It's been nearly a month since Duke star point guard Kyrie Irving suffered a serious toe injury against the Butler Bulldogs.
Irving rocketed off to an incredible start at Duke, averaging 17.4 points and 5.1 assists per game while setting the pace for the Blue Devil's new, high-scoring offense. But as of now, Irving is sidelined for what could be the rest of the season. At the very least, he is unlikely to return for much of the ACC schedule.
While Irving sits on the sidelines in injury limbo, the Blue Devils are still the top-ranked team in the nation looking to win back-to-back national titles. Since his injury, Duke has only played three games against low-level competition, but the Blue Devils have still looked like the championship caliber team they were with Irving, albeit a team with a slightly different identity and plan of attack.
It wouldn't be a surprise for the Blue Devils to show some drop off after losing their most dynamic player, even against significantly weaker competition. After all, it's fairly common for top teams to struggle in December against teams they should dominate (see Connecticut's tough time against Coppin State).
But hat hasn't happened in Durham, not in the slightest.
If anything, the loss of Irving has given Duke the chance to showcase the impressive quality of depth in their backcourt.
Nolan Smith has taken over the primary ball-handling responsibilities. He isn't the pure point guard that Irving is, but he's a first team All-American caliber guard and a senior to boot—not too shabby for a backup point guard option.
While Smith struggled to score in his first outing after Irving's injury (he did have 10 assists and only two turnovers though), he's put up 22 points in both of Duke's last two games. In Duke's most recent game against Elon, Smith's 22 points came in just 21 minutes of playing time.
Keeping his turnovers down might be an area of concern, but scoring should be the last thing Duke fans worry about with Smith. So far, the senior star has shown that he can run the offense while maintaining his aggressive scoring approach. That's good news for Duke.
Several of Duke's big men are getting more minutes with Irving out. As a result, Kyle Singler isn't spending much time at the power forward spot, operating almost exclusively as a small forward like last season.
Singler seemed to be having a difficult time adjusting to the style of play that Irving ushered in, at least as compared to Duke's other starters.
Since Irving's injury, Singler has found his rhythm. His scoring average has gone up by five points a game, and he's shooting over 50 percent from behind the arc in Duke's last three games, as opposed to shooting under 40 percent in the eight games before Irving's injury.
Perhaps the adjusted offensive style with Irving out has given Singler the chance to get in a better flow. Whatever the cause, Singler is starting to play up his preseason Player of the Year expectations on a consistent basis.
Everyone expected a lot out of Smith and Singler at the start of the season. They were two of the three stars on last year's national championship squad after all (Jon Scheyer being the third). Putting up 20 points per game isn't a surprise for two players with their talent and track record.
What has been a surprise to this point in the season is the outstanding play of sophomore Andre Dawkins.
Last season, Dawkins started strong with a hot hand from behind the arc. But the tragic death of his sister early in the season seemed to derail his progression. His minutes dwindled during conference play, and he had very few performances with much impact during the second half of the season aside from the ACC tournament championship game and a few key threes hit during Duke's Elite Eight game with Baylor.
This season, Dawkins is a different player.
He's shooting an incredible 54 percent from the three point line on the season (not to mention a 56 percent overall field goal percentage), averaging 12 points per game to last season's 4.4 points. Since Irving's injury, he's scoring 15.7 points per game.
Dawkins is doing a lot more than simply hitting threes at a high rate, however. He's scoring in a variety of ways that he didn't showcase last season, and he's taking very good care of the ball. Dawkins has also become a much-improved defender and rebounder.
In the absence of Irving, the Blue Devils need Dawkins to be a consistent cog in their high-scoring offense and perimeter pressuring defense—his play this season has shown that he is capable of doing that.
Perhaps the player most affected by Irving's injury is Seth Curry.
Curry had high expectations at the start of the season, much higher than the expectations fans placed on Dawkins. It's easy to understand why—he led all NCAA freshman in scoring at Liberty during the 2008-09 season, and his last name happens to be Curry.
But with the emergence of Dawkins this season, Curry was starting to fall to the bottom of the backcourt rotation before Irving went down. He averaged 14 points per game and over 20 minutes of action in Duke's first three games of the season. In the five games prior to Irving being sidelined, his minutes had dropped, and his offensive production had all but halted as he averaged just 2.6 points per game during that stretch.
Now, Duke is relying on Curry to play a much bigger role. His experience as a point guard is being relied upon for the first time this season. As Duke's backup point guard (Tyler Thornton is playing limited minutes in this role as well), Curry allows Smith to spend some time playing off the ball and focus more on scoring when both are in the game at the same time.
Curry has done well in his expanded role during Duke's last three games. He's averaging just over 27 minutes per game and succeeding at distributing the ball without many turnovers. His scoring has also jumped back up to just shy of double figures at 9.7 points per game since Irving's injury.
Smith, Singler, Dawkins, and Curry (maybe we could call the foursome Anseth Smingler for short) have successfully stepped up in Irving's absence, and the cumulative results for the Blue Devils have been successful and, in some ways, surprising.
Duke is taking care of the ball and distributing it well without it's floor general. In fact, the Blue Devils were turning the ball over 14.6 times per game and dishing out 17 assists with Irving. Since his injury, Duke is only turning the ball over 10.7 times and handing out 20 assists per game.
Despite losing Irving's 17.4 points per game, the Blue Devils' scoring average hasn't taken a hit. Smith, Singler, Dawkins, and Curry are combining for 10 more points per game than they were before Irving's injury, which is especially impressive considering that both Dawkins and Smith have had games where they only scored two points.
Duke is still shooting the ball at a ridiculous percentage as well. Since Irving's injury, the Blue Devils are shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 51.1 percent from the three point line (the closeness of those percentages is amazing, really).
Obviously, Duke is a better team with Irving. He's a special talent and is perhaps the most complete point guard in college basketball. We might not even be able to gauge the actual impact of Irving's loss to Duke's ability to win until the NCAA tournament because of the weakness of this season's ACC.
But while Irving is on the sidelines, Duke's deep and talented backcourt is still getting things done on the court. Smith, Singler, Dawkins, and Curry have showcased the incredible depth of talent and experience the Blue Devils' guards have this season.
Duke had an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt when Irving was available. Without him, they still have arguably the best backcourt in the nation.
As a result, the Blue Devils show no signs of veering off their path to another Final Four and, potentially, their fifth national championship.
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