Coach 'K' has some questions to address when preseason workouts begin.
Ahhh. Seems like only yesterday that we were watching the Duke Blue Devils in Dubai putting the wraps on their "Friendship Tour" of Asia, also known as (a) the "Let's put the official Duke stamp on the new Fuqua Campus in China" tour; and more importantly, the (b) "Let's use the NCAA rules regarding participation in such summer contests to go ahead and get a jump start on the upcoming season" tour.
Now, here we are only hours away from Countdown to Craziness and the beginning another edition of Duke Blue Devils basketball. Like most seasons for lucky and perhaps spoiled (to some degree) Duke hoops fans, this campaign begins with tremendous optimism.
The Blue Devils are coming off of a 2010-11 campaign that, by most standards, was ultra-successful, though a bit disappointing by Duke's standard.
Favored by many to repeat as national champs, Duke began last season on a bullet, led by a rare pair of returning All-American seniors, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, while infused with the enthusiasm, push and penetration of electrifying freshman point guard Kyrie Irving.
Though an early December toe injury benched Irving until the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils still had a great regular season, won the ACC Tournament Championship and garnered a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
Duke's season, of course, had an ignominious ending when the Devils were smacked down in a Sweet Sixteen match-up with the Arizona Wildcats.
While Nolan Smith and Singler have graduated and departed, the Blue Devils return five key players from last year's team and two rising sophomores who saw sporadic minutes. Added to that mix of experience is the nation's No. 2 ranked recruiting class, highlighted by arguably the nation's No. 1 recruit, Austin Rivers, and bolstered at the last minute by the early matriculation of 2012 commit, Alex Murphy.
The dual prospect of figuring out how to fill the void of significant senior experience, stardom and scoring while weaving together a new team of talented but untested veterans with gifted, but absolutely raw and inexperienced (except for the four Asian exhibitions) freshmen would be daunting for the average coach.
But Mike Krzyzewski, of course, is no average coach and his staff no ordinary staff. This year, in addition to the already heady and experienced nucleus of Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Collins and Nate James, Duke adds prodigal son and former Duke point guard, Jeff Capel, to the mix. Capel's head coaching experience should make the nation's best coaching staff that much stronger.
With preseason preparation getting under way, a number of questions and issues will need to be addressed if this masterful staff is to mold the Blue Devils into a team that can contend with North Carolina—returning the bulk of a talented unit that finished strong last season—for the ACC title and be in the thick of the national championship hunt.
Let's take a look at the most important dilemmas that Krzyzewski and company must concentrate on resolving before the schedule becomes extremely challenging in mid-November.
Seth Curry bore the brunt of the point guard duties this summer.
Last preseason, this was no dilemma for the Devils. It was a foregone conclusion that highly-touted freshman Kyrie Irving would assume the point guard duties at Duke, replacing steady-handed Jon Scheyer, who had solidified a position in flux since Greg Paulus fell apart during his senior season.
Then, a toe injury sidelined Irving, forcing Nolan Smith, who had struggled with the job the previous two seasons, to take over.
Smith rose to the occasion and put his own stamp on the position, guiding the Blue Devils to another ACC tourney championship before yielding to the returning Irving in the NCAA tourney. Alas, after the season, Irving departed for the NBA, kind of leaving the Blue Devils once again searching for stability and consistency at the point.
As the festivities kicking off the preseason get underway, there are four candidates to fill this crucial position. That is a good problem.
The point guard position is often equated with the quarterback position in football. Primarily, there are two types of quarterbacks, game managers and playmakers. Among football analysts, quarterbacks are referred to as "game managers" if they are unspectacular but make good decisions and few mistakes, thus effectively managing or guiding their units. "Game managers," however, are usually only effective when surrounded by other personnel who are spectacular playmakers.
While in Asia, rising junior Seth Curry shouldered most of the point duties. Curry at point would be a "game manager."
Curry is a natural two-guard. While he has more game than just a jumpshot and continues to diversify and polish, he is still best and most dangerous when spotting up open jumpers. He has good passing skills, a solid knowledge and feel for the game (it's in the genes) and solid handles, though not necessarily as solid as Jon Scheyer's.
With Curry at the point, the Devils offense would be solid but not necessarily explosive. Speeding up the Devils by pushing the ball in transition would not be his strength. In all, he provides a steady, dependable option at point, but not necessarily one that maximizes the potential of his teammates. For that matter, his playing the point may even limit his own impact on the offense.
