In year of parity, Duke basketball boasts most versatility and balance

Duke basketball point guard Tre Jones (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)
Duke basketball point guard Tre Jones (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images) /

In a year of relative parity, the Duke basketball team may be the nation’s best thanks to two key factors.

As the No. 2 Blue Devils (12-1, 2-0) begin their long quest in defending its Atlantic Coast Conference title this week, it is important for Duke basketball fans to remind themselves to take a step back and appreciate the trials and tribulations of each season, for it is generally in those moments where young teams “grow up” the most.

Duke’s loss to Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 26 in Cameron Indoor Stadium, which ended a 150-game non-conference home winning streak, had a Thanos-like-snap effect on the college basketball world.

As the doubters poured in from every corner of the country, and they are no doubt still there, all Duke did was go out and remedy its faults and take care of business. While the Blue Devils are nowhere near perfect (no team truly ever is), they do bring two aspects to the table which as of yet are unmatched throughout the college basketball landscape, and that is their versatility and balance.

Perfectly balanced, as all things should be

Somewhat deservedly so, following the SFA loss, Duke has flown relatively under the radar in regards to national respect. For whatever reason, however, the national media has not truly caught on to what the Blue Devils are doing, and I think it is safe to say Duke fans are enjoying this 2015-esque journey through the season so far. That 2015 team flew under the radar following losses to NC State and Miami in mid-January.

While I am sure this team will drop a few more games, it is impossible not to look at how truly balanced and versatile this team is.

For one, Mike Krzyzewski has yet again turned over a new leaf by playing ten, yes TEN, players an average of 14 minutes or more a game. Seven of those players are currently averaging between 5.8ppg and 17.9ppg, with six of those seven shooting between 32.6% and 57.1% from long distance.

In addition, seven of the ten players in the current rotation are averaging at least 3.6 rebounds a game. In case you are wondering, the last time Duke has utilized anywhere near that type of bench production was the Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler-led 2008-09 team, and before that, the Dahntay Jones and JJ Redick-led 2002-03 team.

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While Coach K does not have the bonafide star power that he had in recent years on his roster, although I’d argue Vernon Carey Jr. needs to be recognized as such, this old-school Duke basketball team does a lot of things very well and barely anything truly poorly.

According to, which looks at many advanced stats such as effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, block percentage, non-steal turnover percentage, etc., Duke is the most balanced and versatile team in the country. In fact, Duke is one of two teams with both its offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency ranked inside the top 10 (raw and adjusted). Just one metric is below the national average (50th percentile): steal percentage on offense, where the Blue Devils rank 198th at 9.5%, and even that stat has been slowly improving as the season has moved along.

Comparatively to last season, where the Blue Devils were truly elite in most categories, like ranking 4th in the nation in 2-point percentage on offense, they were abysmal in others, like 3-point percentage and ranking dead last in the country in forcing non-steal turnovers. In fact, Duke has not been even remotely respectable in forcing non-steal turnovers, generally attributed to high-pressure ball-denial perimeter man-to-man defense, since the Mason Plumlee-led 2012-13 team.

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However, where this team stacks up against the 2012-13 team is that it is elite at forcing turnovers in the steal variety, as well as blocking the ball, which often has the same effect as a steal. This Duke basketball team will ask you for your lunch money, make you give them your lunch money, or just eat your lunch all together.

Another example of the Blue Devils’ balance is in the rebounding department, where they are elite in grabbing the offensive board, as well as ending an opponent’s possession and snagging that tough defensive board. Duke ranks 5th in the country in offensive rebound percentage, and 78th in the country in only allowing offensive rebounds 25.5% of the time. So when was the last time the Blue Devils were even remotely this balanced on both sides of the glass? You guessed it, 2010 and 2015.

Exploiting the balance and versatility

Now, generally, Duke runs a relatively free-flowing motion offense that caters to the high-level open-court skills of its players each season. It has been a staple for some time, albeit sometimes adjusted to a four-in-one-out or a five-out structure based on the team. It has proven effective, as Duke has only ranked outside the top 15 in offensive efficiency once in 24 years.

While I don’t proclaim to know more about basketball than Coach K, I’d like to see Duke run the horns series more often. In my opinion, the Horns Elbow Series is one of the most versatile offensive sets you can run, at least in college basketball, and the Blue Devils have some of the best passing big men in the game as well as some of the best shooters in the game.

The premise of this high-post set is that it attacks the defense with clear outs to one side or the other, opening up lanes to the rim or open shooters in the corners. It also enables a plethora of “wrinkles” which can be run if the first, second, or third options don’t come to fruition. By using this offensive set more often, I believe Duke can truly reach its offensive potential and become that much more dangerous of a team.

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, opinions, and predictions regarding the 2019-20 Duke basketball season.