Duke Still Title Favorites as Role Players Look Like Stars in Win over Florida

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2016

Duke's Amile Jefferson had a career-high 24 points and tied his career best with 15 rebounds against Florida.
Duke's Amile Jefferson had a career-high 24 points and tied his career best with 15 rebounds against Florida.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When Duke fell to Kansas last month in the Champions Classic, it was easy to discount that two-point loss as being the product of not having its full assortment of weapons. Once the Blue Devils had all their guys, it would be a different story.

The Blue Devils still aren't at full strength and may not be for a while, but Tuesday's 84-74 win over No. 21 Florida in the Jimmy V Classic shows there's no hurry in getting to 100 percent. And when they are, they'll go from being great to nearly unstoppable.

The pro-Duke crowd at Madison Square Garden got the first glimpse of what forward Jayson Tatum can do, as the 6'8" freshman had 22 points and eight rebounds in just his second game of the season. But even more impressive—and why fifth-ranked Duke (9-1) remains the favorite to win it all—is that for much of the night he was no more than the third-best player on his team.

Tatum's performance was outshined by those of senior forward Amile Jefferson and sophomore guard Luke Kennard—the duo that has paced Duke much of this season. Jefferson had a career-high 24 (on 11-of-14 shooting) and 15 rebounds, while Kennard poured in 29 by hitting 11 of 16 shots, including five of seven from three-point range.

And those efforts weren't that different than what they've done since early November, allowing Duke to take its time getting three highly regarded freshmen up to speed.

Preseason injuries to Tatum and center Marques Bolden and power forward Harry Giles' slow recovery from knee surgeries necessitated a redistribution of the responsibilities. Jefferson and Kennard were expected to play an important role for the Blue Devils in 2016-17 but of the supporting variety, not the put-the-team-on-their-shoulders-and-carry-them type. 

Junior guard Grayson Allen has been hot and cold so far—Tuesday was a cold one, going 2-of-10 from the field and 1-of-5 on three-point attempts—and senior guard Matt Jones has five total points in his last three games, yet it hasn't mattered much.

Not when Jefferson is averaging 15.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game on 67.4 percent shooting, and Kennard leads the team at 20.4 per game (with 64 in his last two) with a 52.2 percent overall rate and 41 percent from three-point range.

The 6'9" Jefferson was trending in this direction last season, averaging a double-double in Duke's first nine games before suffering a right foot fracture on Dec. 12. His absence decimated an already thin frontcourt, and while he may have been able to come back for the NCAA tournament, Duke not going that route made him eligible for a medical redshirt so he could come back for 2016-17. In turn, his play has prevented coach Mike Krzyzewski from having to rush his freshmen onto the court.

Tatum and Bolden are back, though the 6'11" Bolden only played two minutes after logging 12 against Maine on Saturday, while the 6'10" Giles has yet to debut despite looking pretty darn healthy in pregame warm-ups.

Bolden and Giles can take their sweet time coming back if Jefferson keeps putting up big numbers, and if opponents try to sag on him, they're setting themselves up for disaster because that probably means Kennard is open. Florida found itself in that situation far too often, though Kennard was connecting even when well-guarded as he continues to show greater confidence after struggling to find his shot as a freshman.

"I know last year it was an up-and-down year for me, [but] it was a great learning experience for me," Kennard told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt during a postgame interview on SportsCenter. "Throughout the offseason the game has really slowed down for me a lot. I'm a lot more comfortable with the ball."

Tatum didn't start Tuesday but figures to be in the lineup on a permanent basis quite soon. And as Bolden gets more involved and Giles becomes available, Krzyzewski will likely go with only two guards in many situations after using four for the bulk of the minutes to this point. Jones and freshman Frank Jackson figure to see their playing time take the biggest hit, while Jefferson and Kennard aren't going to be combining for nearly 23 shots per game.

They won't need to, if the Blue Devils' newcomers are as good as advertised, though it's sure nice to know they can.

Krzyzewski isn't a big fan of going deep into his bench, but he'd be foolish to shorten this rotation once everyone is back. Duke wasn't the preseason No. 1 team and projected by many to win it all this year just because it had a really good starting five. It's also because role players like Jefferson and Kennard are capable of being front-line stars if needed.

 

All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.