Duke Basketball: Positive Signs During Recent Struggles

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Duke Basketball: Positive Signs During Recent Struggles
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Don’t worry, Duke fans. The sky is not falling. It just seems like it is.

It is no secret that Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils are in the midst of a slump right now as ACC play heats up. Duke has lost two of its past four games to a Notre Dame squad missing leading-scorer Jerian Grant and a Clemson team that lost to Auburn and didn’t have a single quality win on its resume.

What’s more, Duke’s most recent victory over Virginia left fans with a bad taste in their mouths because the Blue Devils almost blew a double-digit lead in the game’s final four minutes. Had Rasheed Sulaimon (and the ever-kind Cameron rims) not rescued the team with a critical three-pointer in the last 30 seconds, this current slump would look even worse.

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Most alarming during this stretch of poor play is the production, or lack thereof, from superstar Jabari Parker. The freshman shot a combined 19-of-59 in his past five games from the field and 5-of-21 from behind the three-point line. He has struggled with double teams and finding an offensive rhythm and was even benched in the final four minutes against the Irish.

While it’s easy to take a glass half-empty approach to Duke’s start in ACC play, there have been some positive signs that are being overlooked right now because of the overarching struggles (and they go beyond simply pointing out that Parker is a freshman and was bound to struggle at some point this year).

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For one, Coach K may have finally found his answer down low. The Blue Devils have been abysmal rebounding the basketball all season (and rank 227th in the country in total rebounding as of this writing) largely because there is no dominant interior presence. However, Amile Jefferson has excelled in recent games as he continues to earn more playing time over Josh Hairston.

Jefferson grabbed 15 rebounds against Virginia, 10 against Georgia Tech and nine against Notre Dame and has shot 5-of-8 from the floor in the past three games. He even scored 10 points against the Cavaliers, including two critical free throws with six seconds left, to give himself a double-double.

His minutes have gone up, and Jefferson has rewarded Krzyzewski’s faith in him with impressive performances.

Another reason for optimism is Sulaimon’s game-winning shot. Considering where he was earlier in the season mentally and from a production standpoint, this has to serve as a critical boost in confidence for the shooting guard.

Sulaimon never saw the floor against Michigan and struggled in much of the early going. However, he tallied 21 points against Virginia and 11 against Georgia Tech—finally appearing ready to play his way back into the regular rotation.

Finally, there is Rodney Hood.

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While Parker has found himself slumping right alongside the Blue Devils, Duke’s other superstar has picked up the slack and then some. Hood scored 27 points against Notre Dame, 27 points against Georgia Tech, 20 points against Clemson and 14 points against Virginia. More importantly, he has appeared comfortable in the role of go-to option when Parker struggles.

It doesn’t get better across the country in terms of a second scorer than Hood. If he continues to play at such a high level, one would assume he and Parker can formulate one of the best one-two punches in America down the stretch.

As for Parker, he has far too much talent to continue to struggle. Gary Parrish of CBS Sports still has him as the No. 2 pick in his latest mock draft:

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Parker has cooled some since the start of the season and was even benched late during a loss at Notre Dame. Still, he's a pro shot-maker already and probably the prospect best equipped to immediately make significant contributions at the pro level.

If Coach K can help Parker work through this recent slump, and Hood, Jefferson and Sulaimon continue their impressive play, the Blue Devils will be just fine come March.

They almost always are.

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