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Mark Williams Changes Duke’s Identity

The presence of a rim-protecting big opened things up on both ends of the floor against North Carolina State

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami-Florida
Miami Hurricanes center Nysier Brooks (3) dunks the ball on Duke Blue Devils center Mark Williams (15) during the first half at Watsco Center.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Williams’ final stats against North Carolina State were notable: 28 minutes, 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting, 5 blocks and 5 rebounds. But even before he started stuffing the stat sheet, his mere presence, both offensively and defensively, facilitated the best performance from the Blue Devils since they seemingly turned the corner against Clemson two weeks ago.

But his emergence begs the question: where does Duke go from here?

It’s become increasingly clear that Duke’s pieces fit together better with Williams on the floor. While he’s no Vernon Carey in the post offensively, defensively he’s already a developed rim protector. Besides his five recorded blocks, there were likely another half-dozen shots that were missed after Williams contested them. Given Duke’s continued challenges on the perimeter defensively, and fellow big Matthew Hurt’s limitations on that end of the floor, Williams appears to be a necessary band-aid for the Blue Devils’ recent defensive woes.

Less noticeable, but just as important, is how Williams opened things up on offense as well. It’s no coincidence that Hurt’s best performance in weeks, 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting, came primarily with Williams on the floor. Williams has shown and ability to finish at the bucket, and alongside an emerging post game he warrants defensive attention from the opponent. That more traditional big man presence might not open up driving lanes (as is so in vogue throughout the basketball world), but it does open up better opportunities for Hurt’s mid-range game. Committing one defender to Williams in the paint also opens up more opportunities from deep, especially when Hurt is matched up against a slower opponent. And lest we forget, Williams has shown a deft passing touch for a man his size, with the high-post/low-post game with Hurt flashing again yesterday with great results.

Given Duke’s performance on Saturday, it seems a reasonable assumption that Hurt and Williams will be the primary frontcourt players in the immediate future. But where does that leave Jalen Johnson, the Blue Devil who still has the most potential on the squad? Given Coach K’s comments after the game regarding Johnson’s struggle with the physical nature of the game, perhaps we need only apply Occam’s Razor to the situation: Johnson may simply be an oversized wing rather than a stretch big.

All preseason Duke fans salivated at the potential mismatches that a frontcourt of Hurt and Johnson would create, but that simply hasn’t materialized, and likely won’t with the season in its final month. But what has materialized is a more traditional lineup with a 7-footer in Williams roaming the paint, Hurt as a stretch-4, and Duke’s talented and interchangeable, albeit mostly young, guards manning the other three spots on the floor. Rather than shoehorning Johnson into the frontcourt, perhaps it’s time to commit to him as a wing. Use his uniqueness to create the opposite mismatches: rather than use his speed against slower bigs, use his size against smaller wings.

The best version of this year’s Duke squad still includes Johnson as a major presence. But with Williams’ emergence, it likely won’t be in the manner fans have seen throughout the year. Coach K is known for making big late season adjustments, and this could be the one that gives the Blue Devils their best chance at sneaking into the NCAA Tournament.

Rich Randomness:

  • Another factor that could allow Johnson to play more on the perimeter is Henry Coleman’s continued development. Coleman has shown he can step in at the 4 position with either Hurt or Williams at the 5: he has the strength to stand up to bigger matchups, and the athleticism to stick with faster stretch bigs. His versatility off the bench greatly expands Duke’s options down the stretch.
  • Jaemyn Brakefield had one of the most snakebitten games of the season, missing at least two easy layups that would’ve led to a nice stat line. If he had made those, we might’ve been talking about him as the story of the game. As it stands, his emergence is going to make Johnson have to fight for those minutes off the bench. Practice should be competitive this week.
  • Joey Baker’s absence was conspicuous after he seemed to earn more significant minutes following his performance against North Carolina. With Coleman and Brakefield playing well, he may just be the odd man out at the moment. But Duke will need his shooting off the bench before the season is done, perhaps most obviously in an upcoming matchup against Syracuse. Whether he rebounds against Wake Forest will be a story to watch.