Duke played on back-to-back nights for the right to travel to New York for the Preseason NIT main event. On Monday night, Duke routed a tall but over-matched UNC Asheville team by the score of 91-55. That game got out of hand early, and by the end, Todd Zafirovski was on the floor for the Blue Devils.
Tuesday, an East Carolina team with a balanced scoring attack provided a real test for Duke. Even though the Blue Devils built an early lead and at times played as if the game’s result was a foregone conclusion, the Pirates fought back valiantly. At one point, East Carolina was trailing by just one point. Duke, however, quickly turned the tide back in their favor and emerged with an 83-74 victory.
Playing two completely different games in quick succession lay bare a lot of Duke’s strengths and weaknesses. So here are the player grades for the Blue Devils during that two-game stretch.
Jabari Parker (A)
The only question up for debate regarding Parker is whether he’s more like LeBron or 'Melo. Against UNC Asheville, Parker scored with relative ease and grabbed 10 rebounds. He did force some passes, which led to six turnovers, but overall his effort was solid.
In the ECU game, Parker took his play to another level. When Duke was on its back foot, Parker went coast to coast for a thunderous dunk. He also had six blocks, two of which came at crucial moments late in the game. In all, Parker showed that he’s capable of flipping the switch from good to great.
Throughout both games, he was making good switches on defense and doing a better job going after rebounds. Parker is proving to be a quick study, and with every improvement, he becomes a more complete and more dominant player.
Rodney Hood (A)
The bottom line is that Hood can score from all over the floor. He can spot up for threes, drive to the basket and even throw down vicious dunks. On top of his versatility, Hood is exceedingly efficient. He shot 6-of-8 against UNC Asheville and 8-of-10 versus ECU. He also went 15-of-16 from the free-throw line over both games.
Clearly he’s an offensive juggernaut who is a reliable scorer against any defensive matchup. If there’s one area to nitpick, it’s Hood’s defense. He has a tendency to let his defensive assignment get past him. Part of that probably has to do with Hood wanting to avoid picking up fouls, but he could be sharper on making switches and should probably do a better job of staying in front of his man given his quickness.
Rasheed Sulaimon (B)
Sulaimon’s defense was fantastic in both games. He can guard three positions and has a good feel for team defense. Unfortunately, Sulaimon’s offense was mostly absent over this two-game stretch.
In both games combined, Sulaimon took just eight shots and made only two. It’s good that Sulaimon is finding other ways to contribute by making great passes, playing good defense and even helping out on the defensive glass. However, Sulaimon is simply too skilled to not involve himself in the offense.
He has the ability to drive to the basket. If he would be more aggressive in this, he’d get layups, draw fouls and open up passing lanes. At some point, he needs to realize that he can turn Duke’s duo of Hood and Parker into an even more offensively potent trio.
Amile Jefferson (B)
With new rules, his lack of strength is less of an issue, and his quickness should be a greater asset. Using good footwork, Jefferson is capable of staying in front of post players attempting to drive around him. A couple of times, defenders shot over him, but in this new basketball world of fouls for anything resembling contact, that’s just part of the new reality.
His rebounding is improving, and his defense is improving. In both games, it was clear that Jefferson is making progress. This grade could be an A, but I’m inclined to think that he’s capable of more. Also, his free-throw shooting was pretty abysmal.
Quinn Cook (C)
The guy who is possibly the linchpin to Duke’s success continues to be maddening. When he drives the lane, Cook is an outstanding player. He has an uncanny knack for finishing at the rim even when there is contact. His penetration also causes defenders to shift over to stop his progress, and Cook expertly dishes to open players. In these moments, Cook is probably Duke’s third-best player.
Unfortunately, there are other moments in the game when Cook is like an albatross around the team’s neck. His hot shooting off drives to the hoop in the first half of the ECU game gave Duke a solid lead. Then, his cold shooting from three gave ECU the opportunity to whittle that lead down to one.
Cook had five assists in the first game and 10 in the second, so it’s not like he’s been a total disaster. The frustration comes from the fact that when he puts the ball on the floor and drives, he facilitates Duke’s offense. When he jacks up threes, he stymies Duke’s offense. It comes down to Quinn Cook making the conscious decision to be smart and play to his strengths.
Andre Dawkins (+A)
Dawkins rained threes on UNC Asheville, but he didn’t get as much opportunity to pull up from deep against ECU (in part because Cook kept shooting threes). Nevertheless, Dawkins has obviously shaken the rust off after not playing for a year. He remains a deadly three-point threat, and his defense has been outstanding. He drew a five-seconds call against UNC Asheville and collected two steals against ECU.
