Prior to taking a step on the court this season, the 2011 Duke Men's basketball team had to deal with a series of obstacles, most notably a near 24-hour, partially delayed flight to China, where they would be facing off with the Men's Jr. National team for a three game, exhibition series prior to the upcoming NCAA season.
The noticeably jet-lagged, exhausted Blue Devils grinded out a hard-fought, choppy, 77-64 victory in their first game in Kunshan before traveling to Shanghai for the second game against the same team. This would be the Blue Devils first televised game of the season and an opportunity for fans around the world to witness a taste of what they would be getting from a very different Duke team.
Obviously, one cannot judge this team against the likes of the multiple ACC and out-of-conference foes the Blue Devils would be facing during the regular season, but the Chinese National team is a collection of talented players who have been working together substantially longer than Mike Krzyzewski's new squad and, therefore, would prove to be a formidable challenge.
Aside from adjusting to a new style of play (the international game has multiple differences from the college game), this was a game that the Blue Devils had to handle like any other and, after it was all said and done, the team ended up defeating their counterparts by a score of 78-66, taking the second of four games of their international exhibition series.
There were a lot of things that stood out during this game; some on the positive side, some on the negative side, and some things that fans will have to wait and see about. Here are a few things that stood out to me during this game.
In his first two seasons as a Blue Devil, Ryan Kelly has shown off some flashes of offensive prowess, but seemed to be out of place on the court for the most part. Whether it was is inability to get up and down the court or not taking advantage of his limited touches, something just seemed off about the Carolina native.
After seeing the show that he put on today in China, one can only hope this is a taste of what could be a breakout season for the 6'11" Junior.
Despite a slow start (much like the rest of the Duke team), Kelly poured in 20 points on a deadly 9-11 shooting. The noticeably more fit Kelly held his own on both sides of the floor against a very physical Chinese team and unleashed an arsenal of offensive moves that had defenders scratching their heads.
Kelly did it all: he was 2-3 from 3-point range, he scored in transition, he hit a few tough shots out of the post, and worked the mid-range game to perfection. In a game where most of the Duke players seemed frustrated by constant whistles and a tough defensive team, Kelly showed off a swagger and confidence worthy of captain consideration.
In addition to his dominance on the offensive side, Kelly chipped in all over the court, gathering in eight rebounds, including three on the offensive end, as well as a block and a couple of steals. He even channeled his inner Brian Zoubek with a tip-out for an offensive rebound late in the game.
Also, in a game where the Blue Devils where whistled for 27 personal fouls, Kelly only collected three, despite being a consistently active presence on the defensive side. Kelly also showed a clutch factor that could be invaluable to this particular team, hitting a few big time shots when the Chinese team cut the lead to a single possession.
No one would argue that Ryan Kelly was the most impressive Duke player on the floor today and, outside of an errant fade-away attempt when the game was well in hand, the junior could do no wrong. Although this is only an exhibition game against a non-NCAA opponent, Kelly's performance has to have Blue Devil fans feeling better about a team with several question marks on the offensive side of the ball.
The ESPNU Broadcasters could not have expressed it better when they noted the irony of having a coaching staff of four former point guards and yet, no clear cut point guard on the floor.
Needless to say, their lack of a floor general affected the Blue Devils a great deal in this game. Whether it was Seth Curry, Austin Rivers, or Tyler Thornton bringing up the ball, the team, outside of a few possessions, was out of sync on the offensive side.
It is difficult to judge their performance, mostly due to the 24-second shot clock, the increased physicality of international play, and their lack of familiarity with the position, but one would hope that substantial improvements would be made in the point guard department.
Curry, the team's proposed starting point guard, is used to playing off the ball and working for his deadly jump shot. His ball handling ability has shown improvement from last year, but he still had trouble with some of the trapping and tight man-to-man defense that the Chinese were using.
He did limit his turnovers and distributed fairly well with three assists, but his best moments of the game were often when he working off screens on the wings. It is a difficult position for the team because, on one hand, Curry may be the best option at the position but on the other hand, one cannot deny Curry's ability to score.
