What Duke basketball should expect from Matthew Hurt this season

Duke basketball forward Matthew Hurt (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Duke basketball forward Matthew Hurt (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

Is Duke basketball sophomore Matthew Hurt headed for a breakout campaign?

Matthew Hurt came to Durham in 2019 as a heralded five-star recruit. Usually, Duke basketball players with the type of prestige and anticipation that Hurt had are only around for a year. However, it became apparent early on in the year that the 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward would be around for more than just one season.

Hurt had a fairly productive freshman season, but lack of consistency prevented him from ever taking his game to the next level. In Duke’s two exhibition games last year, he was the focal point of the offense. The Blue Devils were making a point to feed Hurt at the high post and let him use his height and soft touch to score. Even in the first game against Kansas, Hurt attempted 12 shots, the second-highest amount of shot attempts for Duke in that game. It was clear early on in the season that Mike Krzyzewski wanted Hurt to be a featured component of the offense.

It wasn’t that as the season went on Duke didn’t need as much production from Hurt. Rather, it was just clear that the Minnesota native couldn’t provide much else besides shooting and scoring. Hurt struggled mightily both defensively and on the glass. As a freshman, he didn’t have the strength or athleticism to defend the five-position down low. He also didn’t have the athleticism and lateral quickness to defend smaller and more athletic wing players. There were games where Hurt just didn’t have anyone he could match up with on defense.

Hurt was a mismatch on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he was difficult to match up with because he played a lot on the perimeter and was always a threat to knock down the three-ball. He had the height to shoot over smaller defenders and the shooting touch to take bigger guys out to the perimeter. However, Hurt was also a mismatch for the opposing teams when they were on offense.

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Hurt’s lack of consistency both on defense and in rebounding also affected the consistency of his playing time. He started 22 games and played 20.5 minutes per game, but he was often on the bench during crunch time. It seemed like Matthew Hurt would always play well and show his full potential and capabilities against mid-major teams. When he was up against tougher power five competition, he seemed to struggle a little bit more. This is why his numbers were better in November and December than they were in January and February.

I distinctly remember two games in particular where Hurt’s minutes were negatively impacted by his inability to defend and rebound. In an early-season matchup against Georgetown, Hurt started but played just five minutes. He just didn’t have anyone he could guard. Early in the second half, Georgetown went on a quick run, and Hurt was subbed out and never returned. The same thing happened a few weeks later at Virginia Tech. Hurt started that game as well but played a total of just 16 minutes. He was also subbed out early in the second half and never got back on the court.

That continued to be a theme throughout Hurt’s freshman season. He wasn’t able to play extended minutes because he was a defensive and rebounding liability. I understand that Hurt played far more on the outside, which limited his ability to grab rebounds, but there is no excuse for a power forward having just one double-digit rebounding performance for a whole season (Hurt had 10 rebounds against Virginia Tech).

Despite the inconsistency in playing time, Hurt still had some big games for Duke last season. He had plenty of moments where he showed why he was a five-star All-American recruit coming out of high school. He scored 25 points in a blowout win against Boston College, in just 26 minutes. He also put up 22 points in 24 minutes against Miami, and 16 points against Louisville and Virginia Tech.

I’d say Hurt’s most impactful game was against Florida State. Duke was coming off an emotionally exhausting victory over UNC and less than 48 hours later had to play the eventual ACC champion Seminoles. Hurt played just six minutes in that UNC game and was a complete non-factor. But he stepped up and played a huge role in helping Duke beat FSU. He scored just 12 points, but hit a couple of big shots early, knocked down clutch free throws late, and secured an offensive rebound to help Duke seal the win. It was a gutsy performance and one Duke desperately needed.

There is no doubt that Hurt showed flashes of potential and is a guy Duke could run the offense through. Overall, he had a solid freshman season, but he did not finish the season on a very high note. Hurt needed postseason play more than any other Blue Devil. Over the final three Duke basketball games, he scored just seven points, including two zero-point outings, while playing just 30 minutes total. Hurt also lost his spot in the rotation to fifth-year senior Justin Robinson.

