Duke has had amazingly bad luck with injuries so far this season. Its star-studded, four player freshman class have all suffered injuries. Frank Jackson has played through a foot injury. Marques Bolden and Jayson Tatum had foot issues as well. And the most promising freshman, Harry Giles, has yet to take the court at all.
In addition, star Grayson Allen is suffering from a turf toe injury. He has played but not practiced, and his performance has been notably affected.
Despite all of this, Duke has prospered and is one great clutch shot from being undefeated.
The Blue Devils have leaned on a core of seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson, junior Allen, sophomores Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter and freshman Jackson.
With so many injuries, the Blue Devils only went 6-7 deep into December.
However, the core has proved remarkably tough-minded and united. Jefferson, heretofore a reliable rebounder and defender, has emerged as a consistent offensive force. He’s averaging 15.6 ppg and 10.3 rpg. Additionally, his coach, the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, says that Jefferson is the team’s best communicator. After Duke’s victory over Michigan State, Spartan coach Tom Izzo was suitably impressed: “There’s a lot of prep work to dealing with those guards at Duke and any time you deal with them. Then all of the sudden, I think you’ve got to give Jefferson. To me, he has been a key guy for them right now. I think he does a lot of quiet, good things, and I really like him.”
Jones came out of high school with a reputation as an elite scorer but that hasn’t been the path he’s taken at Duke. Instead he’s emerged as the ultimate glue guy, one who can still score but who also fills in at point guard when needed and who almost always takes the other team’s best offensive talent.
Recently he gave a serious lesson to Michigan State’s Miles Bridges. The Spartan’s star freshman is clearly a major talent but the smaller Jones helped limit him to 11 points and 4-13 from the floor in the Duke victory.
He’s also become one of Coach K’s favorite players: “Great example for people playing any game is that when you are all about winning, you are really important, and Matt Jones is only about winning. He is a beautiful, beautiful kid and a great leader for us.”
Those two have built their resume over several years. Kennard has emerged much more quickly.
Duke’s big guard has emerged as a legitimate Player Of The Year candidate.
Who’s playing better?
Not many people. As Duke has had injury after injury, Kennard has consistently stepped up his game. And it’s not like he’s leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
Kennard does two things better than just about anyone in the country: first, he operates in a confined space brilliantly. It’s very hard to box him in. And secondly, he always knows pretty much exactly how much room he has in that space. He doesn’t need to fly to get a shot off over a taller player; he just understands the angles brilliantly. If you give him any room at all, he can get a shot off and odds are 50-50 (literally .500 right now) that it’s going in.
The best compliment you can give someone who plays basketball is to say they’re a basketball player, that they truly understand the game.
Jackson has shown huge potential so far. The 6-3 native of Utah is highly athletic. He can drive or shoot threes. Krzyewski is confident enough in him to have called three straight plays for Jackson against the Spartans – and Jackson delivered on all three.
Jeter, who last year played a bit scared, isn’t that anymore. He’s filled in at center and done just fine.
He’s not a scorer yet, but his defense has been perfectly adequate and he’s becoming a better rebounder.
Deeper down the bench, Duke has two developing talents in Antonio Vrankovic and Javin DeLaurier.
Vrankovic is a true big man with a great feel for the game. He has played in several games and has shown great hands and a nose for the ball.
DeLaurier is an immensely talented athlete who is learning to become a basketball player.
Those guys have been useful when called up on but they’re at the end of the bench and about to get pushed further back because the injured freshmen are returning.
Jayson Tatum was back for the Maine game in Durham but really debuted in Madison Square Garden vs. Florida in the Jimmy V Classic: he finished with 22 points and eight rebounds and showed a superbly well-rounded game. Unlike a lot of gifted offensive performers, he doesn’t mind playing defense at all.
He gives Duke another powerful offensive weapon.
And Bolden is back as well, though he’s not in game shape yet. However, the big Texan can rebound and defend and is an agile guy in the paint. He’s going to be a major factor.
Duke has now said that Giles is expected back “before Christmas” and what a present that will be for the Blue Devils.
Giles, who has had two serious knee injuries and a third procedure to clean up after the first one, has been compared to Chris Webber.
Webber was an incredible talent. If Giles is anywhere near that – and he may be a better defender – Duke is going to be incredibly potent.
In fact the real challenge may be in sorting out the rotation.
Krzyzewski traditionally prefers an eight-man rotation but with this much talent he may not be able to keep it that tight.
Duke still needs to get Allen healthy but the combination of experience and brilliant young talent means the sky is the limit for this team.