It may be an underutilization of the guard's skills to have him running the point.
Rivers probably will use this game as a wake up call that this level of basketball is going to take some getting used to. The blue-chip son of Doc Rivers had real issues in terms of being a distributor on the court, turning the ball over seven times and only dishing out one assist.
Rivers is a player who needs to have the ball in his hands, as he can put up points in bunches, but he also needs to recognize the responsibilities that come along with being at the point of the offense. Coach K got on the young man multiple times for not hustling back in transition and making lazy passes, seemingly right into the hands of his opponent.
Rivers did seem to be struggling with his footing on the slippery Shanghai hardwood, so one can assume that may be an isolated incident. However, if Rivers is going to be the primary ball handler when he is on the floor, he must improve multiple facets of his game.
Tyler Thornton, at this point at least, seems to be the least equipped to run the offense for the Blue Devils. In what we've seen from Tyler so far in his Duke career, he has the capabilities of being the team's best on-ball defender, similar to Sean Dockery in his time running the point. He also has provided a spark of energy and occasional scoring that paid dividends in his limited time last year.
There were several who thought that Thornton may be the ideal option to take over the point guard position for this year's team. If today's performance is any indication of what we have to expect from the sophomore from Gonzaga Prep, this may not be his year running the offense. Thornton seems to be the type of point guard who could benefit from having several scoring options around him; however, with this year's team, his apparent hesitancy to attack the opposing team's defense may result in him coming off the bench. It was noted several times that his tendency to start the offense from further and further away from the hoop had the team rushing up jump shots by the time the ball was passed. Although the team was playing under a 24-second shot clock, it was still unnerving to see how much he was handling the ball before setting a play in motion.
Thornton also passed up a few opportunities to attack the basket and score for himself. If Thornton is able to be an offensive threat with the ball going towards the hoop, more passing lanes will open up for him to kick the ball to open shooters when he does get closer to the rim, a staple of Coach K's offense for years. Thornton did display the type of "in your face" defense that can still be valuable for this year's Duke team. That being the case, on a team that does not have the established players it has had in years past, Thornton may struggle to make a strong case to be this year's starting point guard.
On a team that lost two all-ACC seniors in Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, Miles Plumlee will be expected to take over the reins of leadership and showcase his experience whatever way he can.
If today's performance is any indication of what is to come this year, one can expect the eldest of the "PlumThree" to breakout into a more than serviceable force in the ACC. The 6'10" senior was impressive right from the get-go and arguably was the Blue Devils most consistent contributor.
Although he did not put on the offensive showcase that Ryan Kelly did, the PF/C displayed a much more refined offensive game and the same athleticism we've come to expect from Miles.
Miles' showed off some of his more refined low-post game, taking advantage of the team's new commitment to going inside. He worked well in tight spaces against a very long, physical Chinese team and was able to score a very economical (6-8 FG) 14 points.
He even unleashed a left handed hook shot from the low block that could serve him very well against the comparably long front line of North Carolina. Although it is something we've come to expect, Miles put a punctuation mark on his game with a vicious baseline dunk late in the game as the Blue Devils were pulling away.
He continued to work well in the high-low game with his brother, Mason, and seemed to always be in the right place on the offensive side of the ball.
Miles was just as valuable on the defensive side of the ball as he was on offense. The senior pulled down nine rebounds and surprisingly had four steals. He also had the responsibility of guarding Li Muhae, a 7'2" offensively gifted center for the Chinese team, and was able to limit the big man to only 10 points.
He was able to remain in the game after fouling out in the first game and combined a level of physicality and composure that may have been absent in years past. Miles may not have the type of ceiling that his brother Mason has, but he also appears to have a well understood recognition of his role on the court.
This mature approach to the game could prove to be a key cog for such a young team moving into NCAA play.
For two years now we've been hearing how Mason Plumlee will be the key to Duke's success in the future. Outside of the early games he played last year with Kyrie Irving at the point, the middle Plumlee still does not seem to be able to grasp the game on the offensive side of the ball.
Although it is early and the team is probably still working out new ways to get their power forward the ball, Mason did not show many signs of improvement in areas that he's consistently struggled in.
