Part of being a sports fan is noticing things that the casual observer doesn’t see. One of the advantageous things about basketball is that half the court is always on the screen, so a viewer can watch what’s going on with players who don’t have the ball.
With Duke coming off a loss that in many ways showcased the problems that have predictably plagued the Blue Devils all season, there’s a reasonable inclination to look for what’s going wrong, why it’s going wrong and what can be done to fix it.
I’ve identified four things that are worth keeping an eye on going forward. They don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but they are integral to Duke’s improvement and potential for success in March.
Whether or not these things to watch for will improve or persist remains to be seen, but at least you’ll know what to look for. And as always, if you know of anything else on which to keep tabs during a game, please feel free to add it in the comments section.
Before getting too critical of Jabari Parker’s defense, it’s important to remember three things.
First, he’s probably the best college player in the country, even if his defense isn’t up to snuff. Second, he’s only a freshman, so he’s still learning the game. Third, he isn’t a true post player, so he’s perpetually forced into a defensive matchup where he is overmatched in terms of size.
That being said, Parker has been bad on the defensive end. Learning when to front a post player and when to stay behind him takes time, but so far Parker hasn’t gotten a handle on this art form. He’s also slow to get back to his man on defensive switches around the perimeter.
Keep an eye out for times when Parker effectively fronts a post player. Given that he’s usually not as big as his defensive mark, denying the ball into the post is imperative. Keeping that player from backing him down into the paint to get inside position is also of utmost importance.
It’s tough, but the key to this is knowing when to front and when to stay between the player and the basket. Watching to see if Parker is learning this trade will tell you if Duke’s post defense problems are going to get better or continue to hamper the Blue Devils.
Also watch for whether or not Parker improves on switches and hedges. If he stays too long on a hedge or lacks fluidity on switches, the other defenders must scramble to account for his man.
As great as his offense is, Duke needs Parker to hold his own on defense. If he can become even a mediocre defender, the Blue Devils’ defense problems won't be so glaring.
Like a backup quarterback, Plumlee is popular among the fans despite his limited minutes. People want to see more of this little used commodity, in large part because Duke’s postgame on offense and defense is so paltry.
Against Elon, Plumlee played substantive minutes and looked to be working himself up the rotation; however, the Notre Dame game seemed to indicated that Plumlee’s ceiling for playing time is about nine minutes.
In a perfect world, Plumlee would be like Brian Zoubek. All he’d have to do is stand in the paint, block shots and get rebounds. While that might be too much to ask of the sophomore—at least at this point in his career—it’s worth keeping tabs on how much coach Mike Krzyzewski continues to go to the big man.
While he’ll probably struggle to get double-digit minutes, Plumlee can put his court time to good use by establishing some semblance of a post presence and giving away fouls. He might also offer an outlet for a few high-percentage shots. Okay, maybe that’s asking too much, but it’s still worth noticing how many meaningful minutes he’s getting and if he's using that time to make a difference.
Ostensibly, Josh Hairston is Duke’s 4 in the starting lineup. As a post player, it’d be nice if he could rebound every once in a while.
To be fair, Hairston is just 6’8” and has never showcased tremendous leaping ability.
Nevertheless, the senior is averaging a mere 1.6 rebounds per game, despite starting in the post for the Blue Devils. And while Hairston doesn't have a history of being a force on the boards, last season he averaged 2.1 rebounds.
Even though he’s playing more minutes this season, Hairston is somehow contributing less.
This strange occurrence makes sense if you watch his positioning under the basket. Repeatedly, Hairston fails to put a body on someone when a shot goes up. As a result, he finds himself mixed in among players bigger than him, and he's without the advantage of good positioning.
If Hairston decided to go after rebounds with the aggressiveness he demonstrates in attempting to draw charges—which often results in him being whistled for a block—he could at least alleviate some of Duke’s rebounding woes; therefore, it’s worth keeping an eye on whether or not Hairston has boxed out when a shot goes up.
This has been my bugaboo all year.
Cook is, to say the least, an enigmatic player. While this is often more apparent on the offensive end, his defensive shortcomings are possibly more problematic.
Duke has enough offensive firepower to overcome the occasional unnecessary shot from Cook, but the Blue Devils’ defense isn’t good enough to cover for Cook’s miscues on that side of the ball.
Cook likes to apply heavy ball pressure. As admirable as this is, it means that if he doesn’t switch correctly when he runs into a screen, he’ll be behind both defenders. Too often this season Cook has been staring at someone’s back while he takes the ball to the rim.
Watch for Cook’s quickness when it comes to recovering from screens or making simple switches on the perimeter.
Tyler Thornton’s presence on the court seems to help Cook in this regard, but he is still sometimes lost after switches or allows his man to blow by on penetration. If he improves on this just a little, Duke’s defense won’t be thrown into chaos quite so often.