Rising sophomore Tyler Thornton is another game manager at point guard. Unlike Curry, Thornton is a point guard, but he epitomizes the role of the back-up point. He is a jack of all trades, but the master of none. He plays solid defense, gets the team into its offense, does not need the ball to make a contribution, makes few mistakes, plays hard and fearlessly, will continuously improve and will be at Duke for four years.
Altogether, he is not and will likely never be a starting point guard. But with Thornton in tow, you need never worry about who the back-up will be when you look down the bench. On any given night, whether the fans notice or not, he will make a play that will win the game. Every coach would kill to have a substitute point guard as solid as Tyler Thornton, and 'K' seems to love what he brings to the table.
Super frosh Austin Rivers is not a point guard, despite his dad's skills at the position, nor is he a shooting guard. He is a prototypical scoring guard, a basketball player with all the requisite skills to leave his imprint on every possession of the game.
In other words, he is an impact offensive player.
What he brings to the table is the ability to push the ball in transition, to break down defenses in the middle of the floor and the ability to create not only his own shot but open looks for his teammates as well.
His size would allow Duke to create mismatch opportunities at the point guard position. Because he plays the game with bravado and reckless abandon, however, some question his temperament and fit at the position. Concerns about turnovers and ball-hogging abound.
In addition, because he is not a natural point, many raise concerns about investing the time in an experiment involving a possible a one-and-done Dukie at such a critical position.
In the final analysis, it is certainly well within his DNA and skill set to handle the job. Ultimately, the question that 'K' will have to answer is how he wants the Blue Devils to play. If he wants to play fast in transition and maximize penetrate-and-kick or dump opportunities in the half court, then Rivers may be his choice.
Incoming freshman Quin Cook is another possibility. As a highly-ranked natural point guard recruit, there are few questions regarding his ability and his potential as a starting guard.
To date, the only questions have been regarding his health. During summer workouts in preparation for the Asian tour, the coaching staff "shut down" Cook, removing him from participation because it appeared obvious to them that he was still affected by a knee injury that hampered him during his senior prep campaign.
If fully recovered, Cook could make a push for significant minutes at the point. In some respects, he is similar to Thornton, but much more explosive and athletic. He might represent a blending of many of the best assets of the other three candidates for the job.
Best guess as to the resolution? No clear winner of the position emerges, and Duke uses a "point guard by committee" system to diversify the team's flexibility.
'K' likes having options. Who doesn't?
That's a lot of points sitting on that bench.
Tracing back to Jon Scheyer's graduation in 2010 and the end of eligibility for Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler last March, the Blue Devils begin the 2011-12 campaign having lost 6,380 points from their offense in the last eighteen months. How do you replace that?
Well, year in and year out, you don't—not immediately anyway. Players that score over two thousand (Singler and Scheyer) and almost two thousand (Smith) do not litter every roster across the country every year, not even at Duke, who was fortunate enough to have all three of them together for three years.
So as the new season dawns and a new Duke team is forged, just where will the points some from?
Among the returning players, the two most obvious players to fill that void are guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins. Both are gifted jump-shooters, of that there is not question. Given the increased opportunities that Smith's and Singler's departure will logically provide them, it is a certainty that their numbers will rise.
But by how much? Some of that depends on them and some on the system that 'K' chooses.
In Curry's case, if he spends lots of time at the point, it is possible that his own opportunities will be restricted. When at shooting guard, look for him to display more of the scoring and playmaking skills off of the bounce that he displayed while at Liberty as a freshman.
In Dawkins' case, teammates have frequently reported that in practice and in pick-up that Andre was a beast attacking the basket, yet he rarely displays that in game situations. From this chair (okay, couch), it has always been speculated that Dawkins perhaps has too much of a conscience when it comes to making mistakes off the dribble.
If he becomes less conscientious in that respect or perhaps hears less critical feedback when he does make an error, Dawkins could potentially put up huge numbers. If utilized, he has the size and physicality to cause other guards fits and to go into traffic and finish plays.
A less obvious source of scoring, at least to those who only casually follow Duke hoops, will come from junior post Ryan Kelly. In flashes last year and more consistently during the summer exhibitions, Kelly indicated that he is a gifted offensive big man whose time has come. In the high post, from the three-point and free throw lines and around the basket, Kelly may have the most complete offensive game of all the Duke players. And, of course, he has he advantage of being 6'10".
From all indications, look for Kelly to take his game into 15 points per game range with the potential for huge numbers in a given contest.