On one hand, the junior big man did shoot 100% from the field, on the other hand, it was on only 2-2 shooting and the Indiana native was rarely in a position where he could attack the basket.
Mason has a unique skill set that gives him an advantage over a majority of other players his size. He can handle the ball extraordinarily well, he passes out of the high post with pinpoint accuracy, and he, more than any other Blue Devil, can unleash some of the most impressive dunks in the country.
However, whether it is a lack of touches or a lack of confidence, Mason seems to disappear for long stretches of time and that, once again happened today. If Mason is going to succeed in the ACC against the likes of John Henson, Tyler Zeller, and other bigs, he's going to have to be more aggressive in getting to his spots and not relying on alley-oop plays and transition dunks. As previously mentioned, the point guard play from the Blue Devils is still a work in progress, and Mason cannot simply grab the ball from his teammates.
Doug Gottlieb may have said it best when he said that a large portion of this team's success is going to depend on Plumlee becoming a consistent force on the offensive end.
Plumlee's game was not all bad. He dished out three assists and made a few really nice hedges on the perimeter, which will prove to be crucial if Duke is to employ it's patented man to man defense. He did commit a few, "What was he thinking?" fouls that, even with these refs, were probably the right calls.
He did play a crucial role in a stretch in the third quarter that seemed to put the team up for good, but it wasn't really for contributing on the scoreboard.
It would be wrong to say that Mason's versatility has not been a major factor to the Duke teams of the past two year's success. However, much like his brother appeared to do today, Mason needs to recognize that his role on the team has changed and that this team needs him to be a scorer on the offensive end, game in and game out.
He has the ability to do it as we've seen, he just has to go out and prove us right. He didn't really do that today.
Since Rivers stepped foot on Duke's campus, aside from being an instant celebrity among the students, we had heard that his game was going to need to adjust drastically if he was going to mesh in Coach K's system.
Rivers would be transitioning from a score-first, score often player to a team-oriented player who would have to contribute on both ends of the court if he was going to succeed. Rivers started off his Duke career as expected, leading the team in scoring in their first game with 18 points.
Rivers seemed to struggle a bit from the opening tip in the second game, misfiring on several shots, both near and far away from the basket, and turning the ball over several times. He also seemed to get noticeably frustrated with some of the questionable calls the ref was making and did not seem to play within himself.
A lot of his missteps could be chalked up to the slippery floor in the new Shanghai arena, but one play in particular could not be blamed on anyone but himself, and the Blue Devils' hall of fame coach got on the blue chip freshmen immediately.
With about eight minutes to go in the third quarter, Rivers lazily tossed in an in-bounds pass that was immediately stolen by the Chinese team, who quickly turned the turnover into an easy layup.
Krzyzewski's frustration with the high school all American probably did not stem from the turnover, but it was more the fact that he did not hustle back and try and prevent the transition basket. Seconds later, Rivers was summoned off the court and did not enter the game until the closing minutes of the third quarter.
Rivers, a player who has probably had coaches look the other way a fair amount due to his uncanny abilities, may not have been used to this type of scrutiny and benching. One would not have been surprised if the 18 year old young man pouted on the bench and complained about being treated unfairly.
However, Rivers knows the privilege he is receiving in terms of Coach K's tutelage and, rather than continuing to play recklessly, Rivers stepped his game up and played a crucial role in the team's closing out of their opponents.
In his remaining time on the floor, Rivers hit a couple of huge shots, including a three pointer from NBA range, and displayed impressive ball handling skills breaking China's late game press.
He did have a few more slip-ups and turnovers, however he also showed his ability to involve others, giving Mason Plumlee a nice feed underneath which the big man handled beautifully for a layup. There is no denying the fact that Rivers has the ability to be this team's best player.
Yet it is also important to note that, if this is going to be a team that competes against the likes of North Carolina in the ACC, Rivers is going to have to play 110% on both sides of the court and take what Coach K says into consideration whenever he steps on the hardwood.
Rivers isn't always going to have the types of games that he is used to and it is important, like it was today, that he is able to overcome his struggles and still contribute in any way that he can.
