Given that Duke’s rebounding issues are something that have been discussed quite a bit, it seems laudably forward looking to propose a means to correct the problem.
The primary cause of Duke’s lack of rebounding is the team’s adherence to the three-guard lineup. Of course, this three-guard lineup is also central to Duke’s success.
Currently Duke averages a shooting percentage of 48.3 percent, which ranks among the top 25 teams in that category. More impressive and indicative of Duke’s guard heavy lineup with Ryan Kelly playing the stretch 4, is that Duke’s three-point percentage on the season is 41. That’s the eighth best in the country (via StatSheet).
Seeing as Duke’s preference for a three-guard lineup has put the Blue Devils among the most efficient offenses in the country, it would be misguided to undermine all the strengths it affords just to rectify one inadequacy. So there needs to be a solution to the rebounding problem that lets Duke continue to utilize a three-guard lineup with Kelly playing away from the basket.
The key to resolving the rebounding problem without sacrificing what works well for the Blue Devils revolves around what Duke did in the Elon game.
To be fair, Duke missed more shots against Elon than they did against Cornell and therefore had more rebounding opportunities. Still, in 11 games this season Duke has only outrebounded Elon, Delaware, Florida Gulf Coast and Kentucky. So there is no denying that there is a problem.
What Duke did in the Elon game that led to such dominance in rebounds is twofold.
First, Duke played Amile Jefferson more. Second, Duke asked the guards to shoulder some of the rebounding burden at the expense of fast breaks.
When Jefferson comes in, he is often replacing Ryan Kelly. The effect is that Duke loses Kelly’s ability to stretch the defense, but gains Jefferson’s willingness set up in the paint.
Though shorter and skinnier, Jefferson plays much more like a true post player than Ryan Kelly. Against Elon Jefferson didn’t record a single official shot, but grabbed three rebounds in twelve minutes of play. Against Cornell, Jefferson also had three rebounds, two of which were offensive.
The point is that Jefferson offers a better rebounding option than Ryan Kelly or Josh Hairston, the two other players that fill the power forward position. Kelly is a much better player so deserves to start in the 4 spot and play far more minutes than the freshman. Hairston, however, might need to make way for Jefferson.
Hairston currently averages more rebounds than Jefferson, but that is due to the fact that Hairston played far more than Jefferson in the early part of the season. Over the last four games, Jefferson has 14 rebounds and 27 points. Over the same stretch Hairston has compiled 13 rebounds and eight points while playing similar minutes.
Playing Jefferson more, at the expense of Hairston, provides Duke with a player committed to working under the glass. That should alleviate some of Duke’s rebounding woes.
Guards focusing on rebounding is another crucial element to Duke’s rebounding strategy.
Rasheed Sulaimon has proven himself to be an adept rebounder from the guard position. Playing on the wing in the 3 spot, he is often outsized by his counterpart. Still, the 6’4” Sulaimon is the team’s fourth best rebounder, averaging 3.5 boards-per-game.
The teams third leading rebounder is point guard Quinn Cook. Cook averages 3.9 rebounds-per-game. He demonstrated his rebounding ability against Elon by snatching eight rebounds. Of course the effect of the point guard crashing the boards is that Duke doesn’t get out on the break much.
Against Elon, Duke had just four fast break points. The previous night, against Cornell, Duke had 15 points off the break. It makes sense, then, that when Duke won the rebounding battle against Elon the guards were crashing the glass. Conversely, Duke got more fast break points against Cornell, but lost the rebounding battle to a substantially smaller squad.
Going forward, Duke can rectify the rebounding problem if the guards get active on the defensive boards. This will mean sacrificing the number of fast break opportunities the Blue Devils enjoy.
Duke will still be able to get out and run off turnovers, but generally Duke’s best blueprint to mitigate the lack of rebounding is to ask the guards to actively involve themselves in it. This won’t change the makeup of Duke in a significant way. Duke hasn’t been on the break a ton anyway and Mason Plumlee is an excellent anchor for a half-court offense.
So there it is. More playing time for Amile Jefferson and asking the guards to rebound at the expense of setting up fast breaks should erase Duke’s rebounding weakness without sacrificing its strengths.