Duke Basketball: The Curious Case of Quinn Cook

Dantzler SmithContributor IIIMarch 20, 2014

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 01:  Quinn Cook #2 of the Duke Blue Devils controls the ball against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at the Carrier Dome on February 1, 2014 in Syracuse, New York.  Syracuse defeated Duke 91-89 in overtime.  (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

For Duke fans, no player is more divisive than Quinn Cook. At times, the junior point guard has shown signs of his great potential. On other occasions, Cook has given credence to the concern that the Blue Devils’ season will end in catastrophe.

As enigmatic as Cook’s play has been, he’ll have to be an integral part of Duke’s engine if the Blue Devils make a title run.

Cook’s role for Duke has shifted throughout the season. Initially he was the starting point guard and began the season with strong offensive performances. From the start of the season to the Georgia Tech game on Jan. 7, Cook failed to score in double-digits just twice (game log).

Starting with the Jan. 11 loss to Clemson, however, Cook’s impressive points and assists totals began to slip. Two weeks later, Cook was replaced in the starting lineup by Rasheed Sulaimon.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Since relinquishing his starting spot to Sulaimon on Jan. 27, Cook has reprised his role in the starting five on only two occasions. He was named the starter in the loss at Syracuse and started once more in the narrow win over Maryland. Since the 27th, Cook has played more than 30 minutes three times and finished games with fewer than 20 minutes on four occasions.

This shift in playing time shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. One player falls back into the supporting cast while another rises to the spotlight. Unfortunately, Cook creates a problem for Duke because he isn’t a supporting cast type of player.

For one thing, Cook likes to shoot. Only Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood have attempted more shots than Cook. In fact, the gap between Cook and the next highest volume shooter behind him, Sulaimon, amounts to 75 shot attempts. There can be no question, then, that Cook regards himself as a legitimate offensive option deserving of more than a few looks at the basket.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 20:  Quinn Cook #2 of the Duke Blue Devils shoots against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at the Dean Smith Center on February 20, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

That’s further evidenced by the fact that no Blue Devil has launched as many three-pointers as him. Cook’s 165 three-point attempts wouldn’t be so aggravating if he wasn’t also Duke’s worst three-point shooter.

At 35.2 percent from three, Cook is worse from long range than every Duke guard or forward except the rarely used Matt Jones. Far too often, Cook settles for a three instead of looking for a higher percentage shot or getting the ball to Parker or Hood. The empty possessions he creates put pressure on Duke’s defense and negate the Blue Devils’ high powered offense.

Cook’s aggressive style of play is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it leads to ill-advised shots. On the other hand, it sometimes bails Duke out of a bad situation. This two-faced nature is born out in the advanced stats on Cook.

Despite having Duke’s sixth best offensive rating, Cook is third on the team in terms of win shares. What that means is that even though Cook’s offense has been inconsistent, he’s been a critical part of many of Duke’s wins. Even without the advanced stats, that makes sense given that Cook was Duke’s third best player in the early part of the season.

However, the most telling stat for Cook is his win shares per 40 minutes. That stat estimates the number of wins a player contributes over a 40 minute period. Cook drops from third in raw win shares to sixth in win shares per 40.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Those stats are even more damning when they’re limited to just the conference games. In 18 ACC games, Cook’s raw win shares are good enough for fifth on the team. Alternatively, his win shares per 40 knock him down to ninth and well behind Tyler Thornton in eighth place.

The reason for the drop is the crux of the complications regarding Cook.

While Cook can explode for huge benefits, over time his vices tend to even out his virtues. Remember how Cook has played over 30 minutes only three times since Jan. 27? Those three games were the loss at Syracuse, the loss at North Carolina and the loss to Virginia in the ACC final.

The point isn’t that Cook is a bad player. It has to be said and appreciated by Duke fans that he’s made critical shots in important games.

During the ACC tournament, Cook hit a massively important three-pointer against Clemson and went 3-of-4 from behind the arc in the following game against NC State. Cook didn’t distinguish himself in the ACC final, but the Blue Devils might not have made it that far without Cook’s timely contributions.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The issue is that Cook has important positives he brings to the table, but those qualities need to be leveraged properly.

If this were football, Cook would be a quarterback that got labeled as a ‘game-manager’. If this were baseball, Cook would be used only in situations where the sabermetrics deemed him to have an advantage. As a point guard for Duke, however, attempting to set Cook up for success isn’t that simple.

Cook is a modern point guard insofar as he doesn’t view his role as a simple facilitator. Though he averages 4.4 assists-per-game, Cook is a point guard that looks for his own shot. The problem is that Cook’s ability to get in the lane and create a scoring opportunity for himself isn’t as good as Hood or Sulaimon’s. Because both those players are better at penetration, Cook is relegated to the perimeter to act as a spot up three-point shooter.

That situation explains why Cook has taken so many threes. Essentially, Cook isn’t even a point guard anymore. He may bring the ball up the court, but in the offensive sets it is Sulaimon or Hood that initiates the offense via penetration while Parker provides an option in the post. Cook is effectively elbowed out of the offensive game plan by being put into a position he’s not accustomed to: spot up shooter.

Of course, Cook doesn’t help his case by reacting to this re-positioning by wasting possession where he just dribbles around and makes no effort to get Parker or Hood the ball before hoisting up a contested jumper. Then again, what else do you expect Quinn Cook to do? His entire game is based on a somewhat irrational confidence in himself. He things he’s one of the best players on the team, which is great because it means that he’s not afraid to step up in big moments but it also means that he tries to take over games when he ought to defer to Parker or Hood.

Feb 4, 2014; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski talks to guard Quinn Cook (2) as he heads to the bench in their game against the Wake Forest Demon Deaconsat Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The challenge for Mike Krzyzewski and his staff is to try and balance Cook’s positive potential with his capacity to kill Duke with forced shots and a lack of ball movement. Coach K has attempted to do this by moving Tyler Thorton into the starting point guard position and allowing Sulaimn to run the offense. That lineup change means that Cook tends to come into the game when Hood or Parker are heading to the bench or willing to let someone else shoulder the offensive load for a stretch.

Cook’s ideal role is as the best player on Duke’s second unit. Under those circumstances, if Cook is allowed opportunities to play as one of the primary scorers while the other offensive options get a breather, then he is in a perfect situation to succeed given his aggressive mentality.If, however, Cook is handcuffed on the floor to one or more of Duke’s elite scorers, then his forceful style of play will get in the way of the fact that he’s supposed to be falling back into the supporting cast.

In the end, Cook isn’t as bad as many Duke fans think he is but he also isn’t as good as he seems to think. His personal success and the success of the Blue Devils will depend on whether or not Cook’s playing style can be implemented in a way that doesn’t detract from Parker and Hood by making Duke’s offense look like a freewheeling circus with Cook trying to steal the spotlight.

Cook can either perfect the balancing act between being a role player and the primary scoring option for the second team or tip too far in one direction or the other. How Cook fairs in that regard will determine if Duke has an offense good enough to win a title or one so disjointed and inconsistent that the Blue Devils are liable to make an early exit.