It is no secret that this year's Duke team is going to be leaning heavily on their highly touted, 5-player recruiting class.
Marshall Plumlee and Quinn Cook did not participate in today's game and Austin Rivers will be expected to perform beyond his years right from the start. However, Alex Murphy and Michael Gbinije are going to need to step up and be contributors this year and, after seeing them on the court today, both players have some growing up to do.
Gbinije barely saw any minutes, so it would be tough to analyze his game based on performance. Murphy, although showcasing some of his expansive skill set, as well as drawing comparisons to Mike Dunleavy and Kyle Singler, appeared as nervous as most players who could technically still be in high school.
Murphy missed badly on his two free throw attempts and was tagged for two fouls before returning to the bench for the remainder of the game. It is wrong to pass judgement on these two players in a negative light as much as it is the fact that they barely saw any playing time.
If this team is going to succeed, it will have to use its depth of talent to outwork and outlast teams. This year's team could run ten players deep and, if this system is to work, they will have to utilize that talent and versatility of both Murphy and Gbinije.
Having said all this, both players probably aren't used to the type of physicality that the Chinese team was displaying, and their unpolished games will need more seasoning before they can really be expected to contribute.
It has been well documented that Gbinije, who has been criticized for a lack of assertiveness and being softspoken, is improving in that area, and Murphy, despite his nerves, was involved in play a good deal today and his talents have been well documented this preseason.
It is tough to call this observation a "Con" in the traditional sense as much as it is a "wait and see" type of deal. The team was never going to depend on either of these two players to begin with so one cannot blame them.
It is just something to keep your eye on.
Going into this series of games against China, the Duke players and coaches recognized that they were exhibition games and, in the grand scheme of things, not show up on the team's record at the end of the season.
The players were probably looking forward to seeing the sights, traveling together, and representing their university as ambassadors. Having said that, every player and coach on that flight over is a competitor who wants to win.
Despite these games not showing up on the record books or the stat sheets, it was nice to see that all of Duke's representatives let their competitive side show during the game.
After remaining mostly dormant for the first few minutes of the game, Coach K, following a particularly questionable call made by the referee, got up and, avoiding any sort of language barrier, signaled his disagreement with the official's call.
Everyone who watched the game would agree that the discrepancy of fouls and out of bounds calls in China's favor was something that would never happen in an NCAA game, but that did not stop the players from getting fired up about it.
For Mike Krzyzewski to get as heated during an exhibition game as he may in an ACC game shows this Duke team, laden with young, inexperienced players, that their coach is behind them 100% and that he will fight for them no matter what the stakes. The college basketball season is a long one, even for a coach as experienced as Coach K. These are games that don't affect the team's record in the long run, and he could save himself the energy and take it easy during them.
However, he knows that he's taught his team not to do such a thing and he continues to take his job as a role model seriously, displaying the sort of competitiveness and tenacity he's known for even in the least meaningful of games.
Although several times during the game, Duke players were seen throwing their hands up in the air in disgust towards some of the calls made, one still has to credit their ability to play through some questionable calls and several runs made by their opponent, cutting the lead to a single possession.
After losing players like Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, the team is still searching for the type of go-to guy that can take over the offense when the team is in a slump.
Today, whether it was Ryan Kelly, Andre Dawkins, or Seth Curry, the Blue Devils had an answer for all of the Chinese team's runs and appeared to be in control of the game for most of the second half, despite the close score.
I bring up the foul calls observation mostly to acknowledge the physical nature of the play. Both teams were very physical and one team appeared to benefit more than the other. It can be frustrating for a young team to constantly be at the losing end of foul calls, even when it would appear otherwise.
However, the Duke players never put themselves in a position where there was animosity towards the opposing players or referees. This team will not have to play a the physical brand of basketball they did today when NCAA play starts, but that does not mean, as competitors, they weren't frustrated by it. At the end of the day though, they walked off the court with a victory, and displayed a level of maturity that one could not always expect from a team in such a situation.
This positive take from today's game can only be magnified after what occurred between Georgetown and their opponents a short time following Duke's game.