Duke's sputtering freshman class must grow for Blue Devils to contend
- Harry Giles and Duke's star-powered freshman class have not lived up to the hype. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they have plenty of time to find their stride.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — About 47 minutes remained on the pregame clock Saturday when Harry Giles took his turn in the warmup line, whirled to the rim and elevated. The Duke freshman spiked the ball off the back of the rim and it bounded all the way beyond the three-point line, but the sequence featured the tantalizing violence and suddenness everyone expects from a person who is 6’10”, an immensely coveted recruit and possibly someone’s future No. 1 draft pick. When Giles later floated a sideline jumper over fellow uber-frosh Jayson Tatum, he held his follow through as he skipped off the floor, leaving you to wonder what might come next.
This came next: A perfunctory seven points and six rebounds in 19 minutes logged during the Blue Devils’ sobering 78-69 loss to Louisville. In this sport, one regular-season result can be entirely meaningless and assumptions made in January are often punch lines by March. But here is Duke’s reality on a glum afternoon for the program both inside and outside the Yum! Center: It is Jan. 14 and the Blue Devils have three ACC losses and they must face the prospect that the cavalry may never come. This was a preseason superteam cast as national championship favorites on the basis of a spectacular freshmen class performing spectacularly at some point, and nothing close to that seems close to happening. And unless someone unearths a totem with mystical healing powers from some dark recess of Cameron Indoor Stadium soon, there might be nothing to be done about it.
In the corner of a cozy visitors’ locker room Saturday afternoon, Giles tried to identify some signs that will tell him he’s back, or anywhere in the neighborhood of back. The consensus No. 2 recruit from the Class of 2016 contemplated his three knee surgeries in three years and searched for hints of promise in the recovery. His stamina was improving, he said. He was growing accustomed to physicality. His offensive game, he conceded, was “still coming along.” And as the optimism trickled out, the plunge into the ice water: “I’m still a long ways away,” Giles declared. “A long ways away.”
How long can Duke bear any of its vaunted newcomers being a long ways away? If the aspiration is the Final Four, Harry Giles must be a lot closer than that. If the hope is another title, fellow five-star freshman Marques Bolden has to be more than five-minute, zero-point, zero-rebound, one-foul option off the bench. There’s not as much reason to worry with Tatum, the multifarious 6’8” swingman, who has come back from an October foot sprain setback to average 20 points in his first four ACC outings…but neither can his team sustain many afternoons like Saturday, with 3-for-11 shooting, four fouls, three turnovers and zero assists in 31 minutes. (The one freshman that hasn’t had injury issues, Frank Jackson, has nevertheless shot 4 of 19 in Duke’s three league defeats so far.)
Duke’s most reliable inside presence, Amile Jefferson, watched from the sideline in a walking boot, day-to-day in his recovery from a bone bruise. The head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, presumably watched from a comfortable spot in North Carolina as his surgically repaired back continued to heal. Meanwhile, the freshmen that were supposed to complement star veterans and create a juggernaut created another dose of angst. “They’re still not up to speed,” interim coach Jeff Capel said. “Especially Harry, I’m not sure he will be up to speed for us this year. It’s just trying to get them better each day. I thought he showed some improvement today. Same thing with Bolden. Look, we need those guys. We need everyone on our team to play their butts off every day.”
The sound you hear is, perhaps, some inhabitants of Tobacco Road scrounging around for something stronger.
Though the ever-embattled Grayson Allen was booed from his first touch of the basketball to the moment he left the floor Saturday — literally, as one fan jeered him while somewhat ironically shooting a phone video of the Duke guard heading to the locker room — he’s the least of this team’s concerns right now. (To wit: Allen amassed 23 points and nine rebounds and earned postgame pep talks from Louisville coach Rick Pitino and assistant coach Kenny Johnson.) The Blue Devils entered the game 32nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, but seemed regularly befuddled by screen-and-rolls while also somehow losing 7-foot Louisville center Anas Mahmoud for multiple finishes at the rim. Mahmoud, a 5.8 points per game performer, finished with a career-high 17. And now Duke has surrendered a ghastly 92 points in the paint over its last two losses.
Such is the Blue Devils’ plight that Capel called upon 6’10” freshman Javin DeLaurier for seven minutes on Saturday, ahead of even Bolden in the rotation. DeLaurier’s last game action? Against UNLV. On Dec. 10. “We’re searching for guys right now, especially down there in the paint,” Capel said.
Duke was not a good defensive team entering the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, before it asserted itself on the way to a championship. A similar leap may be required this winter and spring. “It’s learning the ACC game, learning when to go, when not to, learning to play smart, to play without the basketball and talking — that’s a lot of stuff that people don’t write down in their strengths and weaknesses in recruiting profiles,” Allen said. “It’s just stuff that’s part of the game and stuff that’s not seen in the stat sheet. You have to see the game and feel the game better. It’s all about learning. It’s very tough for them to do that when they’ve been set back by injuries and not been able to practice.”
The championship pedigree was affixed to Duke based on the speculation and assumption that the gifted freshmen would contribute more than they are currently contributing. The Blue Devils will get consistent scoring and distribution from Allen. They will get exceptionally efficient production from burgeoning national player of the year candidate Luke Kennard. This was the expectation in November, though, even if the lead-dog dynamic is flipped a bit. This alone wasn’t what made Duke so fearsome. This alone likely won’t carry Duke to April.
And every game that passes with another nondescript effort from a glamorous recruiting class suggests that what Duke needs may not be what Duke gets in time.
“We have to change things, period,” Capel said. “We have to change it. Being close is not good enough. We have to change this.”
There is less and less season available for it. With a little less than two minutes remaining Saturday, Giles stood at the free-throw line with the Blue Devils’ odds of victory waning, if not extinct. His first attempt clanged off the iron. From the sideline, Capel caught the freshman’s attention. “One motion,” the Blue Devils’ interim coach instructed. “Follow through.” Giles’ next attempt splashed in. Maybe this was a simple moment of fundamental coaching, repeated every night, at any other locale in the country. Maybe there was something to the fact that Duke’s coach is still, in mid-January, in the throes of the ACC gauntlet, doing something as remedial as teaching a star freshman how to hit a foul shot.
“I just gotta do better,” Giles said after the game, addressing his performance in general. “There’s no rush. We got plenty of games left. Plenty of games left.”
He’s right about part of that, anyway.