Defense Good, Offense a Work on Progress
Obviously, to Duke fans, the loss to Ohio State was disappointing. Duke clearly had their chances to put away the Buckeyes, but tired legs and poor offensive execution did the Blue Devils in. At 7-1 on the season, though, there is a lot to like in addition to the several things the team needs to focus on.
Defensively, the Blue Devils have played great basketball. They’ve been pesky and pressured the perimeter at an elite level, and have been solid in the paint. Duke has done a much better job this season so far at keeping opposing guards in front, and our bigs have done a good job of not only blocking shots but altering them. The Blue Devils are holding opponents to 65.4 points per game so far on the season and blocking 4.5 shots per game while also averaging 9 steals a game. Duke is holding opponents to 42% shooting on the season so far which gives them a nice margin for error on slow offensive nights. Defensively this team is doing well and could possibly get better.
Offensively, there are still areas to work on. Granted, the Blue Devils were playing on tired legs, but on tired legs is where you can fall into bad habits and reveal your deficiencies, and Duke did just that. Taking nothing away from Ohio State, they outplayed the Blue Devils, but to be fair the Blue Devils aided the Buckeyes (as did several bad calls). Duke can only fix themselves and offensively there was a lot of standing around. Ball movement hasn’t been optimal for the Blue Devils and up until Ohio State they haven’t really needed it. Duke is always looking to score quickly before the defense sets up. Running off of misses and makes and looking to push in transition is what the Blue Devils have done best. When that isn’t available, the offense has stalled. Against Ohio State, especially in the second half, that was on display for all to see. If you’ve been paying attention it’s not the first time, but it’s the first time it cost a win. Just looking at the numbers, the Blue Devils aren’t bad off: top 25 in assists, only averaging 8.5 turnovers per game, but when you re-watch the Ohio State game you can see right where the issues lie.
Assistant Coach Nolan Smith mentioned during this two-week break that the Blue Devils would be focused as much as possible on getting over those offensive hurdles. Specifically Duke is working on ball movement, taking better shots (team shots as Coach Smith called them), being quicker to react and most importantly making the right kicks. Coach Smith mentioned the kicks: “There was a lot of missed kicks where obviously a lot of teams going into each game are going to say, ‘We have to make Duke make shots.’ But if we make the right kicks and our shots are wide open, we know that we have guys that should be shooting close to 40 percent from three, but it has to be connected shots where it’s a team shot, not individual. Just focusing on that during this time has been a huge point of emphasis for our guys.”
Big Stretch for AJ & Trevor
Another storyline for the Blue Devils heading into ACC play will be getting better play from Trevor Keels and getting minutes for AJ Griffin. Keels has tailed off significantly on the offensive end after the Kentucky game, but defensively he has remained locked in. As a freshman we know there will be ups and downs and being game-planned for: on the college level is, as Coach Smith put it, a different ball-game. Keels during this break is working on moving without the basketball, getting in better shape and hunting the best shot for the situation. It’s not only Keels but the entire core of perimeter players having that drilled into them as a point of emphasis.
AJ Griffin has long been considered an x-factor for this team (well, as long as he’s been a recruit, a signee and a member on the roster). The unknowns for AJ currently outweigh the known. What we do know is he’s battling in practice and he’s still working his way back. Being physically healthy is only half of the equation for AJ. Those who have never worked their way back from an injury may have a hard time grasping the concept, but it’s mental as much as physical. Even beyond just that, AJ has missed quite a bit of basketball time which even for a highly ranked prospect affects your development timeline. He’s missed probably 2-2.5 years of that time and so that on top of working back from injury is bound to put you behind in a lot of aspects. The staff is teaching, extolling and working with AJ because they know they need him. He was recruited to play a big part in this team and him being able to get minutes, productive minutes, pays dividends not only for him but the team as a whole. Duke would prefer to NOT have to play guys 35 minutes, they want to have a strong rotation of 8-9 players that they can go to. AJ is a huge piece of that. So as fans clamor for him to get more time, the staff is working feverishly to get him ready. The next slate of games before conference games start will be huge for AJ, who has to work on his defense to see minutes beyond lesser non-conference opponents.
My personal opinion which isn’t the norm apparently is that the coaching staff is doing exactly as they should. The majority of fans have never had to:
- Develop talent
- Deal with the mental aspects of coaching high level players
- Coach up a player that has lost significant development time
This coaching staff has extensive knowledge and experience at all of the above and their unwillingness to put players in positions where they are likely to fail is commendable. They are building confidence by taking the proper steps to protect AJ from situations where he isn’t ready. It’s a long season but also a short one. AJ knows what needs to be done and his want to be on the floor is much greater than the fans’ hunger to see him there. All things in due time.