Postcard from Duke (cont.)
Posted: Thursday October 18, 2007 2:08PM; Updated: Friday October 19, 2007 1:17PM
Breaking Down the Blue Devils
Heart and Soul: Nelson. The Blue Devils adopted a minimalist philosophy this season when it came to choosing captains. Nelson is their only one. They had three -- Nelson, then a junior, and sophomores McRoberts and Paulus -- in '06-07, but no clear leader ever emerged. "It's been a while since we've had a senior," Wojciechowski said of Nelson. "I think one of the things we wanted to start out with is just one guy to take control of the leadership position, and DeMarcus earned that from his teammates and coaches."
While Nelson is not the most demonstrative Dukie on the floor -- that would be Paulus -- he exudes a certain level of toughness that doesn't pervade the rest of the roster. (Says Scheyer, "DeMarcus is one of the toughest guys I know.") If the Blue Devils are going to survive playing small-ball, they would be smart to take cues from Nelson.
Glue Guy: TBD. Nelson was once the Elmers type, but has been pushed into a more prominent role. Scheyer was, in a way, Duke's offensive adhesive last season, averaging double-digits while McRoberts never became the elite scorer that the coaches had envisioned. This year's glue could very well be either sophomore Gerald Henderson or Thomas. In the practice I saw, Henderson looked far more confident than he did as a freshman, and could become one of the country's most valuable sixth men if he doesn't crack the starting lineup.
Because this team has a lot of scoring options on the perimeter -- Paulus, Nelson, Singler, Scheyer and King -- Thomas could be immensely important just by doing dirty work in the post.
X-Factor: Paulus. He didn't make the big freshman-to-sophomore jump that's generally expected out of point guards; as his assist-to-turnover ratio dropped from 1.6-to-1 in '05-06 to 1.2-to-1 last season. The question, then: Will Paulus' ball-control issues haunt him for his whole career at Duke, or were they merely symptoms of the injuries he battled for much of last season?
If he can stabilize the assist/turnover numbers, the Blue Devils will thrive, because he's already one of the best three-point-shooting guards in the ACC. Although this may seem like a stretch, I think he could actually improve on the 45-percent clip he shot in '06-07. He was shooting the ball that well when I saw him in practice.
Most Improved: Just like the glue category, this could be either Henderson or Thomas, but I'm going to trust Scheyer, who told me, "Lance does so many little things that won't show up on the stat sheet, and this year he's really come out of his shell. He's really going to surprise some people." Thomas didn't get a ton of minutes as a freshman, but he's going to see a lot of time as a sophomore, simply because, as Wojciechowski said, "Lance is our best athlete with size."
Lost In The Shuffle: Marty Pocius. He's a 6-5 wing who didn't see much playing time as a sophomore, yet occasionally showed flashes of great potential on offense. Pocius might start on lesser teams in need of a versatile big guard, but Duke just added in three perimeter oriented freshmen -- Singler, King and Oak Hill standout Nolan Smith -- and will likely give Henderson increased minutes as a sophomore. It's going to be tough for Pocius to move up in the rotation when, by most accounts, King is a better shooter, and Henderson, Singler and Smith are superior athletes.
Bottom Line: This conversion to small-ball should be fun to watch. There are going to be games when, if Duke is hot from the perimeter, they look like a top-10 team. And there are going to be times, too, when the Blue Devils are either cold from outside, or get exploited in the paint, that they don't look like a top-20 team. Which is why I think it's reasonable, after seeing them up close, to start them in the 15-18 range and closely follow the offensive progress of Paulus, Scheyer and Singler. The defense will be a constant, but the offense is, at this point, still a personality in progress.
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