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How Will Coach K Sort Out Duke’s Embarrassment of Riches?

Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson have become indispensable, which completely changes the complexion of a Blue Devils team that once looked reliant on the talent of its freshmen

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After starting the season without potential one-and-done lottery picks Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden, Duke is finally getting healthy, with Tatum and Bolden making their college debuts last Saturday and Giles expected to come back at some point before Christmas. Giles has long been considered a potential superstar by NBA talent evaluators, but he’s now coming off a third knee surgery, after tearing both ACLs as a high schooler, and he will have to answer a lot of questions about his health when he returns. Duke has played really well without Giles, as evidenced by its 9–1 record; their only loss came on late-game heroics from no. 7 Kansas in the first week of the season. On Tuesday, the Blue Devils registered one of their first signature wins of the season, an impressive 84–74 victory over no. 21 Florida at Madison Square Garden.

Now that the roster is close to full health, it’s easier to notice Coach K’s embarrassment of riches. Coaching this Duke team isn’t all that different than the last decade he spent coaching Team USA. With eight McDonald’s All Americans on their roster (nine, had Giles been healthy his senior year), the Blue Devils have an overwhelming talent edge against the vast majority of NCAA teams:

There’s enough talent that Coach K could conceivably institute a rotation system similar to what John Calipari did two seasons ago at Kentucky, when the team went 10 deep with no one player averaging more than 26 minutes per game. That, however, is not the way Coach K usually does things. He prefers to shorten his rotation, riding his starters the majority of the game and getting only spot minutes from his bench:

**Amile Jefferson played nine games before missing the rest of the season with an injury.
*Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the team halfway through the season.

The wave of injuries Duke has suffered over the first month of the season has prevented Coach K from having to make any tough decisions about playing time. With barely enough players on hand to practice, anyone who could put on a uniform has been able to play. But the minutes crunch is coming. We caught a glimpse of it Tuesday, when Bolden and Jeter, two former top-15 recruits, combined to play three minutes against Florida. Krzyzewski picked his six guys and rode them for most of the game.

The Blue Devils could look a lot different by the time March rolls around, but not in the way many observers anticipated before the season started. Two of Duke’s less heralded players have taken advantage of the opportunities they have received over the last month, and it will be difficult for Coach K to minimize their roles, even if it means alienating some of his biggest recruits.

Amile Jefferson Is Duke’s Preferred Man in the Middle

Jefferson is the old man on campus, a fifth-year senior who received an extra year of eligibility after playing only nine games last season due to a broken foot. He’s a 23-year-old who will turn 24 in May, from the same recruiting class as NBA veterans Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad, both of whom were drafted in 2013. Jefferson is wiser, stronger, and more experienced than everyone else on the floor, and he is playing the best basketball of his career because of it, averaging 15.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.1 steals, and 2.0 blocks a game on 67.4 percent shooting.

At 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Jefferson is stuck between possible NBA positions, undersized as a center and not perimeter-oriented enough to be a power forward. However, he’s plenty big enough to man the middle in college, and he’s a very capable interior defender who can push bigger players off their spots before they get the ball and body them out of the lane.

Jefferson is essentially a coach on the floor, quarterbacking the defense and serving as the team’s clear leader. He can protect the rim and he can slide his feet well enough to guard on the perimeter and stay in front of smaller players:

Duke slides Jefferson between the C and PF positions, but he’s more effective as a C, when he can take advantage of the spacing that Duke’s perimeter players provide. He has really improved his offense in his time in Durham, going from a role player to someone who can create his own shot:

Jefferson doesn’t have the recruiting profile of Bolden and Jeter, but it’s hard to imagine them being more effective as college players — particularly on defense — than a guy who is at least four years older than either of them. Given how many offensive-minded players Duke has on the perimeter, the team needs its big men to be able to protect the interior of the lane and guard in the pick-and-roll without picking up fouls, areas of the game where Jefferson is way ahead of his younger teammates.

Luke Kennard Is a College Star

Kennard has taken the biggest leap forward so far this season, going from an off-ball role player as a freshman to a primary option as a sophomore. He has stepped into the void created by the injuries — as well as Brandon Ingram’s departure to the NBA — and run with it. His numbers have skyrocketed across the board:

Kennard’s game starts with his jumper. At 6-foot-6, he can shoot over the top of most perimeter defenders at the college level, and he’s deadly coming off screens:

The biggest improvement in his game is how he is using his jumper to set up the rest of his offense, forcing defenders to commit to contesting his shot and then taking advantage of the driving lanes that creates to get into the lane. He’s a very smart player who knows how to use angles and keep opponents off balance, and he doesn’t need much space to get off a shot. This is against Florida’s Devin Robinson, an athletic 6-foot-8 small forward who DraftExpress currently projects as a second-round pick:

