Just a week ago, Duke entered the Maui Invitational as the No. 1 team in America and the favorite to win the national title.
The Blue Devils steamrollered Kentucky in the Champions Classic, and their four freshman prodigies all looked the part of future NBA players capable of leading the program to a national title.
Then a great Gonzaga squad, one full of grown men who fear nothing, held off the Blue Devils in the title game, an 89-87 thriller.
Now the same folks who debated Duke’s chances of beating an NBA squad — that was silly — began to question the hype.
Take a deep breath, America.
Duke is still an elite team. Duke can evolve into a great team. The Blue Devils lost to a national championship contender in Maui in November. Nothing has changed for the Blue Devils in 2018-19. They’re still the most intriguing and imposing collection of talent in the country. They’re ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency and eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com.
They’re still the squad that could cut down the nets in Minneapolis.
But Duke’s effort in Maui showcased some of the program’s needs going forward:
1. Time: Last month, I talked to Mike Krzyzewski in his office in Durham, North Carolina, about this squad, a team he told me he “really liked” before the season. He said the program had the athletic gifts to duplicate the success of the daunting Duke squads of the past. But he worried about his players’ ability to communicate and their learning curve. I compared this group to the 2014-15 team that won a national title, and he reminded me that those Blue Devils had veterans such as Quinn Cook, Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones. This team needs its young players to lead. Nothing against Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, Jack White and Alex O’Connell, but Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones must man those roles this season. And that’s the most difficult adjustment for young players. They’ll get there. Remember, this is still a squad full of teenagers who played three games in three days 4,000 miles from home and lost to one of America’s best teams on the third day of the tournament after erasing a double-digit deficit in the final moments of the season’s best game (thus far). Imagine where this group might be five months from now.
2. Use Tre Jones as a scoring threat: Duke’s freshman point guard had the breakout performance of the Maui Invitational. Pro scouts and execs who hadn’t mentioned him earlier in the week were suddenly identifying him as a player who might join his freshman teammates in next summer’s draft. One NBA official told me “he’s grown on me.” Jones is 6-for-11 from the 3-point line this season. He made 59 percent of his shots during Duke’s three games in Maui, and his team has committed turnovers on just 8 percent of its possessions while making 45.6 percent of its 3-pointers with him on the floor, per hooplens.com. Against Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational title game, he hit a couple of big buckets down the stretch that helped Duke close the gap. Although he entered the season as the maestro of this talented group, he’s clearly a capable scorer who can carry a greater portion of Duke’s offense going forward. Jones is more than a distributor. He proved that last week.
3. Allow RJ Barrett to settle into his alpha role and the demands attached to it: Listen, Duke will continue to turn to the projected No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft when in a tight game. You would too. But Barrett has to aim to make the best play in those moments. With nearly 33 seconds to play in a two-point game against Gonzaga, Barrett penetrated and spun toward the basket. By that time, however, everyone on the island knew he was the top option for a Duke team vying for a come-from-behind win. He had been swarmed on the previous play. On the next possession, he was met by a trio of Bulldogs again. He had DeLaurier alone under the basket. He had Williamson open, trailing him. He had Jack White, who went 4-for-8 from the 3-point line in Maui, open in the corner. Jones was at the top of the arc, waiting to reset the offense if necessary. There were better shots than the one-on-three option Barrett chose. But that’s just who he is. He has won at every level. He wants that pressure. And Duke will benefit from his late-game confidence, especially if he continues to search for the right play in those moments. He’ll grow from last week’s challenges.
4. Get consistent energy from Cam Reddish: The 6-foot-8, five-star freshman was the most polarizing player in Maui last week. One NBA scout told me Reddish “could be the most talented player on that roster if he would stop bulls—-ing.” In the final minutes of Duke’s loss to Gonzaga, Reddish was on the bench after going 3-for-9 and committing four turnovers. He is a special player. He can play multiple positions at the next level. He has connected on 43 percent of his 3-pointers thus far. But the Blue Devils have been a superior defensive team with Reddish on the bench (0.96 points per possession allowed versus 0.77 PPP allowed, according to hooplens.com). His effort in stretches was questioned last week. That was the knock against him in high school, too. And he’s just too good to give observers any reason to question his drive. Duke will need a focused, determined Reddish every game this season.
5. Identify a consistent spark off the bench: One NBA scout told me he was surprised that more teams did not attempt to draw fouls on Jones, who hasn’t picked up more than two fouls in a game yet this season. “They don’t really have a backup point guard,” the scout said. If there is one early concern about Duke, it’s the value of the reserves. Does the team have enough high-caliber players on its bench? In games against Auburn and Gonzaga at Maui, Duke was outscored 42-17 by opponents’ reserves. White had his moments. DeLaurier is a significant contributor, too. However, the Blue Devils need a reliable catalyst off the bench this season. The team’s star freshmen will have rough nights. They’ll need more help from their reserves in future outings.