All that said, the most impressive bits of Dawkins’ game are the intangibles. For one thing, he’s smiling a ton. Dawkins looks genuinely in love with basketball, and his enthusiasm rubs off on the rest of the team. That might seem like shallow praise, but if you've read Seth Davis' article about Dawkins, it's clear that this level of enjoyment from Dawkins is a real accomplishment.
Beyond that, he’s become a real leader. On the court, he’s pointing out where guys need to be and talking a lot in the team huddles. On a team as young as Duke’s, having someone with all the basketball and life experience that Dawkins possess is simply invaluable.
Tyler Thornton (A)
The new rules for defenders have really handcuffed Thornton. Not the most athletic of players, Thornton made up for his shortcomings by being physical. Now that hard-nosed defense is earning him fouls. He fouled out of the ECU game and was saddled with three fouls against UNC Asheville.
Still, Thornton remains an integral part of Duke’s defense. He’s a vocal leader, and even if he picks up the occasional foul, his perimeter defense is still good for one or two steals every game. Thornton has also been passing the ball nicely. In the two NIT games, he totaled seven assists.
Semi Ojeleye (A)
The freshman had seen limited minutes until the UNC Asheville game. All of a sudden, Ojeleye was out on the court and knocking down threes. He finished that game with 10 points and earned a bit of playing time in the more closely contested ECU game.
While Ojeleye hitting two threes shouldn’t be something Duke ought to count on, his play in the post has been both impressive and consistent. In both NIT games, he fought for rebounds and played good interior defense. Ojeleye had a block in each of the two games. His height and athleticism are enough to earn him minutes on this Duke team. If he can establish himself as a reliable rebounder, he could even push ahead of Hairston on the depth chart.
Josh Hairston (+B)
The Blue Devils don’t need Hairston to do much. He merely needs to play good post defense, grab rebounds and only shoot the ball when he’s within five feet of the basket. For the most part, he’s managed to live up to these expectations.
The only complaint is that he sometimes falls asleep in terms of boxing out. Given that he’s undersized in the post, Hairston can’t afford to be anything less than perfect in terms of the fundamentals. If he doesn’t aggressively establish good rebounding position, he lacks the height or talent to consistently get rebounds.
Matt Jones (B)
He hasn’t shown the three-point shooting stroke that he was reputed to have coming out of high school. However, Jones has displayed an ability to drive the lane to great effect. He’s also been excellent on defense.
Against UNC Asheville, Jones played 14 minutes and looked ready to perform as a role player at the end of the rotation. In the ECU game Jones barely played, which showed that—for now, at least—he’s too far down on the depth chart to make much of an impact this season.
Overall, there’s a ton of potential with Jones. His three-point shooting will need to emerge for him to become a real force at the college level, but his abilities to perform in the other areas of the game are more advanced than most freshmen.
Alex Murphy, Marshall Plumlee and even Todd Zafirovski played against UNC Asheville but didn’t make an appearance versus ECU, so their grades for the two NIT games are incomplete.
Team GPA over the Two Games: 3.47
The UNC game was a blowout that demonstrated the dominance of Duke’s starters and the vast potential of the players further down the Blue Devils bench. The ECU game, meanwhile, was an excellent early-season test against a mid-major that simply refused to let the score get too out of hand.
The Pirates eventually battled back from the deficit that Duke had put them in. This exposed the Blue Devils as perhaps playing a little too casually. That loss of focus was quickly negated by Jabari Parker’s effort at the end of the game.
The takeaway from both games is that Duke has improved by leaps and bounds in terms of defensive switches and communication. The Blue Devils also continue to be extremely efficient on offense. As a young team, however, there are lapses in judgment that can create problems. At least in these two games, the talent on Duke’s roster was enough to overcome the errors.
As the season progresses, these mental mistakes should decrease. Furthermore, just five games into the season the Blue Devils are already unmistakably better on defense. There are still some kinks to work out, but everything is headed in the right direction for Duke.
The Guy Singing Miley Cyrus During McAdoo’s Free-Throw (+++A)
UNC lost to Belmont, which is pretty embarrassing. But no one should be more red-faced than James Michael McAdoo as he allowed himself to be distracted at the free-throw line by a Belmont fan belting out "Wrecking Ball".