Postcard from Duke (Cont.)
Balancing the bigs: The bulk of the preseason attention (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) is on Duke's backcourt, but Krzyzewski is bullish on his frontcourt, telling me, "Our strength right now is our big guys." Junior forward Ryan Kelly was the leading scorer on the China trip, but Mason and Miles Plumlee have made huge gains in the workouts and practices since then. Krzyzewski seems to think Miles, who had somewhat of a mediocre junior year, can be an impact player in the post. "The last couple of years, we've been a perimeter team, but this year, our big guys need to touch the ball," he said. "They're good enough to play with anyone in the country."
Part of the responsibility is on the backcourt, to run the offense through the post, and part of it is on the bigs to call for the ball, which they weren't doing with consistency during Tuesday's practice, to Krzyzewski's dismay. "We said we want to establish the bigs," he told them. "Well, the bigs also have to establish the bigs."
The youngest of the three Plumlees, 6-11 freshman Marshall, actually established his presence quite well -- not by calling for the ball but by infuriating Mason to the extent that they started screaming at each other and attempted to get in a fistfight. This was by far my favorite part of practice: One moment, the forwards were battling for position; the next moment, an awesome, brotherly brawl was breaking out, with Mason being restrained from landing punches. Marshall may have to redshirt due to lack of available minutes, but he should play an important role by making his older brothers battle every day.
The underappreciated guard: I probably made a mistake in leaving Dawkins off my list of the country's top shooters. (Curry, who shot 43.5 percent last year, did make the top 16.) Dawkins, who hit 42.7 percent of his treys last season, seems capable of getting in the high 40s, given the open looks that will result from Duke's three- and four-sharpshooter lineups. One thing I noticed on Tuesday was how advanced Dawkins' footwork on catch-and-shoot situations is compared to the still-green Rivers. Dawkins almost always receives the ball with his feet perfectly square to the rim, in position to rise and fire. Against a recovering defender, that can make the difference between getting a clean, uncontested look and having to pass up a shot.
Expect Duke to start three guards -- Curry, Rivers and Dawkins -- with the older Brothers Plumlee in the post and Kelly coming off the bench as a super-sub. Other options would be to start Kelly at the four against a team with only one post/rebounding threat, or use him at the three against an oversized opponent. Sophomore Tyler Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook will battle for backup point guard duties; Thornton, due to his defensive intensity and experience level, should be considered ahead in that race for now. Sophomore Josh Hairston looks like he'll be the second forward off the bench, in a play-defense-and-soak-up-fouls role, while the Third Plumlee, Marshall, could be a redshirt candidate. Savvy freshman wing Alex Murphy seems to have a promising future -- I wouldn't be shocked to see him starting at the three-spot next season if the Blue Devils don't land top recruit Shabazz Muhammad -- but it's unclear if Coach K's rotation will expand enough to allow Murphy to get quality minutes this year. If it goes nine-deep in ACC play, then Murphy has a shot.
When Krzyzewski told me, "We can be a very good offensive team," I took that to mean that Duke can be a very good offensive team, but that they might struggle to match the quality, perimeter defense they've played over the past few seasons. The Plumlees should be stingy around the basket, but the Blue Devils are bound to take a defensive hit after losing hardworking stars Smith and Kyle Singler. Will they compensate for it with their long-range shooting arsenal, or take a step back from last year's 32-5, Sweet 16 effort? I attended a rough practice, but seeing Krzyzewski early in his process of digging into a team, then psychologically building them back up -- and into something new -- was worth the trip. Duke hasn't proven anything yet, but when K's latest project is complete, it could easily be one of the top five teams in the country.
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