Duke Basketball: How Blue Devils can avoid poor shooting performances

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

One area the Duke basketball players can improve upon as a group is at either limiting shot attempts from their coldest shooters on any given night or putting those shooters in a position to find easier shot attempts.

All is well with the Duke basketball team at the moment. The Blue Devils’ margin of victory across their current three-game win streak is a combined 115 points. But ACC play is less than a month away, meaning the level of competition will soon be consistently high.

As a result, weaknesses are more likely to appear.

One imperfection stands out thus far: Feeding cold hands too often without putting those hands in better positions to find the bottom of the net.

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Despite their exceptional talents, the Blue Devils’ four freshmen starters — with the possible exception of steady point guard Tre Jones — are not immune to a bad night or at least a bad stretch.

Notably — apologies to head coach Mike Krzyzewski for bringing it up again — there was R.J. Barrett missing five shots across five straight possessions in the final minute of the 89-87 loss to Gonzaga in Maui (since returning to Durham, though, the sensational southpaw has bounced back in exceptional fashion by shooting 67 percent from the field and 58 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 25.0 points in just 26.7 minutes per game).

And there have also been nights — notably in Duke’s last game against Hartford — when the shooting hand of Cam Reddish appeared to be fresh out of a freezer (against the Hawks, he shot 2-for-12, including a 1-for-9 clip from beyond the arc, and finished with just five points). His cold hand, in part, kept the game closer than it should have been deep into the second half.

Heck, there have even been games when the rim hasn’t been kind to Zion Williamson’s shots in the paint — even dunk attempts.

It happens to the best. No worries. However, cold hands can lead to worries — and losses — when too many ill-advised attempts from said hands become a detriment to the success of the team.

(Unfortunately, my memory still often cues tape of either Duke’s season-ending loss to Kansas in 2003 or to LSU in 2006 when the best sharpshooter in program history, J.J. Redick, shot just 2-for-16 and 3-for-18, respectively.)

So how do the Blue Devils avoid losses by seeing to it that the guy who is struggling the most during a game either stops shooting so much or finds easier shots?

Well, it’s dangerous to directly tell players to stop shooting so much, especially when those players are as talented as Duke’s freshmen (they all deserve a constant green light).

However, Jones, who has excelled beyond his years at directing the offense all season, can partly control the number of touches any of his teammates receive. Or Coach K can put an end to a cold shooter’s excess misses by putting him on the bench — but that shouldn’t have to happen.

The simplest solution is for the Blue Devils to increase the type of plays where they shine brightest.

Transition plays.

Duke is currently outscoring its opponents on fast breaks, 230-87. This team is on pace to set a program record for steals per game (sitting at 10.6, fifth best in the NCAA). As incredible as these stats are, though, considering the unmatched athleticism on this team, they can be even better.

As always seems to be the case, Coach K explains the concept best.

"“If we’re not hitting, then we need to let the defense stir it up and give [us] energy,” Duke’s 39th-year coach said after the 84-54 win over Hartford. “If we become the team that I hope we become, it’ll be because of the energy we have on defense that will lead to offense. In transition, we’re dynamite, we’re really good. Every once in a while, at halfcourt, whether it’s man, sluffing man, converging man, or zone, you can miss shots. In transition, when we have a numerical advantage, we’re going to score.”"

And it’s tough to argue that the most exciting, the most efficient, and the most energy-boosting way for these Blue Devils to score is on a fast-break play — just like the one from the Hartford game when Williamson jumped a passing lane to create a steal and then lofted an alley-oop pass off the glass to a trailing Barrett.

Not only did that one play answer the chemistry question — as laid out in an article here at Ball Durham — but that sort of play is also the simplest answer to any obstacle Duke may face this season.

And the ease with which Williamson and Barrett appeared to pull it off, starting with Williamson using his athleticism to easily come away with the steal that started it, suggests they should have no problem replicating it in the future.

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The Blue Devils host a 4-2 Yale squad Saturday at 5:30 p.m. EST on ESPN.