One of Duke’s biggest weaknesses last season was its lack of a strong post presence. The Blue Devils relied on 6-foot-8 Jabari Parker and 6-foot-9 Amile Jefferson, among others, to fill their frontcourt minutes. This small-ball-by-necessity design didn’t stop Duke from enjoying plenty of success in the regular season. The Blue Devils posted a 26-9 record, finished tied for third in the ACC and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Still, the lack of a low block alpha left the impression Duke was vulnerable.
You know what happened next. The Blue Devils were bounced in the opening round by No. 14-seed Mercer, marking the second time in the last three years Mike Krzyzewski’s team has fallen to a double-digit seed in the tourney. The loss could not be pinned down on an inability to compete in the frontcourt; on site in Raleigh, Pete Thamel wrote that “Mercer simply had the better basketball team, flexing the power of seven senior contributors and outplaying Duke in every facet.”
That may have been true, but it doesn’t gloss over the personnel flaw that cost Duke in other games last season. The purported remedy arrived via the recruiting trail, and through the first month of the season, Jahlil Okafor has been about as good as advertised. On Monday night, Okafor, Rivals.com’s top recruit in the class of 2014, became the first Duke player to record a 20-20 game since Elton Brand in 1998. Okafor finished with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting with 20 rebounds, while Brand had 21 and 21 versus Fresno State.
This is not the first (and won’t be the last) time Okafor has been mentioned in the same breath as Brand. After Okafor scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds in a win over then-No. 19 Michigan State at the Champions Classic last month, Krzyzewski said that Okafor could become the best “true low-post” player he’s ever coached.
After naming Brand and Carlos Boozer as the only other two guys “like him,” Krzyzewski explained that Okafor is the “biggest one” and that he “can pass the best.”
It remains to be seen whether Okafor will leave Durham having cemented his status as the best big man in program history. In 1999, Brand was the Naismith College Player of the Year and averaged nearly 18 points and 10 rebounds while leading the Blue Devils to a 37-2 record and an appearance in the national championship game before being selected No. 1 overall in that year’s NBA draft. Matching those credentials will be difficult.
Still, it’s clear Okafor has the potential to be one of the best big men Duke has featured in over a decade. Over nine games, Okafor has averaged 17.1 points while posting an effective field goal percentage (65.5) that ranks among the nation’s top 60 and using a higher percentage of possessions (29.8) than any other Duke player. Okafor has cleaned up on the boards, too, snaring 19.2 percent of the Blue Devils’ misses during his floor time, good for fifth in the country.
It’s not surprising that Duke has looked to Okafor to score on the low block. At 6-foot-11, 270 pounds, Okafor is big and strong enough to establish good position around the basket and power through defenders or deploy his repertoire of moves to get a clean look. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Okafor has scored 69 points on 71 post-up possessions, by far his most frequent play type.
While it will be interesting to see how Okafor fares against ACC competition, we’ve already observed him in action against multiple upper-echelon opponents. This video from DraftExpress.com offers a detailed look at Okafor’s post work against then-No. 2 Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky. In the Blue Devils’ 10-point win in Madison, Okafor finished with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting and six rebounds.
With Okafor -- who is currently leading kenpom.com's Player of the Year race -- serving as the top scoring option, the 9-0 Blue Devils lead the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency at 1.19 points scored per possession, according to Kenpom.
Still, the question of whether Duke is better suited to make a deep tourney run than it was last year will likely hinge on how it fares on the other end of the floor. The Blue Devils currently rank 14th in the country in defensive efficiency, up 112 spots from a year ago, when they had the nation’s second best offense, per Kenpom.
It’s important to keep in mind that Duke has yet to enter conference play, so it’s probably too early to make any sweeping judgments about the Blue Devils’ defense. But the early returns on the Okafor-driven offense are undeniably promising.