Rasheed Sulaimon vs. Florida Atlantic, in his slump's early days.
Following Duke's Big Ten-ACC Challenge win over Michigan, Andre Dawkins summed up the Blue Devils' shooting guard logjam succinctly.
"It's basketball," Dawkins told The News & Observer. "I've had a DNP (did not play) already this year. Everybody who plays the shooting guard, Matt (Jones), Sheed (Rasheed Sulaimon), myself, has had a DNP. That's what happens when you have this deep of a team, sometimes guys just aren't going to play."
Technically, Jones hasn't sat out any games completely, although he's had a couple of one-minute cameos. Dawkins has had one DNP, and the teammate whose slump prompted the above comments, sophomore Sulaimon, sat out the Michigan game.
Jones, Sulaimon and Dawkins have all established themselves as gifted role players while sharing minutes at the 2-guard position with senior Tyler Thornton. Having three options at a single position makes the division of labor hard enough, so how does Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski intend to handle the position going forward with four?
Per his usual habit, Coach K offers few hints. "Things change, and you just hang in there," he told The Chronicle. "That part of it is not complicated. All of our guys have good attitudes and are working hard, and we like that."
Thornton's insertion into the starting five, replacing Sulaimon, came on the heels of Duke's worst defensive effort since Ken Pomeroy launched his site in 2003. Vermont averaged a dazzling 1.39 points per possession in a dramatic one-point loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
While Thornton settled in, the Blue Devils offense had its two weakest outings of the year—a 98.9 rating against Alabama and a 97.8 against Arizona, both at Madison Square Garden. The defense, however, stifled Alabama, allowing the Crimson Tide a mere 85.5 offensive efficiency. That game remains the Devils' second-best defensive performance of the season.
Three of Duke's first six opponents put up offensive ratings over 109, including those noted offensive juggernauts Vermont and Davidson. Since Thornton entered the starting lineup, Arizona's 106.8 is the best any opponent has managed. That includes power-conference foes Alabama, Michigan and UCLA.
None of those last five opponents have scored 70 points on the Devils. Early on, even East Carolina broke 70, for cryin' out loud.
So, it should go without saying that Thornton's minutes are largely safe. One of the nation's pre-eminent perimeter defenders, Thornton provides an edge that Duke sorely lacked early in the season.
Of course, part of the reason the Devils lacked Thornton's edge was that it kept landing him in foul trouble. Over the first six games, Thornton averaged 7.8 fouls per 40 minutes. Since he joined the starting lineup, he's still averaging around five fouls per 40, but he's only fouled out of the loss to Arizona.
Jones teamed with Thornton to put shackles on Michigan sniper Nik Stauskas and later had a pair of important first-half steals that blew open Duke's win over Gardner-Webb. Heralded as a talented shooter entering college, Jones has been largely a nonentity on that end, save for a 13-point night against Alabama.
The two should continue to see platoon minutes as defensive stoppers when the Blue Devils run into ACC opponents with skilled backcourts. Think Boston College (Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon), Syracuse (Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney) and North Carolina (Nate Britt and Marcus Paige).
To whom would you give the most minutes?
Sulaimon started off the season like the dark-horse All-American some publications projected. He torched Davidson for 20 points in 25 minutes and even dropped 13 on Kansas.
He's put up a total of 32 in the nine games since.
Sulaimon's eight points, five rebounds and four assists against UCLA were a positive sign for a player who, by his own admission, was trying too hard to make plays against the earlier, lesser competition.
"It's just a mental thing," he told The Charlotte Observer. "To be honest, I probably wasn't as mentally tough as I should have been. Once I got that out of the way and stopped thinking about, 'Woe (is) me,' I just focused on what can I do to help this team win."
A key three-pointer inside the final two minutes sealed the win over UCLA and sent Sulaimon's teammates into raptures. Coach K praised his efforts in practice following the game, but the renaissance must continue.
Last season, Sulaimon never went more than four games without scoring in double figures. He's now on a stretch of nine games and counting. The difference is that last season, his scoring ability was frequently needed, especially while Ryan Kelly nursed a nagging foot injury.
With Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood raining in baskets and point guard Quinn Cook discovering just how good a scorer he can be, the Blue Devils don't lack for offense. They need defense and hustle.
Jones has quickly proven he can provide those two qualities, and they've been Thornton's stock in trade his entire career. Sulaimon won't get a chance to score if he can't keep defending at a competitive level.
What About the Old Man?
And whither the elder statesman, graduate student Dawkins? His first two games were largely lost to a tailbone injury, but he's lit some kids up since then.
Dawkins rained in at least 13 points against Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville, Vermont and, more recently, Gardner-Webb. None of those, however, should be considered powerful opposition.
Is the real Andre Dawkins closer to the guy who averaged 3.5 points in 7.3 minutes per game against Alabama, Arizona, Michigan and UCLA? Dawkins struck quickly against Michigan, pouring in seven points on only three shots in 10 minutes, but his 1-of-5 night against the Bruins could charitably be described as "forgettable."
It makes sense that Dawkins will see limited minutes against more talented offensive teams, since he's never been renowned as a defensive stopper. Grantland's Shane Ryan even put the video at right on YouTube in 2012 to single out Dawkins' shaky defense.
In ACC play, there will be several skilled teams in the Blue Devils' path. Six of Duke's conference opponents rank among Pomeroy's top 50 offenses (subscription required).
So, Dawkins must be able to fill the role of instant spark off the bench, a la his performance against the Wolverines. It's an impressive skill for a shooter to enter the game and strike immediately, and Dawkins' value is wrapped up in his ability to do just that.
How to Divide the Minutes
Thornton's ability to impact the game on both ends is greater than that of any of his fellow guards. He should continue to draw the lion's share of the minutes, even if Coach K makes a change among the starters.
Sulaimon proved he could play at this level last season, but his struggles puzzled everyone. It's not like he struggled to adapt to a supporting role, since he played in a similar capacity last season behind Kelly, Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee. If he's learned to adapt to Parker and Hood, his minutes, shots and points will all creep up, even if he never quite catches up to last season's 11.6 points per game.
The real battle looms between Dawkins and Jones. Coach K will often remain loyal to the veteran player over the youngster, unless the older player can't pull weight on one end or the other.
Jones is already making plays on the defensive end, but struggling with his shot—precisely the opposite of his high school scouting reports. If his jumper begins to fall, he'll eat into what minutes are left for Dawkins, leaving the oldest of the bunch out in the cold.
Duke's stunning array of wing talent was the primary story heading into the season, and there were mild questions of how Krzyzewski would align his pieces. With all four shooting guards showing glimpses of ACC-level form, the questions are that much louder.
All statistics and rankings accurate through games of Dec. 22.
All efficiency stats per Ken Pomeroy (subscription required).
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.