With ACC play right around the corner, the Duke basketball team is on the short list for conference title contenders and Final Four threats. However, Mike Krzyzewski still has some decisions to make—especially when it comes to what to do with the revolving door of big men he has utilized.
The Blue Devils rank an abysmal 225th in the nation in total rebounding heading into play on Dec. 31, so the interior play they have thrown out there thus far has not inspired.
Amile Jefferson has been the most productive “center” Duke has used with 6.2 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, but he has only seen the court for 16 minutes a night.
Josh Hairston is posting 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds a game, while Marshall Plumlee is averaging 0.7 points and 1.1 rebounds a night. We’re not exactly looking at Wilt Chamberlain or Hakeem Olajuwon down low for the Blue Devils.
This raises the question: What if Krzyzewski decided to go with a small-ball lineup for extended stretches during conference play? Let’s dig into some of the pros and cons of that decision.
The first obvious positive to a small lineup would be that it maximizes Duke’s talent level. If we are naming the Blue Devils’ top five players from a pure ability standpoint, there is no way any of the big men are on that list.
With names such as Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon and even Tyler Thornton, Duke’s best players are not traditional post presences.
Furthermore, with so much athleticism on the court at once, Duke will be able to get out in transition with some of the best finishers in the country. Cook running the floor with Parker and Hood flanking his two sides and Dawkins or Sulaimon spotting up from the corner is a recipe for plenty of points.
The three-point shooting, which has been a strength for the Blue Devils thus far, will open up even more if they can space the floor with five different shooters. That could be critical against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone in what could be the most important matchup on the entire ACC slate.
In addition to creating transition opportunities and opening up the floor for more long-range shooting, a small-ball lineup would lead to a number of different mismatches in half-court sets.
Whichever player the opponent puts on Parker and/or Hood will not have much of a chance to stick with the Blue Devil off the dribble.
Ultimately, a small-ball lineup would do wonders for the Duke offense. There would be transition opportunities, mismatches all over the court and the chance to create serious fatigue in opponents chasing around so many ball-handlers for extended minutes.
However, there are also some concerns and potential cons to this rotation.
For one, the rebounding has been terrible enough as it is with Jefferson, Hairston and Plumlee combining for about 30 minutes a night. If Krzyzewski decides to utilize a small-ball approach in the ACC, Duke’s biggest weakness may become something that is even more crippling in critical conference matches.
This would expose the Blue Devils against any team that is physical in the paint, even if it isn’t until down the road in March.
It also potentially limits Jefferson’s development right when he seems to be turning a corner. The sophomore scored seven points and grabbed an impressive 14 rebounds in the last game against Eastern Michigan after scoring 11 and totaling seven rebounds against UCLA and grabbing 10 rebounds against Gardner-Webb.
Jefferson is Duke’s best chance at a productive and physical post presence, and increasing his minutes instead of limiting them seems like the best option right now.
Furthermore, perimeter defenders such as Cook and Sulaimon are still very questionable on the outside, and if someone blows past them off the dribble, a small-ball lineup wouldn’t have as much help defense down low to clean up the mess at the rim.
If anything, it would put more responsibility on Parker’s shoulders on the defensive end—which is his one area that needs improvement right now—as a possible enforcer down low and the team's leading rebounder.
As with almost any lineup-altering decision for Coach K, there are numerous pros and cons to utilizing a small-ball rotation in ACC play.
Ultimately, the best route may be to give more minutes to Jefferson and then cut into Hairston’s playing time with a small-ball group. That would give Duke’s best hope at a center time to develop while opening up the window for an offensive run with the small group out there.
What is Duke's best option down low?
Whatever Krzyzewski decides to do in an attempt to improve the rebounding and interior defense will have a rippling effect throughout the ACC. Syracuse and North Carolina will certainly be paying attention.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.