Duke basketball practice priorities: Better defense, better chemistry

lkeeley@newsobserver.comOctober 10, 2012 

— The last time Duke was on the floor, the Blue Devils were walking off the court in Greensboro after a stunning 75-70 loss to Lehigh in their first game of the NCAA tournament. It was just the sixth time in tournament history a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed.

The last time Duke lost in the first round was at the end of the 2006-07 season, when Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas were freshmen. Three years later, that trio helped Duke win the national title. Their initial taste of disappointment fueled their later success.

As the Blue Devils prepare for their first practice Friday, they are hoping the turnaround this time is a bit shorter.

Who’s back: Duke’s foundation will be its three seniors: center Mason Plumlee (11.1 points, 9.2 rebounds per game), forward Ryan Kelly (11.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and guard Seth Curry (13.2 ppg).

Curry will be able to go back to a shooting guard role, which suits his game better than playing the point. Kelly is healthy after offseason foot surgery for an injury that caused him to miss the ACC and NCAA tournaments. And Plumlee spent the summer primarily focusing on improving his shot. Both he and Kelly attended the Amare Stoudemire Skills Academy and performed well enough to get invited to the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Invites went out to the top 25 players from other Nike skills camps.

Who’s not: Gone is Duke’s top scorer from last season, Austin Rivers. Rivers averaged 15.5 points and a team-high 33.2 minutes per game. His enduring legacy at Duke will be the buzzer-beating 3-pointer he made to stun North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Miles Plumlee also is gone. Plumlee averaged 6.6 points in 20.5 minutes. Both he and Rivers are in the NBA, first-round draft picks of the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Hornets, respectively.

Who’s new: Two McDonald’s All-American freshmen are expected to contribute immediately. