With Ryan Kelly out indefinitely with a foot injury and Seth Curry hampered by shin splints, Duke needs previously supporting-cast players to step into the spotlight.
The Blue Devils began the year with Kelly, Curry and Mason Plumlee as the three senior leaders who were going to comprise the bulk of Duke’s offense. Losing Kelly and getting a less-than-100 percent Curry means that someone on the team who was previously serving as a role player must pick up the slack.
With the exception of Mason Plumlee, everyone on Duke could stand to improve and carry more of the offensive and defensive burdens. What follows are the players who will be most heavily relied-upon to replace some of what’s been lost due to the various injuries riddling Duke’s roster.
Ask any Duke fan what they think of Josh Hairston. If they are a glass-half-full type of person, they’ll tell you that he brings good energy and is reportedly invaluable in the locker room and off the court.
If they’re a glass-half-empty type of person, they’ll point out that for all the claims of his defensive prowess, he gets beaten in the post an awful lot, doesn’t rebound as well as you might think and has an absurd habit of shooting long twos or threes when there is absolutely no need for him to do so.
Against NC State, Hairston had eight points and five rebounds. Unfortunately, that’s about his ceiling. Offensively, Hairston shouldn’t shoot unless he’s gotten an offensive rebound. Defensively, he has more experience than Duke’s other post players (save for Mason Plumlee and the injured Kelly), which makes him better in terms of his understanding and execution of team defense.
That being said, thus far this season, he has fewer rebounds than Tyler Thornton and eight points is his season high. Hairston has not only to step up, but also to understand what that means for him. He has to play within the offense and contribute in terms of rebounds and defense. For Hairston, less is more.
In all, Duke fans should expect to see a lot of Hairston, but they shouldn’t expect too much from him other than a handful of points and rebounds.
After lighting up Clemson to the tune of 27 points, Quinn Cook might have been prematurely lauded as the next great Duke point guard. Cook is clearly a talented player. He’s cut down on his turnovers and is the team’s fourth-leading scorer. But the sophomore still has some work to do.
Cook’s best offensive move is to drive to the basket. All that penetration, however, results in Cook drawing surprisingly few fouls. Despite being more adept at driving to the hoop and playing more minutes than Rasheed Sulaimon, Cook has attempted eight fewer free throws than the freshman. Of the five Blue Devils averaging double-digit points, Cook gets to the line far less than anyone else.
Obviously, part of that comes down to Cook playing on the perimeter. Still, it points to a larger issue with the point guard. Though he has shown an ability to drive into the lane, Cook hasn’t yet figured out how to maximize his penetration.
Far too often, Cook gets into the paint only to force up a tough shot. Meanwhile, the number of times Cook has used penetration to kick it out to an open shooter or dish the ball down low to a post player whose defender has been drawn away in help defense is unfortunately low. And if Cook is going to put up a contested shot, he needs to learn to draw contact and get to the line.
With Kelly out and Curry playing hurt, Quinn Cook has to become a bigger part of the offense. It’s a lot to ask of the young point guard, but an 11 points-per-game average and the potential for an 0-of-11 shooting night simply isn’t enough to get the Blue Devils where they want to go.
Speaking of poor shooting and the need to carry more water on the offensive end, Rasheed Sulaimon seriously needs to get off the schnide.
The last time the freshman shooting guard shot over 50 percent in a game was December 20th against Elon (game log via ESPN).
In the five games since then, Sulaimon is 9-of-40 from the floor. That’s a field-goal percentage of 22.5, which is inflated by a 5-of-11 effort against Wake Forest. During that same five-game stretch, he’s made only two three-pointers. Over the last two games, Sulaimon has made exactly one field goal. Against the Wolfpack, when Duke desperately needed someone to step up, Sulaimon missed all 10 of his shots from the floor.
Clearly, the freshman shooting guard is in a cold-shooting spell. It’s easy to make excuses for Sulaimon. He’s worked extremely hard on the defensive side of the ball all season (including guarding Rodney Hood in practice).
While that superb defensive effort has made him an excellent perimeter defender, it’s possible that the high intensity of college basketball is fatiguing his legs, which takes away the spring in his jump shot.
Whether it’s Sulaimon needing to adjust from high school hoops to the physically of college basketball or just an unlucky dry spell, Duke simply cannot have a starter shooting 38 percent. Especially with the offensively limited Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston likely to see more minutes, Sulaimon must establish himself as a reliable scorer and outside shooter.
Even without Ryan Kelly, Duke was only down by four to NC State with two 2:06 left in the second half. Of all the positives to take away from the loss, Amile Jefferson’s emergence was probably the biggest. The athletic freshman had 10 points, two blocks and four rebounds, two of which were offensive (box score via ESPN).
