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Mitchell, Blakes Take Advantage Of Opportunity In Duke’s Win Over Jacksonville

With stars Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead out, others staked their claim to playing time

NCAA Basketball: Jacksonville at Duke
Jacksonville Dolphins guard Jarius Cook (20) controls the ball in front of Duke Blue Devils forward Mark Mitchell (25) during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 71-44.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an old adage in sports that you can’t (or in some phrasings, shouldn’t) lose your job due to injury. Whether or not that’s entirely true, it glosses over an uncomfortable reality: injuries do present opportunities for others to shine.

Entering the off-season, Mark Mitchell was typically a footnote in discussing Duke’s uber-talented freshman class, dismissed as a potential X-factor or defensive stopper off the bench. Jaylen Blakes, meanwhile, was an afterthought after appearing not ready for ACC-level competition in his limited minutes as a freshman.

If star freshmen Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively were healthy for the Blue Devils’ season-opener against Jacksonville, Mitchell likely would’ve come off the bench and had minimal offensive opportunities. Blakes, meanwhile, might not have even cracked the rotation. Instead, Mitchell was Duke’s top scorer, and Blakes played 21 efficient minutes and showcased his defensive expertise.

Opportunity seized.

Mitchell’s performance, combined with the rumblings about his excellence during fall camp, paint the picture of a player who will be hard to keep off the floor. Mitchell got to the rim with ease against Jacksonville and was a force defensively. Perhaps most interestingly, he showcased a solid mid-range jumper, and after an ugly airball on his first attempt from deep he finished 2-for-5 from beyond the arc. Given his defensive versatility, Mitchell might be a more natural complement alongside a healthy Lively, and should be able to shift over to guard opposing wings when Jon Scheyer wants to play freshman big Kyle Filipowski alongside Lively. Offensively, Mitchell should be more athletic than most opposing 4s, and stronger than most opposing 3s, presenting exciting mismatches to exploit.

Meanwhile, Blakes was arguably the surprise of the night. A 29% shooter from deep in limited action as a freshman, Blakes was 2-for-3 from beyond the arc and, perhaps more importantly, looked confident while doing so. He also attacked the basket and earned two trips to the foul line. His defense, which was his calling card as a recruit, also seems to have improved, with the sophomore pestering Jacksonville guards relentlessly during his minutes. Once Whitehead is healthy, it’s unlikely that Blakes will continue to see 20 minutes per game; however, if he can change the game with spurts of intense defense and make open shots when necessary, he’ll stake a claim to rotation minutes throughout the year.

Lively and Whitehead appear on track to return to the Duke lineup sooner rather than later, which will undoubtedly impact Mitchell and Blakes’ playing time. But having seized this opportunity, it’s clear the pair will have more of a consistent role in the Blue Devil rotation than many projected entering the season. Duke will be a deeper team with an effective Blakes in the mix, and have a higher ceiling if Mitchell can consistently play like a future pro.

Rich Randomness

  • Ryan Young also seized his opportunity in the starting lineup, making all six of his shots from the field en route to 12 points and 7 rebounds in 31 minutes. While Young exhibited great defensive effort, he was a liability in the pick-and-roll, one reason why his long term role is likely providing an offensive spark off the bench as opposed to playing prolonged minutes. Nonetheless, having a fifth-year big who can fill in for Lively again if necessary is a major luxury. Moreover, Young’s efficient (if not the most aesthetically pleasing) post game could allow Scheyer to scheme up offense for the grad student. It’s typically guards who provide “instant offense” off the bench, but Young could fill that role for Duke this year.
  • Filipowski did a lot to assuage the nerves of fans who saw a tentative player at Countdown to Craziness. After a slow first half, Filipowski’s deep shot returned, he showed some surprising ability as a rim protector, and he was active on the glass. The freshman also showed glimpses of his ability to attack off the dribble, even if he wasn’t yet able to finish through the physicality that D1 competition presents. Filipowski may not be as polished as one would expect a modern Top 5 recruit to be, but the potential is clearly there. He may just need more time to reach his ceiling, something that Mitchell’s ascent could provide.
  • Christian Reeves saw two minutes of action in garbage time, a bit of a surprise given the stated plans for him to redshirt. Perhaps the plan is to get him some action early in the season and still apply for a redshirt (unsurprisingly, NCAA policy on the topic is less than clear, although clearer changes allowing for limiting action while preserving a redshirt have been made in football). Regardless, it was perhaps always a bit optimistic that someone with Reeves’ 7-foot-1 frame would stay in college for five years, as height will always be a valuable commodity in the pro ranks (be it in the US or overseas). I still wouldn’t expect Reeves to play a major role this year, but this development indicates that both Reeves and the staff think the freshman big is ahead of schedule and may be ready to make big contributions sooner than many expected.