I’m going to take a break from the ACC’s Top-100 Countdown to talk some Duke basketball.
The old saying, Duke doesn’t rebuild, they reload, is absolutely true. Despite losing five senior starters over the last two years, the Blue Devils will once again be locked in the top-10 in all 2011-2012 preseason polls.
Having said that, Duke’s roster is in flux. The coaching staff has a lot to learn over the summer before a five-man starting unit can be picked. Of course the one position that seems to be the most baffling is also the most important…point guard.
Who will run the point guard for Duke?
Except for 11 games last year, it seems like this is a question we’ve been asking a lot over the years, at least since Jason Williams left school a decade ago (has it really been a decade?). Of course in the years prior to Kyrie Irving, the question was being asked because the Blue Devils simply didn’t have a great point guard.
While this year’s roster may not have a “great” point guard yet, this team does have plenty of good options. Let’s look at them.
TYLER THORNTON, 6-2, 180 (Sophomore)
For now, Thornton is probably the frontrunner. Thanks to Kyrie Irving’s toe, Thornton was handed more playing time last year. He certainly had his moments. He provided a huge bolt of energy, particularly on the defensive end.
On the offensive side, he was certainly capable of running the offense. He played it cool, safe and mistake-free. He wasn’t really asked to do much. He wasn’t expected to make that eye-popping pass or drain an open three. His job was to give Nolan Smith a break off the ball and simply bring the ball up the court.
Having said that, Thornton was always considered a long-term project and I didn’t see anything last year that proved otherwise.
As a point guard, he never really was capable of creating offense. He never pushed the ball up the court and he rarely created a fast break. He never showed an ability to make a teammate better or run a set-play. Sure he showed he could hit an open shot, but overall he only hit about a quarter of his threes.
On the defensive side, he did show energy and he was willing to take a charge from the biggest opponent. However, he didn’t always prove to be a great defender. His foot work was sloppy, which forced him to use his hands (a big no-no on defense), thus he picked up a ton of fouls. In fact, he averaged eight fouls per 40 minutes. That is WAY too many for a guard.
Now I do think Thornton is going to improve. That year of experience will pay off. He should make good strides in 2011-2012. Will it be enough? Is Thornton good enough to be the starting point guard capable of leading Duke to the promise land?
SETH CURRY, 6-1, 180 (Junior)
At 6-1, Curry is actually the second shortest Blue Devil. If he’s going to be successful at the next level, he’s probably going to need to be a point guard. Of course the question remains, can he be a point guard?
Last year when Irving went down, I wasn’t surprised that the coaching staff went with the more experienced Nolan Smith. Clearly the strategy paid off the year before when Jon Scheyer (another shooting guard) ran the point.
I was shocked though by how little Curry was used though.
Overall, Curry was a lethal shooter from outside. He mastered the catch-and-shoot. About half his shots were three-pointers and he hit a solid 43-percent of those.
Throughout most of the season, Curry never really demonstrated the ability to dribble-drive. On the rare occassions he’d pass on a three, he’d drove to the paint and more often than not settled for a mid-range jumper.
His passing, while crisp, left a lot to the imagination. Overall he produced 79 assists to 79 turnovers.
To judge what kind of point guard he can be, there were two games (against Maryland and Miami) where Nolan Smith went out with an injury and Curry had to run the show. In both games, he did a good job running the offense, getting Duke set up and playing good on-the-ball defense.
Against Maryland in particular, he did an amazing job running Duke’s five-minute offense. He never forced the action and when it came time to beat his man off the dribble, he showed he was capable, although he didn’t really blow by people.
AUSTIN RIVERS, 6-5, 180 (Freshman)
The word on Rivers is he needs the ball in his hands. Well, no better way to guarantee that than by running the point.
Rivers is a supreme scorer, who can penetrate and score above the rim or drop back and drain a 25-foot game winner. He’s a point machine. At 6-5, he would be a match-up nightmare, especially in the ACC where most point guards stand below 6-2. Think about it, he’d be as tall as Jon Scheyer, but with Kyrie Irving quickness.
The problem is, Rivers isn’t a distributor. This Duke team has a ton of talent, capable of going 10-deep. The man who runs the show will need to get everyone involved. The man who runs the point will need to penetrate and kick out to an open guard or hand off to an open big man. Another problem is, Rivers loves to go right. Go look at some highlights, I dare you to find one where he’s driving left. I know he can do it, but at the high school level he’s never been forced to. He will in college.
QUINN COOK, 6-0, 160 (Freshman)
Ah, the dark horse of the Blue Devils squad. Like Thornton, Cook is a pass-first point guard. He loves to attack the paint and distribute the ball. In fact, I’d give him the edge over Thornton because he’s quicker than Thornton, capable of creating havoc on his defender. While he’s not as fast as Kyrie Irving, Cook will push the ball up the court, making teams pay for missed shots.
His overall weaknesses are strength/size and outside shooting.
The fact is, Cook is small. He’s six-foot, which is fine, but he weighs less than me. He needs to hit the weight room. When the season begins, this may not be an issue, but after a long college basketball season in the rough-n-tumble ACC, where will his legs be come March?
As a scorer, Cook does most of his damage inside. He can drive to the rim among the trees and he has a pretty impressive mid-range shot. While he can hit a three, he’s a bit inconsistent with his long range shot. He’s the kind of guy who would end up shooting around 30-percent from three his freshman year.
SO GET TO THE POINT?
Those are our four options. All four have strengths. All four have weaknesses.
When it comes to Rivers and Curry, they’re both scorers. They need to be on the wing, running through screens. In fact, my gut says Rivers and Curry will be 1-2 in scoring for the Blue Devils. This team needs the point guard to run the show, force the action and make everyone else happy. This leaves Thornton and Cook.
I still believe Thornton is a long-term project, even if both Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler think he should be the starting point guard. Thornton and Cook are identical in their style (pass-first point guards), but I think in the end, Cook’s overall quickness and IQ will win out. He can simply just DO more on his own. Yes, his outside shooting could be an issue, but there are plenty of outside shooters on this squad.
PREDICTION: Thornton starts the season as the starting point guard, but eventually (prior to ACC play) Cook will take over. Thornton will still see heavy minutes (15-20) per game coming off the bench. However, I also expect to see Rivers run the show some (5-8 posessions per game) and in crunch time, with the game on the line, it will be Rivers holding the ball.