Duke basketball: Second-year stars could see themselves in the rafters

Duke basketball freshman Cassius Stanley #2 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks against the Colorado State Rams during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 08, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Duke basketball freshman Cassius Stanley #2 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks against the Colorado State Rams during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 08, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /
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Duke basketball
Duke basketball forward Matthew Hurt (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

Matthew Hurt and Christian Laettner

Yeah, I know. I should probably be kicked out of any Duke fan club and have my ability to write about the Blue Devils revoked for good. What do Matthew Hurt and Christian Laettner, the most haloed of the hallowed, have in common you are probably wondering? (Hopefully just wondering and not cursing.)

Was Christian Laettner the best NCAA basketball player of all time? With two UCLA centers each having won three titles, that may be a hard sell, but there has never been a more compelling player and big-shot maker in college hoops than the Duke basketball king. Those are still pretty good titles to have besides his two real ones.

That’s why this makes this comparison a bit of a stretch because Laettner was a better athlete, and an underrated one at that, and defender. What truly set Laettner apart though was his instincts, confidence, and that intangible factor that only the rare possess but is too hard to describe.

It’s that will and ability to rise up to whatever the occasion dictates, the mysterious “it” factor that no other player in Duke basketball history was able to harness so well. But looking back at his freshman season, Laettner wasn’t the swag-filled baller and free-shooter we think of all these years later, despite him teaching Kentucky fans, young and old, the harsh realities of life are still the same from 28 years ago: Duke always wins.

As a freshman, Laettner averaged 8.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists, with a steal and almost a block, in 17 minutes per game. The shocking part is that he hit all his threes, which was only one the entire season. He was more of a driver and putback kind of player at that point in his Duke basketball career, hitting 72 percent overall from the field and 73 percent from the foul line on 3.4 attempts a game.

In fact, before his senior year, when Laettner was a crazy 56 percent from 3-point distance on 97 attempts, he shot 38 percent on only 66 attempts the previous three seasons. Hurt shot 39 percent on his 107 3-point attempts this year and 49 percent overall from the field.

Like Christian, Matthew averaged an assist, almost one block, as well as half a steal a game. Hurt pulled down one less rebound but also averaged almost another point at 9.7 per contest. He was in double figures most of the year until a late-season turn toward the bench saw him lose some of his minutes.

The lack of playing time has led to rampant speculation that Hurt is exploring a transfer, but he had a solid freshman year with some growing pains that had to be expected with his slight frame and lack of elite athleticism. The high five-star rating probably did him a little disservice as he was not a one and done player. The biggest deficiency in his game is his lack of strength and toughness, but he has a lot of room for physical growth which should help him improve in his weaker areas.

His offense is not one of those weaknesses. Hurt has a polished and varied arsenal at his disposal. He does not jump high on his shots, but he has a quick release, a nice sidestep, and a solid ball fake and drive in addition to some good post moves and spins. He shot over 57 percent on almost four 2-point attempts per game even though we think of him mostly as a standstill shooter.

I’d argue that at this point in their careers, Hurt is more in tune with his offensive capabilities than Laettner was, although Christian took a great leap forward in his second season, playing 13 more minutes and scoring 7.4 more points per contest. Hurt is fully capable of such a step forward for Duke basketball as well, and he would be well suited to continuing his career at Duke where he still saw over 20 minutes of game action per contest.

Interestingly, Hurt was the 11th most efficient player in the ACC and 15th in block percentage. In fact, when we compare him with All-ACC Freshman teammate, Cassius Stanley, Hurt was No. 2 in offensive box plus-minus, No. 6 in win share per 40 minutes, and No. 17 in offensive rebound percentage. Stanley was No. 19, No. 16, and No. 19 in those metrics, respectively, and they were the only ones in which they overlapped.

Hurt had a better season than many believe, and next year could be even better. I put that picture up there at the top of this slide because that was a Christian Laettner-type moment when Hurt flew into the lane and grabbed a rebound that seemed destined for the Seminoles.

If Hurt had the Duke basketball royalty’s confidence, swagger, and instincts while sticking around for four years, he too could have his jersey hanging high in Cameron Indoor someday and retire another number in the storied history of Duke basketball.

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