Two key offensive areas for Duke basketball to improve in 2020-21

Duke basketball (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

History says the 2020-21 Duke basketball squad may need to fare well in a certain pair of metrics in order to end its season under falling confetti.

The Duke basketball program has yet another fantastic recruiting class matriculating on campus this fall. As per the norm in Durham recently, the loss of young talent to the NBA will be quickly replaced by even younger talent from high school. The elephant in the room, then, is the national championship trophy. The Blue Devils must improve in two key offensive areas if they are to cut some nets down in Indianapolis next April.

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It may well be an oversimplification of the round ball game, but if a team can take care of the ball, shoot the ball well, and defend as a team, then it is likely to win more than it loses. So, it stands to reason that a team should strive to improve its assist-to-turnover ratio and points per possession while concurrently playing good defense.

The 2019-20 Duke basketball squad, led by sophomore point guard Tre Jones and the one-and-done freshman duo of Vernon Carey Jr. and Cassius Stanley, dished out just 479 assists to 409 turnovers. Those numbers equate to a 1.17 assist-to-turnover ratio. The value of this metric is relatively straightforward. The higher the ratio, the more assists a team is doling out to scorers and the fewer turnovers that same team is committing while in possession of the ball.

By comparison, four of Duke’s five championship teams finished their seasons with appreciably higher assist-to-turnover ratios. The 2014-15 team (1.40), the 2000-01 team (1.32), the 2009-10 team (1.29), and the 1991-92 squad (1.23) all finished with better assist-to-turnover numbers. And the 2019 national champion Virginia Cavaliers, under coach Tony Bennett, finished the season with an astonishing 1.59 ratio.

The incoming five-star combo of Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward in addition to rising senior Jordan Goldwire must take better care of the basketball. While averaging just over 24 minutes per game, Goldwire committed only 28 turnovers while serving up 70 dimes. Although maintaining a 2.5 ratio as a team may be improbable, it is certainly a good metric to “shoot” for next season.

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Quality possessions, akin to quality at-bats or red zone scores, are of paramount importance to basketball teams. Regardless of a team’s predilection to speed up or slow down the game, the number of points scored per possession is a vitally telling metric. Bennett’s Cavaliers are well known to painfully slow down a basketball game using their now celebrated “Pack Line” defense. However, the Hoos scored at a very respectable rate of 1.17 points per possession during their title run.

By comparison, the 2019-20 Blue Devils scored at just 1.12 points per possession. While that 0.05 may seem insignificant, over the course of an 80-possession game, it is a difference of 4 points. Again, four of five Duke basketball national champs scored at a rate significantly better than last season’s 1.12 points per possession. The 2014-15 team (1.19), the 2009-10 team (1.17), the 2000-01 team (1.19), and the 1991-92 team (1.18) all averaged at least 0.05 more points per possession.

The 0.07 difference between 1.19 and 1.12 is almost 6 points. Half of Duke’s losses last season were by six points or fewer (and a fourth loss was in double overtime).

If Goldwire and company can increase their assists while decreasing their turnovers and at the same time score with a bit more consistency, cutting down some nets next April is a distinct possibility.

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