One thing that excites me the most going forward about Matthew Hurt is his versatility. Hurt has a very well-rounded offensive game. He finished the season as one of the ACC’s leaders in offensive box plus/minus (5.8). He was Duke’s best shooter last year and probably will be again this upcoming year. He led the Blue Devils last season with 42 three-pointers made.

Hurt also shot over 57 percent on 2-point field goals. Despite the awkward release, where he shoots it from the top of his head, he’s shown that he can knock down step-back jumpers, spot-up three’s, fall-away shots from the mid-post, and at times the jump hook. Hurt’s ability to stretch out the defense will be key to the space and movement in Duke’s offense this coming season.

There are other positives. Hurt is a good ballhandler for his size. He had multiple plays last year where he grabbed the rebound and took it coast-to-coast for a bucket. He obviously doesn’t have the speed or athleticism as some other Duke basketball players in the past, but he is agile and moves well for a big man. Hurt is also fundamentally sound. He has excellent footwork and utilizes shot fakes well, which makes up for his lack of speed and bounce. He has a little bit of an “old man” game, playing at a slower pace and using a lot of old school fundamentals to be effective.

Where Hurt needs to improve the most is undoubtedly on the defensive end. Returning to Duke for his sophomore season was the absolute best decision. He will need to get stronger and more athletic, which will help him both defensively and with rebounding.

If Hurt can defend the five-position, it could make Duke an extremely dangerous offensive team. It would allow the Blue Devils to play five out and free up more space for the guards. Hurt will also have to improve in his ball-screen defense, an area that he got torched in a year ago. He got killed by Wake Forest in the ball screens in a game late last season. If Hurt can step up on defense, I don’t see how he doesn’t become a guy that plays over 30 minutes per game.

I would also like to see Hurt get a few more low-post touches this season. He is obviously a threat from deep, and last year opposing teams caught on quickly, forcing Hurt to be a driver and shooter off the dribble. He wasn’t able to operate in the post much last year alongside Vernon Carey Jr. Coach K needed hurt to shoot well from the outside so that Carey could go to work on the inside.

The Blue Devils don’t seem to have a dominant low post scorer like Carey this year. If Hurt can develop into a legitimate inside-outside threat, Duke could be one of the best offensive teams in the country. He has the footwork and soft touch to be an effective low post scorer. Last year, he lacked both the opportunity and physical strength to get consistent touches down low. It would be nice to see Hurt develop into a low post scoring threat, and it would also open up more of his perimeter game.

It will be fascinating to see what type of role Hurt will have for the upcoming season. He will be considered a veteran on yet again another very young Duke basketball team. Hurt is just one of four contributors from last year’s team to return (Wendell Moore, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker). Hurt should assume a bigger role this year, but he will have to earn that playing time. He will have a lot of competition for playing time between Jalen Johnson, Joey Baker, Jaemyn Brakefield, Henry Coleman, Mark Williams, and Patrick Tape.

Hurt has the advantage of experience. But experience alone may not be enough. Duke has a plethora of good guards, which makes me think they will play a lot of small-ball. Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore will certainly be in the rotation, and DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach, and Jalen Johnson seem like guys who will be immediate contributors.

I would imagine that Duke will use Jalen Johnson at the four-spot, similar to how they used Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, and Jayson Tatum. If that is the case, Hurt would have to slide to the five-spot. As I mentioned, Hurt struggled to defend bigger guys last year. If he has gotten stronger and can guard bigger guys, as I mentioned earlier, Duke could be an extremely dangerous offensive team.

I would expect to see Matthew Hurt in the Blue Devils’ starting five on opening night. It is too early to predict how the lineups and rotations will shake out, but Hurt’s improvement will be key for the success of this year’s Duke basketball team. Hurt’s outside shooting and scoring ability could make Duke a very difficult team to defend. We know that he will be a factor because of the offense he provides. It will be interesting to see if his defense and rebounding can catch up and allow him to take a big step forward.

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