Miles and Mason Plumlee bumping up to 10 point per game would be a bonus. More on that later.
Among the incoming players, clearly Austin Rivers will bring the most scoring ability to the table. As a prep player, Rivers routinely put up ribald numbers as the main man on an otherwise nondescript high school team.
At Duke, this will not be the case. In China, he struggled at times adjusting to his new role as a contributor. While there will likely be more growing pains, don't look for Rivers to become a wallflower on offense. Once he becomes adapted to his new role and the higher level of play across the board, look for him to make the necessary adjustments.
While he may disappear some nights, he will soon go off on NCAA opponents just as his did in his glory days. On given nights, Rivers will explode and put up gaudy games.
While there may be a temporary void on offense, look for it to be filled quickly. This team is not short on scoring talent. It is more a matter of how and when than who will step forward to fill the scoring shoes of the three, super-scoring Sayonara S's.
Resolution? Again, scoring by committee, especially early on. This Duke team has more players that could sit atop the leading scorer stat than Duke teams of the immediate past.
A deep bench can be relative.
As a long-time, Duke fan and observer, this reporter has heard this line from 'K' on a number of occasions: "We'll be a much deeper team this year than in the past."
In the more contemporary 'K' era—the late '90's to present—when the smoke has cleared on most seasons, "deep" ended up being defined as seven- or eight-deep. In the earlier 'K' years, the depth sometimes went to nine or 10. Not a criticism, just an observation.
Because of the influx of five highly-recruited freshman and a returning nucleus of five or six that were integral last season, the "we're deep" talk has already started.
One of the quandaries that accompanies having a number of talented players on one bench is how you can effectively use them all and whether or not doing so bolsters your chances to win, both in the short and long term. In addition, style of play factors into the formula. So, as the preseason progresses, what decisions will Coach Krzyzewski make regarding who can help and how much and when within his vision for the season?
Here are the givens: Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee and Austin Rivers. The provides a six-deep nucleus, so far.
At point, though many may not see it, agree with it or like it, Tyler Thornton is almost certain to be the seventh. Depending on how he has healed and rehabilitated, Cook could vie for time as well, but as already discussed, there seems to be a plethora of options at the position.
In the post, last year's three-man rotation will stand pat in garnering most of the minutes. From there it becomes a matter of system.
If 'K' wants to go small and perimeter-oriented, he could choose to prep early entry Alex Murphy for occasional 4 spot duty. If not, then the remaining opportunities would go to either Josh Hairston or Marshall Plumlee. Hairston's experience, strength and zeal would seem to provide him the edge in that competition.
The other spot where opportunity seems to exist is at small forward. Andre Dawkins mans that spot but can easily slide to the 2 spot for extra depth. At 6'4", he could face match-up problems against bigger opponents. An alternative is to go big at that spot, moving Kelly out from the post. he is certainly capable of being effective there against certain opponents.
Short of that, the remaining time at that spot would come down to a competition between freshmen Michael Gbinije and Alex Murphy. It's unlikely that there will be enough minutes for both.
If—and that's a big if—Krzyzewski committed to a pressing, running style of play, going ten deep is both conceivable and doable. But realistically, like he does in talking about depth from time to time, 'K' ruminates and pontificates more about pressing than he ever actually does it.
Why? Well, there always a number of factors than result in a change of plans, but in the end, he just doesn't trust it. He is a half-court, team man-to-man defensive coach. That's his roots, his foundation. At the end of the day, you should always "do you," especially if "you" has a history of success.
Disposition on the depth dilemma? My best guess is that nine will be the max. And come crunch and tourney time, eight. Look for those top six to play the bulk of the minutes. The process of determining who those last two to three in the rotation will be gets underway in earnest tomorrow.
Time for Plumlees to perform to potential.
This will be brief. Miles and Mason Plumlee are both very good athletes for big men. In addition to their height and length, they both run well and have high jumper-type leaping ability (Note: This does not equate to standstill, vertical leaping ability, however). From a basketball perspective, each has his own skill set that suggests great potential as a player.
However, the coaching staff, their teammates and their fans are still awaiting their tapping into that potential. Both have shown flashes of productivity and, on occasion, the ability to dominate a game, but they have also demonstrated inconsistency and the tendency—even at 6' 10"—to be invisible for stretches within and across games.
A huge challenge for the staff during this preseason is to find a way to help them blossom.
Both are capable of being double-double post players with regularity. If the staff could create a pathway whereby the Blue Devils got between 15 to 20 points a game from the siblings, and every two or three games more, Duke's three-point oriented attack would be revolutionized. And the Devils will be especially lethal from there this season.
