Duke Basketball: 4 Reasons Seth Curry Must Emerge as a Leader
Last season was nothing short of a resounding disaster for Duke Basketball.
Even before the team's opening-round loss to (extreme) Lehigh—which is certainly in the “biggest March Madness upset ever” conversation— things looked grim.
Austin Rivers’ game-winner against UNC overshadowed an otherwise streaky and often perplexing year in Durham. This goes for not only his Blue Devils career, but also for the yearlong struggles of the entire team.
Heading into last season, Duke was forced to recover from a devastating personnel loss. Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving left for the NBA, leaving behind a ragbag of talent. Even with Irving’s limited time, the threesome still combined for 53 percent of Duke’s total points.
Duke had pure shooters in Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry. They were stocked with role-playing bigs in the Plumlees. Rising junior, Ryan Kelly, was somewhere in between. Sure, Rivers was supposed to alleviate some of this situation, but as we clearly learned, he was far from ready for the task—not that one player can fix such a gashing wound anyway.
Someone needed to develop a more complete game, and while all the named players made improvements, no one could return Duke to its championship level.
Fast-forward one year. What has changed?
Curry and Kelly are more experienced, but still must improve from their respective 2012 performances. One Plumlee has been exchanged for another. Another ESPN 5-star guard (Rasheed Sulaimon) enters the picture with loads of responsibility.
While it is true that guys like Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton, redshirt freshman Alex Murphy and incoming freshman forward Amile Jefferson give Duke improved depth and size, the essence of the situation is similar to that of a year ago.
If Duke wants to avoid a repeat, it will, once again, need someone to upgrade his skills and leadership. That player is Seth Curry, who is the 2012 leading scorer among Duke returners (13.2 PPG). Here’s how he needs to do it…
1. Ensure Offensive Flow
Fact: Duke finished 204th in the nation in assists per game last year. There are no additional hyperboles or explanations needed to expound upon the inadequacy of that ranking.
There is no question that Austin Rivers’ style of play was partially to blame for the sharing-isn’t-caring approach, but just like it is unfair to hurl the entire hope of a team on one player, we should not be so quick to isolate a single individual for an entire team’s shortcomings.
The good news: Curry was the team leader in assists. The bad news: He averaged only 2.4 per game—that doesn’t even put him within shouting range of the top 100 nationwide.
ESPN’s Robbi Pickeral recently reported that Coach K expects to use Curry in more of a shooting guard capacity than at the point. This means an increased focus on scoring and less of one in the passing game. Even with this adjustment, it behooves Curry to ensure everyone on the court is active off the ball and far less selfish with it than they were in 2012. He must be quick to run off screens, make cuts to the basket and let teammates know when they are settling for mediocre shots. With so many shooters, it is simply inexcusable for anyone to force something without first looking to pass.
2. Smarter Three-Point Decisions
Continuing on from that point, the three-point game is an area of Duke’s game that needs to be addressed.
Critiquing three-point decision-making is among the most biased and result-driven of sports debates. If it goes in, great—disregard everything else. If it doesn’t, lazy—disregard the open look.
Duke ranked 41st in percentage (37.6%) and 33rd in total attempts (713). Near-identical numbers existed for the 2011 team. Terrible? No. Impressive? Not exactly. The championship team of 2010 shot a similar percentage (38.5%), but took only 655 attempts.
The point is, however, none of that matters. Only drastically disproportionate numbers can legitimately sway the three-point critique one way or another and rarely does that exist. I’m going to say Duke spent too much time on the perimeter last year. Putting so much stock in a risky proposition is just that. Never mind the fact that when a team occupies the perimeter, the possibility of an offensive rebound following a long-range miss is all but non-existent.
Still, it’s easy to see the temptation to base so much of the offense around the three-pointer when you are stocked with good shooters, as is Duke. Seth Curry may be the best. Nobody is ever going to tell Curry to forgo a nice look from deep. But he could certainly work harder at getting inside.
That is precisely what he will need to do this year. His diminished role at the 1 could work favorably in the pursuit of this goal or, unfortunately, it could be detrimental.
On one hand, if Curry constantly has the ball, he can dictate the flow of play. He can attack the hoop, especially coming off pick-and-rolls. Then again, as was the case on many occasions last year, the entire reason for point-guard-penetration (forgive the innuendo, or not) can be to look for the kick-out three. Without the ball in his hands—as long as Curry refrains from floating around the three-point line and waiting for a dish from the interior—he can be more free in his movements and direct himself closer to the hoop.
Regardless, Duke needs to find other reliable means of attack. If Curry works for easier shots, the approach could become contagious. The three should and will remain a part of his game, but more balance is always a good thing.
3. Improve Perimeter Defense
Duke was small last season. They are small-ish again. There is nothing that Curry or anyone else can do about it.
Still, Duke needs to find a way to be more effective defensively, especially on the perimeter. This is something that Curry can very much impact.
The Blue Devils were ranked No. 193 in steals last season. Their opponents shot 31.7 percent from behind the arc—good for 66th nationally. Curry must prevent such mediocrity from persisting and he has the talents to do so; his average of 1.3 steals per game was the best on the team in 2012.
4. Remember the Past
This may be the most important one of them all. Curry was obviously a central piece of Duke’s humiliating defeat to Lehigh, but he also rode the bench as a redshirt during Duke’s NCAA Championship in 2010.
Curry cannot ignore the sting from last year and must use it as a constant reminder to motivate his teammates. This is not a “forget about it and move on situation.” Lehigh’s victory must be interpreted as a learning experience; evidence that nobody is untouchable—even Duke. Before they take the court for a game or practice, before they hoist up a three or swing the ball across the court, Curry and Co. must have the conclusion to last year in the back of their minds.
Too much? No way.
The 2004 Olympic bronze was one of the all-time shameful moments in American international basketball… And they still talk about it. After Team USA's win on Monday night against Argentina (the team who defeated the Americans in Athens), Fox News reported that Kobe told reporters, “You kind of want to send a message a little bit. This was the second game in a row that a team played us close. We didn’t want to give them confidence.”
That is exactly the type of attitude that Duke needs for the entire 2013 season.
But Curry has also experienced the other side of collegiate basketball. He was relegated to the sidelines for the entirety of the 2010 campaign, but that does not mean he remained unaffected by the success.
Curry watched as Jon Scheyer—who, much like Curry, played a hybrid guard position—was an integral part of the team his senior season. Coach K told Sporting News in 2009, “He understands, which most kids, believe me, do not, the value of the ball. He makes really good decisions with the ball, whether it's a pass, a shot, or the time on the clock.”
In the same article, Scheyer said that, despite averaging a team-high 18.2 points per game, “I don't base my performance on my shot. I know I need to score for my team, but when my shot is maybe not falling… I always like to think that I make other plays."
That is precisely what Curry must do this year. Whether he’s shooting, passing or fighting for steals, Curry has to be the one that everyone else on the team can trust to make the right decisions.
Curry knows of the pain of failure and the thrills of success. He must never forget how differently they feel.