The knock on Jefferson’s game might be that he fouled out having played just 12 minutes. However, and I know this sounds like a homer thing to say, some of the fouls called on Jefferson were questionable to say the least.
The most impressive thing about Jefferson’s game, to me at least, was how he played within the offense. His points came off offensive rebounds and quick cuts to the basket that got him open for good entry passes.
All season, Duke has done a poor job of feeding the post or dishing inside off of penetration (see Quinn Cook slide). Jefferson relocated on the blocks off penetration and, as a result, got separation from his defender while making himself available for inside passes. That’s fundamental stuff, but it’s good to see that Jefferson has a firm handle on it.
Jefferson also aided Duke in rebounding. All year, that has been a bit of a weak spot, but in the first half, Duke was dominating NC State on the boards. Jefferson was an integral part of Duke’s early-game proficiency around the glass.
In effect, Amile Jefferson can at least offer what Josh Hairston brings to the table, but Jefferson has the potential to grow into even more of a contributor. Hairston, on the other hand, seems to have maxed out his development.
The one area where Hairston outdoes Jefferson is defense. Hairston has been around long enough to have a firm grasp on team defense, while Jefferson occasionally seemed unsure of where to be in terms of help defense.
Of course, team defense is best learned through experience. Though Duke fans should be prepared for a learning curve, with more playing time, Jefferson could round himself into an extremely capable player on both ends of the floor.
The thing with all the previously mentioned players is that they can’t replace what Ryan Kelly does for the Blue Devils.
On defense, Ryan Kelly can defend a post player and grab rebounds. On offense, Kelly pulls one of the opponent’s bigger defenders outside. By Kelly stretching the opponent’s defense, Mason Plumlee has more room in the post and Quinn Cook can find room to penetrate.
Hairston, Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee are all post players, but they lack the outside game of Kelly. As a result, there’s the potential that their insertion into the lineup would clog up the paint and make it harder for Mason Plumlee to get free to post up or for Quinn Cook to drive the lane and find space.
Alex Murphy, however, has enough of an outside shot to draw post defenders out to the perimeter. Though Murphy clearly isn’t as talented as Ryan Kelly, his style of game is similar.
If Murphy could use this opportunity to show that he’s big enough to defend a post player and grab rebounds and is enough of a threat to score from outside to stretch defenses, then he has the potential to most closely duplicate Ryan Kelly’s contributions.
The problem, of course, is that Murphy started in both preseason games and didn’t make much of an impact. So far in the regular season, Murphy has seen sparse playing time. It seems like a stretch to ask Murphy to go from an end-of-the-bench player to a relied-upon significant contributor.
Alex Murphy will certainly have the opportunity to play more with Kelly out, and he has enough talent to grow into a good player. Unfortunately, Murphy’s skill set will probably take a few years to develop. As nice as it will be to have Murphy as a key player when he’s a junior and senior, he’s unlikely to make much of an impact in the short term.
The youngest Plumlee is literally Duke’s biggest question mark. Prior to the season, Coach Krzyzewski said that Marshall Plumlee was the sixth-best player on the team. A preseason injury slowed his development and the coaching staff has opted to slowly integrate Plumlee into the rotation.
The limited use makes sense in terms of making sure Marshall Plumlee is fully recovered from his injury. It also lets him knock off some rust and ensures that there isn’t an unsettling jolt to team chemistry.
However, nothing is a greater jolt to a playing rotation and chemistry than an injury. Given the unavoidable impact of Ryan Kelly being out, now is an excellent time to insert Marshall Plumlee into the game plan and see what he has to offer.
With only 15 minutes of game time all season, it’s hard to know if Marshall Plumlee can contribute to Duke right away or if he, like Murphy, is an excellent long-term prospect but not a short-term solution.
Still, during the NC State game, he gave Duke an interesting look during his three minutes on the court. All game, Mason Plumlee was forced to move out to the perimeter to set screens for the ball-handler. Not once, that I saw, did this result in Plumlee getting the ball after rolling to the basket.
When Marshall Plumlee entered the game, it was his big body outside setting screens. This meant that Mason Plumlee could establish his position inside. This seemed like, if nothing else, an interesting offensive set.
Of course, if Duke doesn't run that specific set, it’s fair to wonder if he and his brother both trying to post up in the paint might be detrimental to Duke’s offense by clogging the interior. Even if Marshall Plumlee only finds himself on the court to give his older brother a breather, he’ll have the chance to make a positive impact for the Blue Devils.