Recently, we delved into some problems that Duke will need to overcome on a consistent basis going forward if it hopes to win an ACC crown.
It was an examination into some overarching issues that have hampered the Blue Devils dating back to November. That was more of a big-picture look at the concerns, but Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has enjoyed a three-game winning streak and looked absolutely dominant the past two times out against North Carolina State and Miami.
In fact, the Blue Devils won those two contests by a combined score of 162-106. That’s 56 points of separation, which is never easy to do against conference foes, regardless of where those teams are in the standings.
It’s only natural to feel a boost of optimism during a three-game winning streak, which raises the question of whether the Blue Devils have corrected—or at least started to correct—their problems that were so detrimental during the rough 1-2 start in ACC play.
With that in mind, let’s break down those problems one by one and discuss the progress Duke has made in the short term on each.
Jabari Parker’s Production
When Duke lost two of its first three games in ACC play, superstar Jabari Parker’s struggles dominated the headlines.
Parker stuffed the stat sheet through the first 12 games, looking like the best player in the country and the potential next No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in the process. However, over a five-game stretch against Elon, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia, he shot 19-of-59 from the field and 5-of-21 from behind the three-point line.
He struggled with double-teams, harassing zones and forced the issue too often from the perimeter. Krzyzewski made the gutsy call to leave Parker on the bench during the final four minutes against the Fighting Irish in what eventually became a two-point loss.
Duke relies on its excellent offense to overcome its sometimes susceptible defense and Parker is the primary option in that offense. Fortunately for Blue Devils fans, this “issue” seems like it may be corrected for good after the last two games.
Against the Wolfpack and Hurricanes, Parker scored a combined 40 points and grabbed 22 rebounds. What’s more encouraging is the fact that he didn’t settle on contested, long-range shots and attacked the rim.
Parker is going to be just fine going forward.
Duke’s lack of a strong and dominant inside presence has been the cause of much hand-wringing around Durham this season, but its vulnerable perimeter defense was almost more concerning in the early season.
Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Parker and Rodney Hood all struggled to stay in front of their men against even the likes of East Carolina and Vermont, which made the lack of interior defense an even more glaring issue. Ball-handlers were basically being escorted to the rim by Duke defenders and there wasn't much of a challenge once they got there.
However, the outside defense has been much better in the past two games for the Blue Devils.
Guards Desmond Lee and Anthony Barber of NC State scored a combined 12 points and turned it over eight times against Duke. Rion Brown, Manu Lecomte and Garrius Adams of Miami combined for seven turnovers and only five assists against Krzyzewski’s squad and only scored 14 points between the three of them.
While we will need a bigger sample size than two games against bottom-tier North Carolina State and Miami to have full confidence in Duke’s perimeter defense, the short-term strides have been obvious.
Interior Presence and Rebounding
Let’s not mince words here—the fact that Duke ranked 226th in the entire nation in total rebounds per game entering the Miami contest is downright unacceptable.
Nobody is asking this roster the way it is constructed to be one of the best rebounding squads in the country, but this is Duke. The Blue Devils simply can’t be looking up at a whopping 225 teams in the rebounding department.
However, there is reason for optimism surrounding the team's rebounding and interior presence on the defensive end. That reason is Amile Jefferson.
Jefferson has seen a heavy increase in minutes since ACC play started and rewarded Krzyzewski with a double-double against Virginia—in a game Duke would have lost were it not for Jefferson’s efforts—improved rebounding and impressive shooting around the rim.
He has outpaced Josh Hairston and Marshall Plumlee by a significant margin production-wise and seems to be the Blue Devils’ answer down low going forward.
Will Duke finish in the top two in the ACC?
Duke out-rebounded both North Carolina State and Miami, which is more than it can say for almost every one of its early games.
Ultimately, all of Duke’s goals from before the season started are still in place. It can still win the ACC and make the Final Four, but neither has even a chance of happening if the rebounding and interior defense don’t improve.
Perhaps those improvements have just started.