DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke has the best-shooting perimeter crew in the country; I'm convinced of that. Duke could have the best backcourt in the country; I'm just not certain if that will be the case, because Duke isn't certain it will be the case. Whereas one can go to rival North Carolina this fall and see a fully formed team and know how it's going to look in games -- like last year's ACC regular-season champs but better -- the Blue Devils, with their reformulated backcourt, are a very intriguing TBD.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is still reshaping things, as he does almost every year, and he has a pretty good track record, given that he's two wins away from Bob Knight's alltime Division I record of 902. But as Krzyzewski told his team in a mid-practice lecture this week, after he'd become dismayed by their lack of intensity, and questioned whether they felt "entitled" by wearing the Duke uniform: "I haven't proven anything with this team yet, and you haven't proven anything yet."
To estimate just how good combo guard Austin Rivers is going to be right away as a freshman, balance what the recruiting rankings suggest -- that he has the talent to be one of the country's best scorers and a one-and-done Lottery Pick -- with the language Krzyzewski uses about the McDonald's All-American. Before Kyrie Irving had even arrived at Duke in 2010, Krzyzewski said Irving had the ability to "transform" the Blue Devils' offense. That was 100 percent accurate. Before Irving suffered a toe injury eight games into last season, he was the best player in the country. He completely changed Duke's offense, and went on to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
While the Blue Devils were stretching at the beginning of Tuesday's 8 a.m. practice, I asked Krzyzewski what kind of player Rivers would be, and the coach said, "I don't know."
He said that the team's August trip to China was huge for Rivers' development, but he needed to continue to improve. When I noted the difference in descriptors used for Irving and Rivers, Krzyzewski said, "He's not as ready as Kyrie was." While offering the caveat that it was easier for Irving to "transform" the team from the point guard position than it would be for Rivers from the off-guard spot, Krzyzewski added, "Part of it is that [Rivers] needs to learn to have fun with other parts of the game than offense -- with defense, with rebounding, with communicating."
It did not take long during practice for Krzyzewski to begin giving Rivers reinforcement. Early in a drill where the first-team offense was attacking a 2-3 zone, Rivers drove from the left wing, into converging defenders, and was divested of the ball before he could make a play. He hung his head and didn't engage in transition defense, at which point a whistle was blown. It was made clear that Rivers' body language was not going to be accepted, nor was his carelessness with the ball. "It's not an AAU game -- it's a Duke basketball game at the highest level," Krzyzewski said. "Every possession is important."
What impressed me was how quickly Rivers changed course. On the next two possessions, he took exactly what he was given -- open looks at threes -- and drilled them both. Soon after, he followed his own miss with a put-back floater; he stole a pass to start a fast break; he attacked the 2-3 with controlled aggression; and he kept a possession alive by flying in from the weak side to tip a rebound away from the much larger Miles Plumlee. Krzyzewski enthusiastically praised the latter play in front of the team. Rivers is the most talented Blue Devil and is almost unguardable off the dribble. If he can become the complete, disciplined player Duke wants, he'll be special; if he lapses too often into his electric-but-sloppy state, he's going to have problems.
The promising thing is that Rivers -- despite his AAU-scene hype, and his upbringing in an NBA culture, as the middle son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers -- seems to know what he needs. Rivers said that from talking with Irving, his former teammate on the U.S. Under-18 team two summers ago, he's aware that "you can't just come in to Duke, be lackadaisical, and act like you're going to run s--- when you still have to learn everything." His response to being yelled at by Krzyzewski, he said, "was just to turn it up, and from then on, make sure he didn't yell at me again for the rest of practice."
Sweet-shooting junior Andre Dawkins was matching Rivers' three-point output on Tuesday, but the guard missing from the first-team lineup was junior Seth Curry, who's being converted to the point in place of the graduated Nolan Smith. Smith was in the second row of the bleachers, as an observer stuck in the NBA lockout, and Curry was in front of him on the bench, nursing an ankle injury. His performance in their Blue-White Scrimmage four days earlier -- scoring a team-high 28 points to beat Rivers' squad -- had been impressive, and coaches insisted that practice runs much smoother with Curry at the helm. "Seth is a calming influence to our team," assistant Jeff Capel said. "He allows Austin to do what he does best, which is be a playmaker."