The free throw line is another area in which improvement is mandated, though Miles is the more consistent of the two. Teams foul Mason because it is like forcing a turnover. They don't have to be JJ Redick from the line, they just need to hang around 60 percent. That would be enough to free them up somewhat.
On defense, the Plumlees are capable of dominance, though they frequently fail to deliver. If they control the lane defend in the post more effectively once the entry pass has been received, dominate the boards and give Duke what Brian Zubek did during his senior year, their contribution will be invaluable.
Resolution? Hard to say, in terms of what the staff can do. Some of it has to come from within. However, in the early sledding, though the offense is perimeter-oriented, they could force-feed the brothers and make them beat the Bellarmines and Shaws to boost their confidence.
Perhaps they can simply encourage them to play with more of their natural attitude and swagger. This seems especially true for Mason, who has always looked his best when talking a little trash. Hey, and if all else fails, challenge their heart and manhood. If they don't respond to that, then that says some things.
In the end, this could be the year. Sometimes, regardless of the expectations and the hype, players aren't ready until...well...they're ready. Maybe this is that time.
To cut to the chase, as suggested in discussing the depth dilemma, this team my have more talent than it can realistically utilize this year. So, what to do?
Well, when you have more than you can use or need, you either stockpile it or you give it away. In college athletics, stockpiling is more commonly referred to as red-shirting or sitting a player out on the practice squad for a year while preserving his eligibility. Except for the obligatory red-shirting that is mandated for the few transfers that have played for Duke, red-shirting just hasn't been used except in the case of medical necessity.
This may be the year to rethink that practice. Based upon observations from the summer, which is little to go on in comparison to a month of preseason practice, the following redshirt scenarios could play out:
1) Barring injury to the other bigs, it seems likely that Marshall Plumlee could redshirt. While it's a shame that he would not have the opportunity to see a little time alongside a brother at a time, his inexperience and lack of strength favor his being put into the oven to bake for another year.
Obviously, another year of maturing physically and being practice fodder for his brothers would toughen him and prepare him for the years ahead.
2) Assuming that the Curry/Rivers combination nails down most of the minutes at point—and this reporter believes that it will—it could be that either Cook or Thornton draws a redshirt.
If Cook is not fully recovered, he would be the logical candidate. If he is, then having Thornton sit out would only mean that Duke would be solid at point, one way or another, for another three seasons after this one.
3) Alex Murphy's early entrance also created a logjam for time at small forward. It seems entirely feasible that either he or Michael Gbinije may be asked to sit the season out for their own good. While Murphy might seem the logical choice, as he should still be in high school, he actually appeared the more ready of the two in August.
Sometimes, in stockpiling college athletes, you end up giving the asset away in the process. So many young athletes of today are unwilling to bide their time and await their moment. They want to play now, and if they were recruited to Duke, clearly they could play somewhere else now.
Handing out a redshirt could cause a player to bolt for greener pastures.
Disposition of this dicey dilemma? At least two redshirts seem possible, if not likely; perhaps even three. Who they are and how amenable they are to the idea remains to be seen.
The one certainty in all of these issues is that the coaching staff had more than ample expertise and experience to work it all out to best advantage.
It's that time. Let the Craziness begin. Let's Go Duke!
Post-Countdown to Craziness/ESPN3 Addendum:
1) Seth Curry was the only point guard candidate on the Blue team. This may say something. He looked more like the Liberty version of himself. His range was inside Cameron. His teardrop off of the dribble in the paint was very effective. He looked comfortable in his own skin.
2) Of the Plumlees, Miles had a really nice night. He was aggressive but at ease, had some nice dunks, but most impressive were the smooth-looking hook shots that he made with either hand.
3) Rivers was brilliant at times and was pressing at others. He still seems to have trouble shifting gears from offense to defense, a carryover habit from high school that he will have to get over. I'll take him when the lights come on all day long.
4) Cook showed some flashes of why he was rated so highly.
5) Murphy is raw but live and will contribute this year. Have to love how he attacks the basket.
6) Kelly continues to show polish; Mason was MIA; Marshall will be a good one in time. Looked better at the free throw line than the bubbas.
7) Entertaining game with lots of talent on the floor -- too much to figure out to play them all, I think. I still favor the redshirts.
The biggest certainty of the night? It is hard to watch those other trash exhibitions after watching Duke, I just turned off the television.