Basketball season is nearly upon us, and Duke’s Countdown to Craziness on Oct. 18 will be televised as an appetizer. Though it will essentially just be an intrasquad scrimmage, Duke fans will be watching intently, and there are plenty of aspects to turn a critical eye toward.
For one thing, there will be a lot of new faces.
The Blue Devils lost three key seniors in Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. But, of course, Coach K has plenty of talent vying to replace the contributions that trio made last season.
All interested parties will be keenly interested in how much the returning players have improved and which ones can emerge as team leaders.
Meanwhile, fans and analysts are waiting with bated breath to see the newly arriving recruits—including one of the nation’s top prospects in Jabari Parker—and the now eligible transfer Rodney Hood.
So for all the deciphering of players’ performances that will be going on, these five things are the most important things to watch for in Duke’s Countdown to Craziness.
There’s continuing talk that Sulaimon isn't guaranteed a spot as a starter. That could cut three ways.
First, it could inspire Sulaimon to ratchet up his game so that he becomes a truly dominant player. There’s no denying that he’s supremely talented, and this could be the push that gets him to realize his full potential.
The second option is that Sulaimon gets used as a sixth man the way the Oklahoma City Thunder used to utilize James Harden.
In such a scenario, Sulaimon would step onto the floor just as the opponent starts to sub on bench players. The Duke shooting guard would then, presumably, be the best player on the court by far and lead the Duke reserves against the opponent’s bench players, which would be a heavy advantage for the Blue Devils.
The final way this could play out is that all this talk about Sulaimon possibly not starting upsets or angers the young sophomore.
Sulaimon has been a star at every level he’s played in, including the Under-21 U.S. National team. It’s not unthinkable that he would take being relegated to the bench or being deemed not good enough to be an automatic starter as a slight.
During the scrimmage, it will be interesting to see not only how Sulaimon plays—he came on strong at the end of last season, so he should be significantly improved to the point of being one of Duke’s best players—but also what his demeanor is like.
Related to the uncertainty surrounding Sulaimon being a starter or not, the Blue Devils have a multitude of lineups they could employ.
Duke’s abundance of guards and wing players, who can operate from a number of different positions, means that the coaching staff will be able to mix and match lineups that tend toward different styles of play.
Matching Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton in the backcourt would provide a fairly defensive tilt to the Blue Devils. Putting Andre Dawkins on the floor would serve to stretch defenses and open up the floor for players capable of penetrating. Shuffling the post players either makes the lineup taller and slower or shorter and faster.
Each potential lineup has certain strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the Blue Devils split the squad and what kind of chemistry exists between the various players.
The last time we saw Andre Dawkins, Duke was being upset by Lehigh—not something Blue Devil fans like to be reminded of.
But Duke fans will relish the return of Dawkins.
Everyone knows the story of his personal tragedy just like everyone knows that Dawkins has the potential to light up the scoreboard from behind the three-point line.
What’s unknown is what type of player he’ll prove to be in the upcoming season.
After taking a year off, Dawkins could be the 4.4 points-per-game streaky shooter he was as a junior or an instant-offense, dead-eye shooter who stretches defenses and makes Duke even more difficult to defend.
That uncertainty will mean that each shot he takes will be scrutinized for how it portends for the season.
If Dawkins looks sluggish or rusty—which would be completely understandable—that will raise questions about his role going forward. If he has a hot shooting night, then there’s plenty of reason for the Blue Devils to be optimistic about his play and the team’s title chances.
Jabari Parker will certainly be a selling point for the people at ESPN. All season, Parker will be compared and contrasted to Andrew Wiggins at Kansas.
Putting aside the commercial interests that will push that narrative, Duke needs to see just how ready Parker is for basketball at the college level.
No one doubts Parker’s skill set. He has post moves, a medium-range game and the ability to drive to the basket.
The question will be whether or not he can handle being banged around in the post.
Because of Duke’s roster, he’ll be forced into a power forward position. As a result, he’ll need to utilize his skills in a way that takes advantage of athleticism and doesn't expose his lack of size and strength.
Rodney Hood is another player the Duke faithful are excited to see.
All of last season, Hood was sort of a ghost who couldn't play but was rumored to be tearing it up during practices. Maybe he was, but seeing is believing.
Hood is a slasher and shooter of great promise. The ceiling for him is to be Duke’s leading and most reliable scorer. On a roster full of scorers and shooters, that’s high praise. So it’ll be interesting to see just how effective Hood is on offense.
All season, this will be the big question for the Blue Devils.
Amile Jefferson seems to be assured of a starting spot. That implies that Marshall Plumlee will be the backup center with Josh Hairston as an undersized option in the paint.
Last season, Jefferson was impressive during his short spells of playing time. He’s also put on weight in the offseason, which should—theoretically—make him more effective in the paint.
Marshall Plumlee, meanwhile, has barely been healthy during his time in Durham. At the very least, one of these two players will need to assert themselves as an inside presence if Duke is going to go deep in the NCAA tournament.
Interestingly—and somewhat unfortunately—Duke’s post play will be somewhat difficult to evaluate.
For one thing, the Blue Devils offense won’t really look to push the ball into the paint, so their offensive abilities won’t be on display during Countdown to Craziness.
Secondly, there will be a lot of shots from outside going up during the scrimmage. While that will present the post players with plenty of rebounding opportunities, it won’t allow them to show off their defensive prowess.
Essentially, Jefferson and Plumlee will only demonstrate their growth as players if they can make things difficult for the myriad of wing players looking to penetrate. Of course, that would be troubling to see because penetration is the bulk of Duke’s offense.
In all, the upcoming scrimmage isn't going to answer many questions regarding Duke’s post play. They’ll probably get burned a good bit on drives by wing players, and if they grab rebounds or score inside, it will just be against the other questionable post players on Duke’s roster.