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Does Duke Need A Dominant Rim Protector?

The data says a dominant force in the paint is a luxury, not a necessity, to excel in the college game

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Duke Vs Tennessee
Tennessee Volunteers forward Jonas Aidoo (0) shoots against Duke Blue Devils center Dereck Lively II (1) during the first half in the second round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament at Legacy Arena.
Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

Duke doesn’t have many question marks entering the 2023 season. After all, it returns 4 of 5 starters from an ACC Champion squad while adding the consensus No. 2 recruiting class in the nation. But if there is a question mark, it appears to be that the Blue Devils may not have the dominant rim protector they’ve had the past two seasons, when Mark Williams and Dereck Lively II manned the paint.

Duke certainly has talent and depth up front, with Kyle Filipowski and Ryan Young returning, Christian Reeves having had another summer to develop, and freshman Sean Stewart looking impressive at summer practice. But none of those four players have the rare combination of height and athleticism that made Williams and Lively II top 15 picks in the NBA draft.

But looking at the broader landscape, lacking a traditional rim protector may not be as large a question as it may seem.

Consider the data from last season, when Lively’s 4.7 blocks per 40 minutes ranked fifth in the nation. Among the top 10 players in that statistic (which notably is normalized by minutes played), only Lively and Vanderbilt’s Liam Robbins played in a high major conference. Only two players besides Lively played in the so-called power conferences and made the tournament: USC’s Joshua Morgan and Alabama’s Charles Bediako. Amongst the (admittedly abnormal) Final Four teams, the highest block rate came from San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah, who ranked 33rd in the nation.

Digging deeper, one notices distinct “tiers” in this statistic. Lively was among only eight players to average more than four blocks per 40 minutes. 31 players averaged between three and four blocks per 40 minutes (including Morgan, Bediako, and Mensah), followed by more than a hundred players who averaged between two and three blocks per 40 minutes.

What conclusions can one draw from this admittedly cursory analysis? There does not appear to be any obvious correlation between teams that have a dominant rim protector, at least as quantified by blocks per 40 minutes, and teams that succeeded in (let alone made) the NCAA tournament. Players like Lively are the exception, not the norm, at the high-major level, and many very successful teams were constructed without a truly dominant rim protector during the 2022-23 season.

Now, quantifying Lively’s impact on last year’s Blue Devils via this statistic alone is admittedly flawed, given that his presence alone altered how teams attacked Duke’s defense. But it appears that Duke doesn’t need a dominant force at the rim to compete for a national title.

Whether a presence like Lively’s is necessary for Jon Scheyer’s defensive scheme is another conversation entirely, although if Scheyer learned anything from his mentor, his scheme will likely adjust with his personnel in his second season at the helm. And even if Scheyer’s scheme requires a rim protector, there’s reason to believe the Blue Devils might be able to piece together an approximation of Lively’s defensive prowess from multiple players.

Kyle Filipowski’s impressive 7-foot stature and defensive acumen is often overlooked, but he averaged nearly a block per 40 minutes last season while primarily playing the power forward: if he plays more minutes at center this year as many project, it’s not unreasonable to expect that number to rise. Similarly, if the uber-athletic Mark Mitchell plays more minutes at the power, rather than small, forward this year, there’s reason to believe he’ll be more active at the rim in help defense; meanwhile, Stewart’s defensive potential has been on full (albeit edited) display from the footage made available during Duke’s summer practice.

Whether the Blue Devils can cobble together something even remotely approximating Lively’s presence at the rim this season is, undoubtedly, a legitimate question entering the fall. But considering how rare those rim protectors are in the college game, it shouldn’t go unmentioned that almost every team in the country also faces that question. If one must ask questions of a team, having those type be at top of mind is a great situation to be in.