Despite missing big man Amile Jefferson, No. 14 Duke found enough production from elsewhere to take down Wake Forest in Winston-Salem
Four days after opening Atlantic Coast Conference play with a blowout win over Boston College, Duke faced a tough road game at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons entered Wednesday having lost two of their last three games and ranked 89th in the country in point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule, but they nonetheless presented a big challenge for the No. 14 Blue Devils, who are still playing without injured forward Amile Jefferson.
Wake Forest pushed Mike Krzyzewski’s team but ultimately fell short of notching what would have been the biggest win of coach Danny Manning’s tenure. Duke deserves credit for securing a 91–75 victory against a team that will give league opponents fits in Winston-Salem this season. Here are three thoughts on the game:
Duke needs Amile Jefferson
The Blue Devils haven’t had Jefferson since the middle of December, when he fractured his right foot while diving for a loose ball in practice. There is no timetable for Jefferson’s return—he was expected to be sidelined for a month at minimum—but The Herald-Sun reporter Stephen Wiseman noted on Twitter Wednesday that the senior is now able to put weight on the injured foot. Whatever Jefferson’s status, it’s clear Duke needs him back sooner rather than later.
Jefferson is the Blue Devils’ best offensive rebounder and one of its top interior defenders. In two games against top-105 kenpom opponents since Jefferson went on the shelf, against Utah and Wake Forest, Duke allowed the Utes and Demon Deacons to grab 37.1% and 46.3% of their offensive rebounds, respectively. Compare that with the opposing offensive rebounding percentage the Blue Devils had allowed over all of their games entering Wednesday, 30.3%, good for 172nd in the country. Meanwhile, there was already evidence Duke would have a hard time corralling its own misses without Jefferson; in his nine games in 2015–16, the Blue Devils posted an OR% of 44.4% with him on the floor, compared to 33.7% with him on the bench, according to Hoop Lens.
Duke wasn’t a defensive stalwart even when Jefferson was available, but his absence thins its frontcourt rotation, compromises its ability to protect the rim and contest shots in the paint and forces Krzyzewski to get creative with lineups. Stud freshman Brandon Ingram has held up at the four, but the Blue Devils don’t have much depth beyond fifth-year senior Marshall Plumlee. Freshman Chase Jeter apparently isn’t ready to play major minutes, and transfer Sean Obi has logged all of one minute in Duke’s two conference games to date.
To be clear, the Blue Devils acquitted themselves well in Winston-Salem on Wednesday. Plumlee delivered in a big way: The seven-footer scored a career-high 18 points on 7-of-7 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots in 34 minutes (And it certainly didn’t hurt that Wake Forest’s leading scorer and rebounder, senior forward Devin Thomas, picked up his fourth foul with more than nine minutes remaining). Duke will need Plumlee to continue to anchor its frontcourt while Jefferson recovers from the injury. The good news is the Blue Devils won’t face any of the ostensible league title contenders in the ACC—Virginia, North Carolina, Miami—until the end of the month.
Luke Kennard has stepped up
Grayson Allen has extinguished any doubts over whether his scoring spree in the national title game last season was merely a fortuitous blip. He leads Duke in points per 40 minutes, usage rate, offensive rating and assist rate. He is Duke’s best player and one of the best in the country. Allen has, unquestionably, made “the leap” from his freshman to his sophomore seasons. But the emergence of another underclassmen in the Blue Devils’ backcourt suggests they may not need Allen to go for 20-plus on a nightly basis to win—or, at the very least, that they have another reliable scorer to call on in certain situations.
Luke Kennard scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting on Wednesday, marking his second-highest point total of the season in a game in which Allen battled foul trouble. The true freshman also came through with 24 points in Duke’s only other challenging game (Utah) since Jefferson got hurt. A five-star recruit in the class of 2015, Kennard arrived in Durham, N.C., amid considerable hype. But he’s exceeded our expectations to emerge as one of the Blue Devils’ top scorers. He entered Wednesday trailing only Allen and Ingram among Duke players with 20.3 points per 40 minutes, is sporting one of the nation’s top-30 offensive ratings, rarely turns the ball over and has knocked down 93% of his free throws, good for 10th in the country.
Allen is a star who should challenge for conference player of the year honors and Ingram is a projected top-three NBA draft pick who keeps getting better, but Duke can move forward knowing it has another skilled scorer and playmaker on the perimeter in Kennard.
Wake Forest is making progress
The Demon Deacons will wake up Thursday with a 9–5 record and ranked outside the top 100 on Kenpom.com. But those underwhelming numbers don’t do justice to the progress they’ve made in Manning’s second season at the helm. For one, Wake Forest already has notched wins over possible NCAA tournament teams Indiana, UCLA and LSU, and four of Wake Forest’s five defeats to date came against strong competition (Vanderbilt, Xavier, Louisville and Duke), including two title challengers in their respective conferences (Duke and Xavier). Wednesday’s game was closer during certain stretches than the final score suggests, as the Demon Deacons pulled within two of the Blue Devils three times in the second half.
In any event, Wake Forest is faring much better offensively this season—ranked 69th in adjusted points per possession after finishing 127th in 2014-15—even as Manning attempts to mold a young roster in arguably the toughest league in the country. Three of the Demon Deacons’ starters on Wednesday (forward Konstantinos Mitoglou, guard Mitchell Wilbekin and guard Bryant Crawford) are freshmen or sophomores, and they rank 304th in the nation in experience, according to Kenpom.com. Yet it’s obvious Wake Forest won’t be a pushover in the ACC in 2016. The Demon Deacons need to tighten the screws defensively—opponents have sank 49.8% of their twos, which ranks 214th nationally—and they’re giving the ball away too often. But Thomas rebounds well and excels at drawing fouls, Crawford is a savvy distributor who’s canning 41% of his threes and Mitoglou has made strides since last season.
This team is going to take its lumps against the best teams in the ACC, but it’s showing improvement under Manning and should only get better as its young core gets more court time. The Demon Deacons won’t push Duke and others at the top of the conference this season, and it’s probably premature to mark them down for an NCAA tournament bid. But they’re getting better.