Duke didn’t look dominant against Drury. It wasn’t a disaster by any means, nor does it portend trouble ahead for the Blue Devils. It was, however, indicative of how important Amile Jefferson is if Duke is going to challenge for a championship.
The exhibition is best summed up by the old cliché: It was a game of two halves. Fresh off their Division II championship, Drury came out with a focused energy that Duke couldn’t match for 20 minutes. The first half ended with Duke down 38-34 (box score via Go Duke).
In the second half, the Blue Devils played with greater purpose and sharper execution. In the final 20 minutes, Duke outscored Drury 47-27 for a final score of 81-65.
The difference in the two halves came down to defense. In the first period, Duke defenders looked like turnstiles as opponents drove by. The Blue Devils responded on offense by reverting to relying on three-pointers. This didn’t pay off as Duke shot 1-7 from three.
After halftime, Duke’s defense sharpened. Drury put up 34 shots in the first half and only 23 in the second. Duke forced 11 turnovers after the break, compared to only six in the first half. The more unified defense picked up the game’s tempo and gave way to a better Blue Devils offense that took advantage of all the extra possessions.
Suddenly, four first-half assists gave way to nine in the second half. As open shots and easy buckets became available, Duke pulled away. It was a winning formula for the game, and it’s something that this team will need to continue in order to succeed against tougher D-I adversaries.
At the core of the second half turnaround was Amile Jefferson. After failing to establish himself in the first half, Jefferson became more vocal on defense, took control of the rebounding battle and even chipped in 13 points. He finished with 16 rebounds and four assists, demonstrating his importance in every facet of the game.
Jefferson acts like an anchor for the Blue Devils. Without him making his presence felt, Duke sort of floats about with no real direction. Conversely, when Jefferson is doing his duties in the post, he provides the rest of the team with a focal point.
On defense, the other players can organize around him. On offense, his threat to score in the paint spreads defenses, which makes it easier to see and exploit space on the floor.
Tempo, spacing and chemistry will all be extremely important for Duke. It’s a tough balance to find, and it all centers around Jefferson quarterbacking the defense from the paint, being enough of an offensive threat to keep opponents from fanning out into tight perimeter defense and pulling down rebounds that end the opposing team’s possession.
Early in the game against Drury, these responsibilities seemed too much for the slender sophomore. Then, the communication and confidence of Jefferson increased in the second half, and as a result, Duke’s team chemistry picked up. With everything clicking at the high octane Duke’s abundance of talent allows, the final 20 minutes of the game showed exactly what the Blue Devils are capable of doing.
It’s worth mentioning that some of the disjointed play could possibly be attributed to the absence of Rasheed Sulaimon, who was out due to illness. The players were unaware prior to tipoff that he wouldn’t get on the court. Of course, no one was looking for excuses in an exhibition game against a D-II opponent.
Going into the regular season with a battle against an always feisty Davidson team, Duke will need to ensure that they dictate the flow of the game. This will require a strong performance from Amile Jefferson.
If he is successful down low, then Duke’s wings and guards can play at a fast pace and do so with a firm understanding of where they need to be on the floor. If Jefferson struggles to assert himself, then the Blue Devils will be forced to scrap and scrap on both sides of the ball.
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