Duke Basketball: Too Much Pressure on Veteran Guards?

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Duke Basketball: Too Much Pressure on Veteran Guards?
USA TODAY Sports

Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon have a combined five years' experience playing college basketball. Both have played the point guard position for the Blue Devils. Both have also undergone their share of ups and downs in their college careers.

With Tyus Jones, a standout recruit who plays point guard, set to arrive in Durham, the Duke backcourt is suddenly a little more crowded than in recent years. While there are obviously benefits to increased competition, the arrival of Jones might have some unintended negative consequences.

Jones is a true point guard. It’s been ages since Duke had a traditional-style point guard, let alone one as good as Jones promises to be. Jones’ ability to run the offense, dole out assists and score points in the flow of the game has fans harkening back to the days of Bobby Hurley.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Duke has had success with out-of-position point guards or score-first point guards, but as a former point guard himself, it’s safe to say that Coach Krzyzewski is eager to have a true floor general on the roster. The upshot of that for Sulaimon and Cook, however, might not be as exciting.

For Sulaimon, the arrival of Jones means that he’ll return to his natural position at shooting guard or on the wing. On the face of it, taking Sulaimon out of the de facto point guard role ought to alleviate some of the pressure and responsibilities that he faced last season.

However, Sulaimon actually picked up his play once he moved to point guard. Prior to that, the sophomore was slumping to such an extent that he earned himself a performance-based benching. Sulaimon sat out the entire game against Michigan but quickly found his form once Coach K shifted him away from the wing and into the point position.

The key for Sulaimon was that when he was running point, he started possessions with the ball in his hand. From there he showed the initiative to drive and had the ability to score, get fouled or make an outlet pass after drawing in the defense. When Sulaimon attacks the basket, he plays to his strengths and opens up shots for his teammates.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Conversely, when Sulaimon is on the wing, he tends to fade into the background. Either he is unable or unwilling to get penetration with any regularity. He also relegates himself to a spot-up shooter, which isn’t the strongest part of his game. On the wing, Sulaimon simply fails to live up to his ability to be a dynamic scorer.

Cook will face a similar challenge. The rising senior will have two options. The first is to simply fall into a backup point guard role behind Jones. That arrangement seems fraught with problems.

When Cook found himself out of the starting lineup in favor of Tyler Thornton, his play dropped off. It wasn’t that Cook was pouting about the demotion; rather, it was the exact opposite. Mentally, Cook took the loss of his starting spot exactly how a coaching staff would want. He worked harder than ever to regain his role or at least continue to contribute to the team.

Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Practically, however, that presented problems because Quinn Cook is great in moderation but tends to overplay his hand. His increased efforts led to forced passes and bad shots. Put simply, Cook tried too hard. You can’t fault a guy for that, but it does mean that a role with limited minutes doesn’t fit Cook's mental approach to the game.

That gets to the heart of the second option for Cook. In this scenario, Cook would move to the shooting guard spot. This option would presumably keep him from forcing his offense by giving Cook the minutes he craves and enough time to work himself into the game.

Cook as a shooting guard would also allow Duke to have a senior on the floor. Emotional as Cook is, he has the potential to be a real leader who pushes his teammates to play hard. That’ll be important for a team likely to start two freshmen.

Unfortunately, this scenario also has its drawbacks. For one, Cook is extremely aggressive defensively. While that aggression earns him some steals, Cook’s overall defense is subpar. Asking Cook to defend an opposing shooting guard who will probably have a height advantage is asking for trouble.

Then there’s the shooting part of the equation. Theoretically, Cook would be free to spot up for shots because he wouldn’t have to worry about running the offense. While Cook has no problem taking threes, he’s actually not a reliable three-point shooter.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Last season Cook shot 37.1 percent from three and he's 36.1 percent for his career. While that’s not awful, the only Duke guard with a worse percentage was Matt Jones. Jones only attempted 21 threes all season. Cook, meanwhile, led the Blue Devils in three-point attempts with 175. So Cook has a quick trigger from outside, but he was the sixth-best three-point shooter on the team.

Obviously Duke is glad to welcome a player as talented and promising as Tyus Jones. Still, his addition will change the team dynamic. Sulaimon and Cook are two players who spent last year struggling to find their place in the team. In the upcoming season, both veteran guards will be under pressure to redefine their roles once more.

In a game that’s all about putting a round ball through a round hoop, when it comes to Sulaimon and Cook, Duke’s in the precarious situation of trying to avoid putting a square peg in a round hole.

 

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