Duke has thrived for the past two years using converted two-guards at the point, with Jon Scheyer leading them to a national title in 2010 and Smith winning ACC Player of the Year after taking over for Irving. They hope Curry -- whose more famous older brother, Stephen, also switched to the point as a junior at Davidson -- can have an equally smooth transition. "I'm naturally a scorer," Curry said, but he envisions himself running the team in the Scheyer mold by initiating the offense, then working without the ball to set up scoring opportunities.
Curry's role will be far different from the last time he was the focal point of a team -- his freshman year at Liberty, when he took 33.0 percent of the team's shots and "did whatever I wanted." That situation wasn't fulfilling enough. "I transferred to Duke," he said, "to play with the best players in the country, against the best players." The Blue Devils need him to score, but they also need him to help Rivers mature and thrive, to get Dawkins open threes and to get the Plumlee brothers involved. Curry is the one charged with making this all work.
Balancing the bigs: The bulk of the preseason attention (and I am as guilty of this as anyone) is on Duke's backcourt, but Krzyzewski is bullish on his frontcourt, telling me, "Our strength right now is our big guys." Junior forward Ryan Kelly was the leading scorer on the China trip, but Mason and Miles Plumlee have made huge gains in the workouts and practices since then. Krzyzewski seems to think Miles, who had somewhat of a mediocre junior year, can be an impact player in the post. "The last couple of years, we've been a perimeter team, but this year, our big guys need to touch the ball," he said. "They're good enough to play with anyone in the country."
Part of the responsibility is on the backcourt, to run the offense through the post, and part of it is on the bigs to call for the ball, which they weren't doing with consistency during Tuesday's practice, to Krzyzewski's dismay. "We said we want to establish the bigs," he told them. "Well, the bigs also have to establish the bigs."
The youngest of the three Plumlees, 6-11 freshman Marshall, actually established his presence quite well -- not by calling for the ball but by infuriating Mason to the extent that they started screaming at each other and attempted to get in a fistfight. This was by far my favorite part of practice: One moment, the forwards were battling for position; the next moment, an awesome, brotherly brawl was breaking out, with Mason being restrained from landing punches. Marshall may have to redshirt due to lack of available minutes, but he should play an important role by making his older brothers battle every day.
The underappreciated guard: I probably made a mistake in leaving Dawkins off my list of the country's top shooters. (Curry, who shot 43.5 percent last year, did make the top 16.) Dawkins, who hit 42.7 percent of his treys last season, seems capable of getting in the high 40s, given the open looks that will result from Duke's three- and four-sharpshooter lineups. One thing I noticed on Tuesday was how advanced Dawkins' footwork on catch-and-shoot situations is compared to the still-green Rivers. Dawkins almost always receives the ball with his feet perfectly square to the rim, in position to rise and fire. Against a recovering defender, that can make the difference between getting a clean, uncontested look and having to pass up a shot.
Expect Duke to start three guards -- Curry, Rivers and Dawkins -- with the older Brothers Plumlee in the post and Kelly coming off the bench as a super-sub. Other options would be to start Kelly at the four against a team with only one post/rebounding threat, or use him at the three against an oversized opponent. Sophomore Tyler Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook will battle for backup point guard duties; Thornton, due to his defensive intensity and experience level, should be considered ahead in that race for now. Sophomore Josh Hairston looks like he'll be the second forward off the bench, in a play-defense-and-soak-up-fouls role, while the Third Plumlee, Marshall, could be a redshirt candidate. Savvy freshman wing Alex Murphy seems to have a promising future -- I wouldn't be shocked to see him starting at the three-spot next season if the Blue Devils don't land top recruit Shabazz Muhammad -- but it's unclear if Coach K's rotation will expand enough to allow Murphy to get quality minutes this year. If it goes nine-deep in ACC play, then Murphy has a shot.
When Krzyzewski told me, "We can be a very good offensive team," I took that to mean that Duke can be a very good offensive team, but that they might struggle to match the quality, perimeter defense they've played over the past few seasons. The Plumlees should be stingy around the basket, but the Blue Devils are bound to take a defensive hit after losing hardworking stars Smith and Kyle Singler. Will they compensate for it with their long-range shooting arsenal, or take a step back from last year's 32-5, Sweet 16 effort? I attended a rough practice, but seeing Krzyzewski early in his process of digging into a team, then psychologically building them back up -- and into something new -- was worth the trip. Duke hasn't proven anything yet, but when K's latest project is complete, it could easily be one of the top five teams in the country.