Duke’s season has been anything but straightforward. From preseason injuries to variations on the starting five, this team has had a lot of questions asked of it. So far, the Blue Devils have responded to those questions with serviceable answers.
But the season is only at its midway point and the Blue Devils will certainly be forced to continue to prove themselves.
As Duke heads down the home stretch, facing tough games from Miami, Maryland and UNC, the Blue Devils are in contention for a No. 1 seed and hold out hope for an ACC regular-season title.
So let’s take a look at the five biggest questions facing Duke in the second half of the season.
With the exception of those provided by Mason Plumlee, Duke’s points tend to come from outside shooting. Though Duke is blessed with a stable of skilled perimeter players, even the best shooters are prone to off nights.
As a result, the Blue Devils can fall victim to cold shooting at any moment and all of a sudden points become hard to come by. This means that Duke is not only inconsistent from game to game, but half to half and minute to minute.
Interestingly, the stats don’t fully flush out this problem. On the face of it, Duke is shooting an average of 47.5 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from three. That ranks Duke 22nd in the country for field-goal percentage and sixth in three-point percentage (via StatSheet).
Still, the Miami loss showcased the fact that when the shots aren’t falling, the Blue Devils lose most of their offensive bite. The Hurricanes held Duke to 29.7 percent shooting and Duke simply couldn’t find any consistent scoring.
Season averages aside, for anyone watching Duke play this season, it’s clear that from game to game, and even during stretches within a game, the Blue Devils are deeply susceptible to scoring slumps.
The rematch with NC State highlighted this weakness. In the first half, Duke shot 61.3 percent including a 10-for-17 mark from behind the arch. Then in the second half, the Blue Devils let the Wolfpack back into the game by sputtering toward 9-for-21 shooting and failing to make a single three-pointer (via GoDuke).
Overall, Duke has managed stretches of poor shooting. In a close game against Wake Forest, Duke made only two three-pointers all game but used inside scoring to mitigate disastrous outside shooting (via GoDuke).
Still, cold spells against top ACC opponents or teams in the NCAA tournament could put the Blue Devils in a deficit too deep to dig out of. Long-term success will depend on Duke finding ways to put points on the board even when the long-range efforts aren’t going down.
When Duke is knocking down threes, getting to the line and converting isn’t of the greatest concern to the Blue Devils. But as I just discussed, Duke’s inconsistency lends itself to periods of play when the team needs points by any means necessary.
In the game at Wake Forest, when Duke struggled from three-point range, 77.3 percent free-throw shooting gifted the Blue Devils 17 crucial points in a narrow 75-70 victory (via GoDuke).
In the second game against NC State, when Duke struggled to score in the second half, it was free throws that kept the Wolfpack at bay. 22 of Duke’s 40 second half points came from the free-throw line (via GoDuke).
In both those games, the Blue Devils shot well above their season average for free throws and needed every point.
Earlier in the year Duke’s free-throw shooting looked to be anything but an issue. Starting in December, however, Duke’s efficiency dipped. After averaging a free-throw percentage in the upper 70s, the Blue Devils descended to 69.8 percent in back-to-back games (via StatSheet).
For the season Duke is shooting 70.9 percent, which ranks them second in the ACC (via StatSheet). While that isn’t bad, it certainly could be better. And on top of that, the real issue comes in when you notice that Duke is fourth in free-throw attempts (via CBS).
Again, Duke is first and foremost a jump-shooting team, which doesn’t translate into drawing a lot of fouls. Nevertheless, Duke needs easy points on occasions when the shots aren’t falling. In those instances it’s important that the Blue Devils get to the line and convert.
Aggressively attacking the basket not only augments the versatility of Duke’s offense by forcing teams to defend against penetration, it affords Duke the opportunity to draw fouls and get to the line.
So far the Blue Devils are doing a decent job in terms of free throws. Even Mason Plumlee is shooting 65.1 percent.
Still, for a team that so frequently opts for long-range shooting, it’s important that Duke makes the most of uncontested free throws and responds to cold spells by attacking the basket and drawing contact.
Ken Pomeroy has Duke ranked 19th in adjusted defense. But having watched Duke fail to stop NC State’s offense over and over again, I’m reminded of the phrase, “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”
You can quote all the defensive stats you want, but the bottom line is that Duke has struggled defensively since Ryan Kelly got hurt.
