Freshman Frustration: Four Silver Linings For Duke's Loss of Kyrie Irving
Freshman sensation Kyrie Irving took the nation by storm when he debuted for the Duke Blue Devils two months ago. Most experts and knowledgeable fans knew he'd be good, but not this good, and not this soon.
As Duke's leading scorer at 17.4 points, Irving's play at point guard made Duke seem head and shoulders above the competition in pursuit of back-to-back championships.
The Player of the Year and "one-and-done" discussions revved up rapidly as Irving set Cameron Indoor on fire and put NBA scouts on notice.
Things turned sour for Irving and Duke fans as quickly as they blossomed.
After Duke's 8th game of the season, a rematch of the National Championship with Butler, Irving was declared out by Coach Mike Krzyzewski for a mysterious toe injury.
After examinations, Coach K said that his freshman star would be out for a long time, and later, indefinitely. This was a huge blow to a team whose only apparent weakness is not having an athletic playmaker at point.
Well, the doom hasn't rushed in quite as some expected, as the Blue Devils have cruised to a 6-0 record without Irving, and 14-0 overall. They have looked impressive, and with ACC play beginning this week, I've got four silver linings for Duke to pocket as they navigate the always-rugged conference schedule.
Irving undoubtedly left some big shoes in the backcourt, but key reserves Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry have almost completely filled them in.
Dawkins, a sophomore, is fourth on the team in scoring with 11.9 points per game, while Curry is sixth at 7.4.
Scoring volume and playing time are not the only positives from Dawkins.
He is quickly gaining a reputation as a deadly three-point shooter. He is second on the team with 65 attempts and is shooting an otherworldly 53.8%. That percentage at that rate screams "hot streak," but even a sizable decrease in efficiency will still be an effective number for Dawkins.
Oh, and at .6 turnovers per game, Dawkins rarely hurts the team.
Without Irving, a talented but relatively inexperienced bench has been forced into action, and developed quickly. This will pay huge dividends in March when the crowds get loud, arenas get bigger, and competition ratchets up.
Ball Is in Smith's Court
Nolan Smith was great last year and this year with Irving.
Without Irving, he has taken it up a notch or two in a seamless transition back to the point.
Throwing out a stinker in laugher against Bradley, Smith is pouring in 26.2 points on 61% shooting since Irving was injured. Not only is he scoring more, but he's doing Irving's distribution job admirably as well, with 6.3 assists per game.
Smith has rapidly improved in each of his four years in Durham, and looks like he's still getting better. He is remarkably versatile, fits at either guard spot, with or without Irving, and has the experience of last year's championship run to lead his team to another title.
Another blessing in disguise of Irving's injury is that Nolan Smith has solidified himself as a top five college basketball player and a strong candidate for June's NBA Draft.
Coach Krzyzewski Will Have a Wild Card
Forget about being known inside and out by other teams in the ACC, that's a given.
When coaches get their teams into the mid and late rounds of the NCAA Tournament, there's little time to watch tape on your next opponent, while plenty of tape to be watched.
Assuming that Irving is not out for the season, he'll be in the fold for a run at the Final Four.
Duke will have a unique advantage on this point, depending on when the freshman returns to the lineup. The advantage is that, though he garnered a lot of attention in November, he still hasn't played very much.
The tape from 30-some Duke games will not yield any help in preparing for the Blue Devils' best player. Aside from a few games at the beginning of the year when no team is even close to top form, many teams will tip off against Duke blind to what Irving can do.
You'll never hear coaches say this, but if they could somehow keep their best player from being seen while still being formidable enough to win a title, every one of them would do it.
Fortunately for Krzyzewski, he involuntarily walked into that exact scenario. The flip side of that coin is that Irving may never return to the lineup.
One and Done?
Irving, without any substantive reason other than his prodigious talent, is widely expected to forgo the rest of his college career and jump for the NBA.
The track record of freshmen entering the draft has been pretty good recently—Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, and Tyreke Evans come to mind.
Irving, with a full college season under his belt, could easily continue that trend this year.
Problem for him is, he won't have a full college season under his belt when this season ends. It's looking like he'll have a half season of experience, at most, when draft decision time arrives.
His missed time from injury is good news for Duke fans, because it means that he is much more likely to return to school for one more year to improve his game, improve his draft stock, and garner more attention.