2017 has not been kind to the Duke Blue Devils who are now a lackluster 2-3 in ACC play. While injuries have been a large part of Duke’s struggles, there is far more to be discussed. Here are my thoughts on what’s behind a disastrous start to ACC play:
There should be no doubt left of Amile Jefferson’s value to this team. His leadership, rebounding, passing, and defense is simply irreplaceable. The guy does not get phased, and not having him on the floor has clearly led to some issues in the front court. It also doesn’t help that his primary replacement (don’t get me wrong, Harry would be playing either way) has only played two full seasons of basketball since the 8th grade. While Harry is making a valiant effort to contribute, it is clear that he is still far, far from being up to speed. Aside from flashes of athleticism and rebounding instincts, he is frequently lost on pick and roll situations defensively, and his touch in the post leaves something to be desired. With Amile’s absence and Harry’s inexperience, Duke’s front court is ailing. Oh, and of course… they are missing their fearless leader, the most winningest basketball coach of all-time, Coach K.
2) Lack of Leadership
At the start of the season this team had three healthy captains. They are now left with only one: Matt Jones. A team like this needs a vocal veteran to function. Look back at that 2014-15 national championship team full of star-studded freshmen. Quinn Cook was their leader. Quinn was constantly in each and every player’s ear, frequently dishing out hugs, friendly punches (St. Johns game), celebratory shoves and hollers. He didn’t stand out on the stat sheet, but a team with 3 one-and-done freshmen needed his presence. At the beginning of the year this was no concern, but with Amile hurt and Grayson stripped of captainship, the court seems awfully quiet. It also doesn’t help that K isn’t there to guide the young fellas. As good as Matt is defensively (and as ineffective he is offensively), he just isn’t very vocal. This vacancy must be filled.
3) Isolation Basketball & Turnovers
Everyone is aware of this storyline and the stats that go with it so I won’t bore you with the numbers but just know this… Duke is suffering from a serious drought of assists. At the beginning of the season there was hope that Frank Jackson would fill the vacancy left at PG after Derryck Thornton’s departure but after getting a good look at Frank’s skill set, it is evident that he belongs on the wing. Since returning from suspension, Grayson has done a pretty good job at the point but the ball movement is still a work in progress. Too often the ball gets stuck in one player’s hands for a big chunk of the shot clock, and the possession turns into either a dreadful isolation, a desperation three pointer, or a turnover. It really is as simple as this: if the number of assists don’t go up, the number of wins won’t go up.
4) Not Enough Fight
Guys slapping the floor, hugging, pumping their fists, flexing, and screaming war cries is what makes Duke Basketball Duke Basketball. There is absolutely none of that with this team right now. It almost seems like there is a lack of energy and brotherhood. Grayson has noticeably toned his emotions down a bit since the suspension, understandably, but the team is sputtering without his fearlessness and emotional presence. Rewind back to that 2014-2015 season again. Duke was in trouble down 8 with minutes to go in the championship, and what was the turning point? Most would agree it was Grayson diving on the floor for a loose ball, sitting up and yelling at his teammates, “LET’S GO!.” It’s moments like this that spark a nerve in the guys around you and end up defining a season. Star power, spark plug, energy, grit, fearlessness, attitude… I don’t even know what to call it, but Duke needs some of it. This is arguably the most talented group of guys in the country, but that means nothing without heart. Nobody is out there playing with an edge.
5) Poor Paint Defense and Rebounding
In terms of X’s and O’s, this is where it starts. Duke has failed to win the rebounding battle in each of its last two games in addition to giving up far too many layups and uncontested alley-oops. Jeter’s post defense has improved drastically but both Giles and Bolden have struggled to stay with their men and protect the rim. In order for this team to be a contender it is imperative that they get Marques Bolden engaged and involved. He has the length to be an effective shot-blocker and the body to grab loads of rebounds. I would also like to see more of Javin DeLaurier (if he can stay in the game without fouling), as he has proven to be an excellent shot-blocker and rebounder.