A pure shooter with Kennard’s size and all-around offensive game has a pretty good chance at an NBA career. What scouts will be watching is how much he can improve on defense, and how much his issues on that side of the ball are a result of physical limitations that could be further exposed at the next level. He can be a role player off the bench in the NBA, but it’s hard to be a starter if you can’t keep up with faster players on defense:

Coach K loves 3-point shooting, so it’s hard to see him reducing the role of a player who is shooting 41 percent from 3 on over six attempts a game. As he figures out his rotation going forward, there are two questions he needs to answer:

Should Grayson Allen Be More of a Distributor?

Allen was one of the leading candidates for the Wooden Award coming into the season, but a lingering toe injury has robbed him of some of his explosiveness, and he hasn’t been anywhere near as effective a scorer as a junior as he was last season. His field goal percentage has gone from 46.6 percent to 36 percent, while his 3-point percentage has dropped from 41.7 percent to 32.3 percent. Even as he gets healthier, he’s probably not going to have the same role he had as a sophomore, when he and Ingram took turns shooting the ball for most of the game.

Allen is currently projected as a late-first-round pick by DraftExpress, and the idea was that returning and putting together a dominant junior season could help him move up draft boards. However, maximizing draft stock is as much about the situation around you as it is improving your game, and the wealth of talent on hand at Duke this season means Allen doesn’t get to take nearly as many shots.

What the Blue Devils don’t have is a true point guard, and they need someone who can run the offense and get everyone the ball in the right spots. That’s what Allen did against Florida, handing out eight assists on only two turnovers. He’s Duke’s one perimeter player who can consistently get into the lane and kick the ball out. While a drop in scoring numbers could push him out of the first round, diversifying his game could pay long-term dividends when it comes to sticking at the next level.

Is Jayson Tatum a 3 or a 4?

One of the biggest benefits for Coach K in terms of running Team USA over the last decade has been exposure to the way the modern NBA game is played. He has used guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony almost exclusively as small-ball PFs, and occasionally even as Cs, in international play, and he has brought that model to the NCAA. He turned Duke’s 2014–15 national championship season around when he moved Justise Winslow from SF to PF; he got Jabari Parker and Brandon Ingram taken at no. 2 overall in their respective drafts by using them as power forwards in a spread offense. In terms of size and length, Tatum compares reasonably well with his predecessors, and he has shown he can be a respectable rebounder and shot blocker in his first two games back:

Coming into the season, the assumption was that Duke would have a starting frontcourt of Bolden, Giles, and Tatum. However, Tatum is more comfortable operating in the midrange and at the rim than at the 3-point line, where he has taken only two shots in his first two games. He’s also more than big enough to play as a PF at the NCAA level. As long as Tatum can compete on the boards like this, Duke is not going to lose much by going small:

There are plenty of benefits to moving Tatum up a position. It allows the team to put another perimeter-oriented player on the floor, and it creates room for Duke to play its best shooter (Kennard), its best driver (Allen), and its best perimeter defender (Matt Jones) at the same time. Jones has the lowest NBA ceiling of any player in their rotation, but he is Duke’s most experienced player on the perimeter and he had a key role in its national championship two seasons ago.

Duke’s best lineup against Florida had Jefferson as the lone big man in the middle, surrounded by Tatum, Jones, Kennard, and Allen. That’s a group that can perform at a high level on both sides of the ball and is more than capable of beating any team in the country. The biggest challenge for Coach K over the next month will be figuring out how to integrate Bolden and Giles into the mix without messing up Duke’s chemistry and hurting either their floor spacing or overall team defense. Jeter, who has failed to make a strong impression after coming back from an ankle injury last month, is probably slated for another season at the end of the bench. At only Duke or Kentucky could a five-star big man be written off that quickly.

Giles and Bolden will play, but it’s unclear how big their roles will be. They are much more explosive offensively than Jefferson, but neither is likely to be anywhere as capable defensively at this stage in their careers, and Duke doesn’t need a ton of offense from its big men. While Giles’s ability to step out and play on the perimeter could allow him to play with Jefferson, Bolden is strictly an interior player who needs shooting around him in order to be effective. They don’t need to put up huge numbers for Duke to win, which means they are going to have to balance playing for themselves versus playing for the team. Giles, in particular, will have a massive spotlight on him when he returns, but he’s not returning to a team that needs him to be the star he was originally projected to be. Coach K has some interesting decisions ahead of him, and the ramifications will affect not only the college landscape, but the NBA draft’s.