No offense to UNCG, Coastal Carolina, Charlotte and Radford, but the first four games have just been the pre-season for the Duke Blue Devils. Duke has destroyed four cupcakes by a margin of 34.5 points per game, but the final scores should be of no concern to any Devils fan. Instead, we’ve had four games to learn just a little bit about our team, which is what the pre-season is for.
So what have we’ve learned?
I’ve learned that the difference maker for the Devils is Nolan Smith. Heading into the season, we knew what to expect from the duo of Singler and Scheyer, but you can’t win titles with just a dynamic duo. You need a three-headed monster; three stars to have a “Duke style” season. Nolan Smith, in two games, has shown that he might just be that guy.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s no Gerald Henderson. He’s not going to fly through the sky and take over a game drive after drive after drive. However, he’s actually a better outside shooter than Gerald and can get in the lane well enough, forcing opponents to respect that aspect of his game. He no longer looks like a hesitant kid. He’s taken 27 shots in just two games, hitting 15, averaging 22 per game. He’s a perfect 8-8 from the line, but most impressively, only 10 of his 7 shots have been from three. This is huge. The last thing the Devils needed was for Nolan to just plant himself on the three-point line.
I’ve learned that others will step up. Hear me out…you need a solid core of three stars to be a great team, but to win a championship, you can’t just be a three player team. Duke got lost last year playing 3 on 5 basketball. So far, Miles Plumlee and Andre Dawkins are playing like veterans. Sure they’ve made some mistakes, but they have shown that they are not afraid. They are not afraid to take a shot, they are not afraid to mix it up in the middle (We’ll talk about these two more later).
On top of them, the senior big men, Thomas and Zoubek, are showing their experience. Don’t get me wrong, these two are not going to take over games, they’re never going to get that much props, but Zoubek is starting to play big (at least right now against smaller teams). He’s hitting a solid 65% of his shots from the floor.
Thomas hasn’t been a force on the offensive end (he’s taken only 19 shots total, despite averaging 22+ minutes a game). However, he’s been playing great defense, often switching from centers, to forwards to an opponent’s point guard. Coach K has slowly worked in a rarely seen 3-2 defense, often planting a big man (usually Thomas) up top. As long as Lance continues to play D with his feet and not his hands, he’s going to make life tough for a lot of guards out there.
I’ve learned that John Scheyer couldn’t turn the ball over even if he wanted to. Listen, I’m not going to gush on and on about Scheyer. His limitations are noticeable, but the kid really knows his role and that’s what this team needs in its leader. He’s played a total of 131 minutes in four games and has yet to turn the ball over…not once…at all. Do you realize how amazing that is? You could play EA Sports College Basketball on “freshman” level against the computer, bench all your opponent’s starters and jack up all your AI to 100 and you’d still turn the ball over once a game. Not John Scheyer.
Now granted, he’s not the prototypical point guard. He’s not asked to dribble the ball 90% of the time, find the open man or drive to the lane (where most turnovers occur). His job is to bring the ball up and get Duke’s motion offense off and running. Still, he has a 21/0 assist-to-turnover ratio right now.
I’ve learned that Miles Plumlee can compete in the middle…maybe…probably. Here’s the deal, Plumlee has been rock solid in the paint. He’s nearly averaging a double-double, scoring 11 points per contest, pulling down a solid 9.3 boards a game. His extra muscle is really paying off. I’m not predicting he’s going to be a force to be dealt with in the ACC, but he’s made a great leap forward after a frustrating freshman campaign.
I’ve learned that Andre Dawkins will be one of Duke’s best freshman in a long while . How can I put it, he just looks the part. Time will tell if his shots will continue to fall, but for now, he’s throwing plenty up and enough are going down. He’s taken 33 shots in four games, 26 of which were three pointers, but is shooting 48% from the field, 46% from behind the arch.
The trick for Andre will be when he has a bad game or goes through a bad stretch, how will he respond, how will it effect his confident? So far, I feel like he’ll be fine. Against Coastal Carolina, he came out firing and missed five straight open three’s. Yet he didn’t shy away. He regrouped and nailed four of his last eight. Right now, if I had to compare him to anyone, it wouldn’t be a former Devil, but a former Tar Heels, Wayne Ellington.
I’ve learned that Kyle Singler is ready to be the best player in the ACC. In this league, it will be easy to find a better scorer, a better rebounder, someone with more hop, someone with more strength, someone with more athleticism, but Singler has enough of it ALL, he literally is the complete package. The best part is, we haven’t even seen the best of what he has to offer. It is clear he has been patient, letting his teammates get involved, letting them get their shots now, while playing the weaker opponents.
I’ve learned that an old dog will never learn new tricks. With so many blow outs, I feel like Coach K played Singler and Scheyer too many minutes. This beast of a season is a marathon. We need their legs down the stretch, especially Scheyer, who will play plenty of 36-40 minute games this season. I also would have loved to see Duke in more zone. They certainly showed it and it worked, but this is something completely foreign to this team and something tells me we’re going to see more of it down the stretch. I just felt that Coach kept them in the man-to-man too long during games. Might as well get the kinks worked out of the zone now.
Now, having said all that, everything should be taken with a grain of salt. The schedule was nothing to brag about, but that’s about to change. First up is a trip to MSG for the NIT Preseason Tournament. In the semis, they’ll face a scrappy Arizona State team, followed (hopefully) by a top-10 Connecticut team. Obviously the true test will be against the Huskiers, but Duke cannot overlook the Sun Devils. With James Harden gone, ASU (4-0) looks more balanced, with five players averaging double figures in scoring, while they’re holding their opponents to 52ppg. The player to watch will be center, Eric Boateng. The former Blue Devil is starting for the first time ever and is averaging a solid 11/8 this season as a senior. Don’t tell me he’s not a little motivated facing the Devils.
After the NIT, Duke will travel to face Wisconsin, who should be looking for some payback after having their asses handed to them in Durham two years ago, losing 82-58.This will be Duke’s first “real” road test in a very hostile environment.
Listen, the last four games have been fun. Duke kicked some butt, we had some laughs, we partied like it was 1999, but these next three games over the next week will really tell us what kind of team we have this year.