Five games into the conference season, Duke is 3–2 in the ACC. The mediocre start has created a myriad of competing narratives for the Blue Devils. Weaknesses have been exposed and strengths have evolved. Almost one third of the way through ACC play, Duke has legitimate reasons for concern and realistic hope that the team is finally realizing its potential.
Even though Duke has two losses in the conference, the defense has actually improved. To be fair, the Blue Devils started the season with a defense so pathetic that things could only get better. Nevertheless, Duke’s defense has gone from nonexistent to somewhat serviceable.
In the five ACC games, Duke has held opponents to an average of 66.6 points per game. Over the entire course of the season, opponents have averaged 68.2 points, via Team Rankings. The Blue Devils are still a defensive work in progress, but it’s a good sign that there’s been an improvement since the start of the season.
In its most recent game, Duke also started to force turnovers. NC State was pressured into 21 turnovers, 14 of which were outright steals by the Blue Devils (box score). The ability to get turnovers is especially crucial when you consider that opponents are shooting 44.7 percent against Duke, according to Team Rankings.
Duke’s defense has been an issue all season. The lack of height on the roster means that good perimeter defense is a necessity to prevent dribble penetration and entry passes into the post. Against both Notre Dame and Clemson, Duke’s perimeter defense wasn’t up to par. The result was a lot of points in the paint for both the Irish and Tigers.
The defensive effort against NC State was the best the Blue Devils have looked all year on that side of the ball. If that type of intensity can be put forth with consistency, then Duke becomes a much more formidable team.
An improved defense also takes pressure of the offense, which has struggled against ACC opponents.
In the losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, the Blue Devils led by double digits only to suffer extended scoring droughts in the second half. Duke’s defense is average at best and therefore not capable of covering up for stretches of ineffective offense. Whether it’s due to fatigue or just a run of cold shooting, Duke simply can’t afford to stop scoring.
Jabari Parker has been particularly dismal in ACC games. Before scoring 23 against the Wolfpack, Parker was averaging just 10.5 points during conference play (game log). In the first four ACC games of his career, Parker settled for long jumpers and three-point shots. As a one-dimensional jump-shooter, Parker undercut his athleticism and made himself less of an offensive threat.
Without Parker playing in top form, Duke’s offense is nothing to get excited about. Rodney Hood has emerged from his shooting slump, and Rasheed Sulaimon has finally started to find his offense. However, no one on the roster can create defensive problems for an opponent the way Parker can.
Against NC State, Parker drove to the basket and set up in the post for dishes off penetration. Instead of settling for threes, Parker picked up points inside the way he did earlier in the season. As a result, Duke tallied its highest point total since November 15.
Part of Parkers struggles in ACC play have to do with him being woefully undersized in the paint. Playing out of position means that Parker is getting banged around by bigger players, and that takes a toll physically and mentally.
Fortunately, Duke is finding ways to move Parker around and force bigger defenders to track him around the court. Against NC State, Sulaimon was particularly adept at using penetration to force defensive switches that freed up Parker.
As antithetical as it sounds, better guard play that includes more drives will negate Duke’s lack of interior size. Parker and Jefferson both have good hands and are at their best knifing through space in the paint. Duke created that space against NC State and will surely look to continue that trend.
All in all, it’s difficult to see the ceiling for this Blue Devils team.
The first four games of ACC play were anything but reassuring, but blowing out the Wolfpack gave credence to the thought that perhaps Duke has turned a corner. Going forward, Duke must continue to take pressure of their defense by scoring with reliable consistency. The Blue Devils will also need to force turnovers in order to prevent teams from playing slow, plodding half-court games.
Duke showed an ability to do this in spurts at the start of ACC play and managed a full 40 minutes of it against NC State. With a home date with Florida State and away games at Pittsburgh and Syracuse on the horizon, failing to produce a performance on par with the NC State win will see Duke struggle against those physical teams.