As is often the case of late, the best Duke basketball players are rookies.
In the age of one-and-done players, few are legitimately prepared to leave college after one year, especially in an abbreviated season. The Duke basketball program welcomed six freshmen this year, consisting of over half the roster. With less time for trial and error, a shortened season amplifies certain shortcomings.
There were plenty of mistakes in Duke’s first game, an 81-71 home win over Coppin State on Saturday afternoon. But as is the case with post-2010 Blue Devil teams, freshmen compensated.
Forward Jalen Johnson, the only freshman starter, was the best player in Cameron Indoor Stadium for Duke’s debut against Coppin State. He finished 8-for-8 from the field with 19 points, 19 rebounds, and five assists.
Per a tweet from ACC Network, Johnson is one of only three players under Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski to begin his college career with a double-double.
In a season with experience at a premium, the Blue Devils have five veterans, but they still find themselves relying heavily on rookie talent. The leading scorer was rookie DJ Steward, who finished with 24 points, nine rebounds, and two assists. Sophomore wing Wendell Moore took notice:
“DJ can really score the ball, and he really showed that tonight, being open and in the right spot at all times and ready to shoot the ball.”
It was the first game after limited preseason work, but if Duke’s Tuesday night matchup against Michigan State is more of the same, then it may be a season much like those recently — advancing as far as star freshmen take them. After all, Johnson and Steward are the highest projected NBA Draft picks on the roster.
Mixed results from Duke basketball veterans
Steward’s debut warrants a start next game, which would relegate junior wing Joey Baker to the bench. Baker could not find his touch from long range, nor did he show signs of an expanded offensive game beyond spot-up shooting, scoring only once in the contest.
Senior guard Jordan Goldwire was also near-absent offensively, as he was 1-for-5 from the field and 0-for-3 from deep. He needs a stronger performance versus Michigan State.
Moore and Matthew Hurt were influential, with a more diversified game than either showed last year. Moore finished with 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting and added four rebounds and two assists. A bulkier Hurt had 12 points to go along with seven rebounds and an assist. Neither looked the part of a top-five pick like Johnson, but similar, consistent play from them is the expectation.
Rookie point guard Jeremy Roach did not start, but displayed a high IQ for the game, although that was not reflected in the box score. Similar to a first-year Tre Jones, he attempted only five shots in 29 minutes, but managed the game well and showed a flair for passing. He provided six points, five rebounds, and four assists.
Besides the first dunk of freshman center Mark Williams‘ career, there was little rookie action outside of Johnson, Steward, and Roach.
It is clear Johnson and Steward were the two best players on the court, but expect wavering performances, as both are in their infancy of basketball development. They must mature quicker than usual on the court, as the combo combined for eight turnovers, seven of which were Johnson’s responsibility.
Despite Johnson’s tendency to force passes, the 6-foot-9 point forward handles himself like a pro. He is now Krzyzewski’s closer, much like RJ Barrett or Jayson Tatum, a lengthy player who can get anywhere on the floor to create for himself or others. The head coach apparently already knows that, though:
“We wouldn’t win without him.”
Duke’s returners should also improve as they get into the rhythm of a season, but there is no doubt this team goes as freshman star Johnson goes.
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