Duke Basketball: Season preview for sophomore guard Alex O’Connell

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

While Duke basketball sharpshooter Alex O’Connell is not expected to be part of the starting lineup this season, he is likely to be part of the regular rotation and possibly even the first player off the bench.

Alex O’Connell could easily pass as the lanky younger brother of Grayson Allen. Like that of Allen when he was entering his sophomore season for the Duke basketball program, O’Connell’s face could pass as that of a high school freshman; also like Allen, his legs surprise spectators by serving as pogo sticks.

Yet another similarity O’Connell shares with the guy who came up four points shy of joining the Blue Devils’ 2,000-point club is the role he played as a freshman — minus, of course, Allen’s breakout performance in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. In fact, O’Connell averaged 1.2 more minutes per game than Allen did during his first year in Durham (10.4 to 9.2).

However, the 6-foot-6, 185-pound shooting guard would have to multiply his freshman scoring average (3.3) by more than five to keep pace with Allen’s increased output from his freshman to sophomore campaign (Allen’s points per game exploded from 4.4 to 21.4).

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No matter how much O’Connell has improved his game, though, that’s just not going to happen — not with the four freshmen phenoms on the 2018-19 Duke basketball roster.

But while the Roswell, Ga., native almost definitely won’t be the go-to scorer or likely even be on the court for any opening tips this season, he does stand a chance to be the first spark off the bench. Again, like Allen, his energetic game — amplified by his speed and hops — has the potential to provide a boost for the team at any moment.

Plus, O’Connell’s accurate shot from beyond the arc — he made 22 of his 45 attempts as a freshman — could supply a catalyst for more than a few scoring runs from the time the Blue Devils tip off against Kentucky on Nov. 6 until the end of their season, which they intend to last long enough for them to cut down the nets in Minneapolis on the second Monday night of April.

One thing’s for sure: with all the attention that freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish are going to draw from every opponent, whenever O’Connell is on the floor, he’s going to often find himself open.

But can O’Connell consistently knock down those wide-open shots? And will he be able to sometimes handle duties at the point when freshman Tre Jones is on the bench? Finally, can he keep from being abused by stronger guards when playing defense (he’s added a few pounds from a year ago but is still a few cheeseburgers, squats, and bench presses shy of having an ideal frame)?

How the son of former Duke basketball player Dave O’Connell (averaged 2.9 points from 1973-76) answers those questions will certainly impact how many minutes he plays and the success of the squad as a whole.

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And the way O’Connell continues to answer those questions during the remainder of his time in Durham (all signs point to him staying two more seasons after this one) will determine whether his legacy as a Blue Devil is ultimately worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as a guy like Allen.