game of the year, while it was Virginia Tech’s twelfth. I have little doubt that Coach K’s decision to put his players’ well being first by cancelling most of the non-conference slate will pay dividends in the long term, but it is also clearly affecting the team’s identity now. Johnson’s absence only exacerbated those issues. Rest assured, the Duke team that lost to the Hokies and has struggled otherwise will likely look quite different from the squad that competes for championships later this year.
-Joey Baker had his best game of the year last night, which is telling considering he did not take a shot. Oft-maligned for his defense, the junior had three blocks against the Hokies and contributed many more meaningful plays with his defensive effort that did not show up on the box score. The more minutes he earns defensively, the more likely it is that his shooting prowess eventually translates onto the court. This is another good sign for Duke’s long-term potential.
-Especially with Johnson returning to bolster Duke’s depth, it might be time to consider using a full-court press earlier in the game. There’s a reason Duke has come back from multiple double-digit deficits this season: the three guard lineup of Goldwire, Steward and Roach have generated easy baskets when deployed in maximum defensive pressure. With Wendell Moore providing the versatility to spell any of those three and provide a similar defensive presence, it would not be surprising to see this become part of Duke’s identity down the stretch.