It’s always wise not to glean too much from scrimmage footage, especially when the team is playing each other and probably have a good idea what each others tendencies are and what the other wants to run. But it’s pre-season so we take what we can get right?
So the first thing you immediately notice is that there are no slight bodies on the team, the build of this team is much more stout from top to bottom. One issue for the Blue Devils backcourt last season was a lack of strength but that should definitely not be an issue this season. With a year under his belt, an off-season as well as a pre-season Jeremy Roach appears physically ready to take the next step. Roach began to gain more and more confidence as last season wound down and judging by this scrimmage he looks ready to expand on that. Obviously we must curb our enthusiasm somewhat but sometimes confidence is a clear indicator for a sophomore jump and this team needs that from Jeremy Roach probably more than any other player. Specifically this team needs Jeremy Roach is to improve in both his assist to turnover ratio as well as his 3 point shooting. Roach shot 23% in Duke losses and 37% in games that Duke won last season and posted a 1.52 assist to turnover ration in wins versus 1.33 in losses. Suffice it to say as the point guard position goes, Duke goes. Having Roach improve in these areas as well as having a familiar backcourt mate in Trevor Keels and a veteran presence in Wendell Moore, both with big bodies should help fix what ailed Duke last season. At least on paper and in this scrimmage in particular, the backcourt looks to be improving. What we did not see was great passing around the perimeter, we saw some flashes of good post passing which has been an issue for Duke teams as of late. The ability to get clean looks in the post will depend on both Duke’s ability to deliver quality passes and the teams ability to shoot from beyond the arc. Roach seemed to be firing well in the scrimmage as did Wendell Moore Jr. If Trevor Keels, Wendell Moore Jr. and Jeremy Roach deliver from beyond the arc Duke becomes a very dangerous out for most teams. Duke will also need strong showings from their wing shooters in Joey Baker and AJ Griffin. Griffin seemed a bit hesitant at times but coming off of an injury that kept him out for nearly an entire season there will be rust and an acclimation to being on the floor. The talent is there even if the repetition is still forthcoming for AJ. One thing I will never understand is why a lot of Duke fans don’t seem to have faith in Joey Baker’s abilities. Looking at Baker’s career I don’t generally count his freshman season where he only appeared in 4 games near the end of the season but looking at his sophomore season he shot a hair under 40% from beyond the arc which is a very high clip. Certainly he came down in his junior year but there were mitigating circumstances for Duke in particular with a very non-cohesive lineup, a lack of a true pre-season and continued covid interruptions. His regression to 31% is certainly understandable but his senior year will tell the tale for Baker. Baker is currently nursing an injury but one that isn’t expected to keep him out beyond this week.
One thing our guards seem to have a handle on is the lob pass. Duke is blessed with 3 talented and athletic bigs all of which should benefit greatly both in transition and in the half-court from improved guard play. The lob passes to Mark Williams were plentiful in this scrimmage and should be a constant throughout this season. This could and should be a breakout year for sophomore Mark Williams and if the coaching staff is to be believed he will show not only post prowess but some range on his jumper as well. We already know that freshman Paolo Banchero has range out to the three point line and is probably the most versatile player in a Duke uniform this year and could very well be that on a wider scale across college basketball. The variety of ways that Paolo can beat you will only provide opportunities for his teammates who have to be leery of Paolo watching and keep in mind that he has excellent court vision as well as a nice offensive package. It will make their lives easier having Paolo do his thing but as willing a passer as Paolo is, his teammates need to continue to move and put themselves in advantageous positions to benefit from his generosity. The ball doesn’t stick when Paolo has it, he will make his move or he will keep it moving. Theo John seems to have provided a different side to the triumvirate of bigs, he’s a big, physical player who seems to have touch on his hook shot and we’ve seen what he can do defensively – being one of the best defenders in the Big East conference before coming to Duke. His leadership and experience is an overlooked attribute that should pay dividends for this team.
There are of course questions that remain even with all the talent in Durham this year. Will they defend. They certainly possess the pieces and the skillset to do so, but sometimes with youth comes a passivity on defense. Physically they are capable and big. I think having three defensive-minded people in key spots (Wendell Moore Jr, Mark Williams and Theo John) they should be a much better team defensively than last year. Hell just by the benefit of being able to be together and work this pre-season should help. Communication is always key and this group seems to be able to talk and correct each other. The other question will be shooting. Where will the shots come from. If Duke has peak Joey Baker and our guards play to the potential they’ve been on paper those questions should be moot. Duke will not need to rely on contested 3 point shots with that front-court they have – it will be about hitting open shots. It doesn’t need to be the strength of the team but as long as they are competitive from behind the arc the rest of the offense with the talent they have should take care of itself. Obviously we’ll know for sure once actual game pressure and strife set in but this little glimpse definitely gives us something to whet our appetites on. This could be a very special group if they can stay healthy and dialed in.