It’s easy to analyze the ways in which Kelly's absence changes the offense. What has been less obvious is how not having his 6’11” frame has stunted the Blue Devils’ defense.
Prior to getting hurt, Ryan Kelly had 25 blocks on the season. His size and strength allowed him to defend the post alongside Mason Plumlee. That kind of dual length inside clogged up the lane for opposing offenses and added a certain degree of toughness to Duke’s defense, not to mention all the experience that having two senior post players afforded the Blue Devils.
NC State’s backup point guard Tyler Lewis was consistently in the paint against Duke. While that was Quinn Cook’s fault, Duke’s team defense failed to respond to his drives effectively.
Lewis’ penetration forced Duke’s defense to shift and cover on help defense. Mason Plumlee has been extremely hesitant in terms of stepping in front of opposing players driving to the bucket. Far too often he was caught flat-footed or too far away to make a play on the Wolfpack’s tiny backup point guard.
Maybe it’s because Plumlee is worried about picking up fouls due to Duke’s lack of frontcourt depth with Kelly out. Or maybe it’s because Kelly’s replacement is a freshman who isn’t as experienced in terms of help defense and so Plumlee isn’t confident Jefferson will rotate to cover his defensive responsibility.
Whatever the case, Duke looks just as susceptible to penetration as they did last year when the Blue Devil defense was historically bad. For Duke to finish the season with a happier result, the Blue Devils will have to step up their defense and make stops on a consistent basis.
This has been one of the more injury-riddled seasons for Duke in a long time. Prior to the opening game Marshall Plumlee was sidelined for six to eight weeks and Seth Curry was revealed to be suffering from a nagging leg injury.
Then, almost as soon as Marshall Plumlee returned to the lineup, Ryan Kelly got hurt and might be done for the season. Currently Josh Hairston has been bitten by the injury bug and Seth Curry is still barely practicing in between games.
The Blue Devils effectively play seven people, with Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee stealing a minute or two here and there. The only two substitutes that see consistent minutes are Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston, neither of whom are offensive contributors.
So the question is whether or not the wear and tear of the season will prove to be too much for a thin Duke roster.
Mason Plumlee, Quinn Cook and the somewhat injured Seth Curry all play over thirty minutes per game. Rasheed Sulaimon is close, averaging 29.5. More importantly, those four players constitute 74.2 percent of Duke’s scoring (via ESPN).
Simply put, there is no replacement if any one of those players is hurt or fatigued. As conference play drags on and with the ACC and NCAA tournament looming, Duke’s lack of depth is a cause for concern.
Given Duke’s desire to shoot jump shots, it’s worth wondering how fresh the shooters’ legs will be after a long season in which a short bench was shortened further by injuries.
Though I remain unconvinced that Ryan Kelly will make it back in time for the tournament, Duke has yet to confirm my cynical suspicions. For more upbeat fans, the lack of news offers hope that the senior hasn’t played his last game for the Blue Devils.
If Kelly does come back, it will be around tournament time, which wouldn’t give Duke long to reintegrate him into the lineup. This, of course, reminds Duke fans of the Kyrie Irving situation from 2010-11 (game log via StatSheet).
Irving was a superstar for eight games until a foot injury against Butler derailed his season. Duke played well even without the future No. 1 draft pick, winning the ACC tournament title and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Irving returned in time for the first-round NCAA game. Even though he played well for three straight tournament games, the team chemistry was decidedly off. A blowout loss to Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen sent Duke packing.
Ryan Kelly is a senior, however, so unlike the freshman Irving, he should be more familiar with his teammates. Additionally, while Irving needed the ball, Kelly is used to getting his points through the offensive sets and from broken plays. In that way, Kelly’s insertion into the lineup might not be as jarring as the Irving situation proved to be.
Still, teams grow and change throughout the season. The one that Ryan Kelly last played with has morphed into something new. Reintegrating Kelly would once again change the team dynamic and the outcome is hard to predict.
Whether it would prove to be beneficial or detrimental is anyone’s guess. And whether or not this dilemma will even arise is an uncertainty given Duke’s tight-lipped approach to Kelly’s injury and timetable.
What is certain is that this Duke team has already dealt with a lot of adversity. The rotation has been anything but set in stone all season and, so far, the players have responded well. It’s possible that if Ryan Kelly returned this group of players would accommodate yet another adjustment.
Then again, it’s just as possible that one more change could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.