In Duke’s first game, an exhibition against DII champion Western Washington, the Blue Devils delivered a 105-87 win in a game that had a predictable outcome (the box score is here). While the Vikings refused to get blown out, Duke held a comfortable double-digit lead for much of the game.
Even though the contest was merely an exhibition, it’s never too early to praise and criticize your favorite team. And given that Duke is an excellent academic institution, what better way to assess the Blue Devils basketball team than with grades?
I gave each player a grade based on their play and then compiled the total for a team GPA. Hopefully Duke will find itself competing to be valedictorian at the season’s end.
Team GPA: 3.07
That represents a B average, which seems about right given Duke’s effort against Western Washington. Even playing without Seth Curry, who was nursing a lingering leg injury, and Marshall Plumlee, who was out with a stress fracture, Duke didn’t struggle to score. They put up over 50 points in each half and shot 57.6 percent for the game.
As encouraging as the offense was, the defense's performance was as weak as it was last year. The DII Vikings shot 45 percent from the field and scored 48 points in the second half. Duke proved last year that a one-dimensional team can go only but so far.
The Blue Devils will have to improve on the defensive side if they are to improve on last year’s result. The 18 Blue Devil turnovers to the Vikings was also indicative of an area in need of improvement.
Rasheed Sulaimon (A+)
Clearly, the freshman didn’t have any first-game jitters, considering he scored the game’s first bucket and tallied 18 of his 20 points in the first half. Starting in place of Seth Curry, Sulaimon presented a strong case for becoming a regular in the starting five.
He had excellent shot selection, going 6-9 from the floor. He had good penetration; he drew fouls and went 6-7 from the charity stripe. Moreover, Sulaimon added three assists to only two turnovers and came up with two steals on defense.
It’s just one game, and an exhibition at that, but Duke may have found its next star.
Ryan Kelly (A+)
Forget the fact that he scored 22 points. The really impressive bit is how he got those points.
Kelly was 3-4 from behind the arc and 7-7 from the free-throw line. What was on display against the Vikings was a player who could shoot from outside but was also willing to bang inside and draw fouls.
Sure, the Vikings are undersized, but if Kelly can show the same offensive versatility against bigger opponents, then he is going to score a ton of points. Also encouraging was the fact that Kelly, an adept passer, led the team with four assists. Even if Seth Curry returns to Duke fully healthy, Ryan Kelly could be the team’s best player.
Mason Plumlee (B+)
You may wonder why Plumlee, who matched Kelly’s team-high 22 points and added 11 boards for a double-double, only gets a B+. Here’s why: five turnovers and three fouls.
Mason Plumlee drives me, a Duke fan, nuts.
He has a ton of raw talent, but in four years, he still hasn’t sorted out his footwork issues. For a team that (like last year) played poor defense, wasted offensive possessions are killers. As for Plumlee’s pervasive fouling issues, someone needs to impart to him that there is no backup center until his younger brother, Marshall, returns from injury.
Generally, Mason Plumlee played well, but did so against smaller opponents, and he didn’t remove the concerns about his clumsiness on offense and defense.
Quinn Cook (C)
It was his first game as Duke’s starting point guard, so I’m willing to give him a little bit of a break. But poor shooting—4-10 from the field and 1-5 from the three—combined with six turnovers won’t cut it once the season begins. Cook could be the key to Duke’s season, but in the first exhibition game, he didn’t appear locked into the offensive scheme.
Alex Murphy (D)
Given a starting spot on the wing, Murphy failed to make much of an impact. A lot of Duke fans want to believe that Alex Murphy is a future star. Maybe he is, but he needs to show me something before I believe the hype.
The obnoxiousness of a sharpshooter missing his only two free-throw attempts aside, Murphy never managed to incorporate himself into the offense. Six points on 3-5 shooting left a lot to be desired. His biggest impact on the game came in the form of two blocks, which came against a very good, but very undersized DII team.
Amile Jefferson (A)
The other true freshman also had a great first game. Thirteen points on 5-7 shooting made Jefferson the best off-the-bench option. He played in the post with the sort of grit that Duke has been lacking for a long time.
On defense, he had two blocks and a steal, proving that his length will help the Blue Devils improve on last year’s awful defensive effort. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jefferson replace Murphy as a starter in the next exhibition game.
Tyler Thornton (B)
As long as Thornton plays with his usual defensive intensity and doesn’t give in to the urge to shoot more than a couple of times, Duke fans are pretty happy with his contribution. Thornton took only two shots and came up with two steals, two assists and zero turnovers. That’s solid enough for my liking. His three points on offense were icing on the cake of a solid defensive effort and endless hustle.
Josh Hairston (C)
After all the talk of him improving in the offseason, the junior forward played the fewest minutes of anyone other than Todd Zafirovski. In 15 minutes, Hairston did hit one shot from just inside the three-point line to demonstrate his increased range, but he missed the only other two shots he got off. He banged inside okay, compiling five rebounds.
On offense, he drew fouls and didn’t turn the ball over. But six points and five rebounds isn’t the improved Josh Hairston Duke fans were hoping for. It was a solid contribution, but it’s frustrating that this is probably Hairston’s ceiling.
Todd Zafirovski (A-)
The walk-on got into the game for one minute—actually less, but it shows up on the stat sheet as a full 60 seconds, so he gets an A-. If he had taken a shot, I’d have given him an A, and if he had made a shot he’d have earned an A+ because, let’s face it, walk-ons get graded on a curve.