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With Dariq Whitehead Improving Quickly, How Will He Change Duke?

Whitehead’s increasing minutes will have to come at someone’s expense, but there’s no clear weak link on the deep Blue Devils

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Iowa at Duke
Duke Blue Devils forward Dariq Whitehead (0) reacts during the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Madison Square Garden.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Duke’s 74-62 win over Iowa was the team’s most complete performance of this young season.

The Blue Devil defense was stifling, holding the typically high-powered Hawkeyes to just 62 points and 19% shooting from beyond the arc, while future first-round pick Kris Murray contributed just 8 points in 36 minutes. Meanwhile, Duke shot a respectable 35% from deep, dominated the rebounding battle, and got another balanced offensive effort, with 5 players scoring at least 8 points.

It’s no coincidence that such a stellar effort happened to come as Dariq Whitehead saw his most action of the season.

Whitehead played 21 minutes, 4 more than he had in any of his prior 7 contests. He was efficient, going 3-for-7 from the field, added 6 rebounds and 3 assists, and played a major part in shutting down Murray. Simply put, he looked more like the projected lottery pick he is than at any previous point during his ramp up from an offseason foot injury.

The freshman obviously will play a major role in the final version of this Duke squad, especially considering the team’s early season struggles offensively. Whitehead has shown flashes of his three-level scoring ability that had scouts drooling, and is getting more confident each time he steps foot on the floor. He brings offensive firepower that can’t be matched by any other Blue Devil.

Which makes it all the more encouraging (or challenging, depending on your point of view) that getting him more minutes won’t necessarily be an easy task.

Duke is already distributing its minutes in a remarkably balanced fashion. Captain Jeremy Roach has been a fixture on the floor, and payed 37 minutes against Iowa, but no other player played more than 29. In fact, behind Roach, five players played between 21 and 29 minutes against the Hawkeyes.

Whitehead won’t take Roach’s minutes, so where will they come from? The obvious candidates are Tyrese Proctor and Mark Mitchell, Duke’s current starting wings. But both freshmen are themselves emerging as key cogs in the Blue Devil machine. Mitchell was Duke’s best defender against Murray, and contributed 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Proctor, meanwhile, is arguably Duke’s best late-clock shot creator, and his three point shot continues to improve.

In the pre-season, most experts predicted a starting lineup of Roach, Proctor, Whitehead, Filipowski, and Lively. Any theories that Filipowski wouldn’t be ready for a starting role have been thoroughly debunked, so Mitchell remains the likely candidate to be moved out of the starting lineup. But can Jon Scheyer make that move when Mitchell has proven himself so invaluable? Would doing so disrupt the rhythm that Duke has gained in three encouraging performances following its loss to Purdue?

Interestingly, the most straightforward solution may be the most radical: continue to use Whitehead as a super-sub. The prospect of the consensus No. 2 recruit coming off the bench would be new for Duke, but not in the college basketball landscape: after all, Scottie Barnes was Florida State’s sixth man for an entire season before becoming the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft and eventual rookie of the year. It’s Whitehead’s versatility that makes this such an intriguing option, since he could conceivably enter the game for any of Duke’s current starting 5: both Proctor and Roach can be lead ball handlers, and either Filipowski or Lively could play the 5 with Mitchell at the 4 in a smaller lineup.

That said, it’s unlikely that a player as talented as Whitehead won’t force his way into the starting lineup at some point, likely making Mitchell the new sixth man. And while Mitchell is himself versatile, he doesn’t fit the traditional mold of an “instant offense” sixth man given his developing shot; it’s also unknown whether he’d be as effective off the bench as he has been in the starting lineup.

Scheyer is going to have to make a tough decision on this front, and Whitehead’s rapidly improving play may make that come sooner rather than latter. But with each of Duke’s 9 rotation players providing key contributions at different points this year, it’s hard to fathom Whitehead’s increased playing time will yield a shorter bench. Instead, those minutes will likely come from Mitchell or Proctor, and with Duke seemingly firing on nearly all cylinders, it may be hard to justify that type of disruption to the Blue Devil rotation yet.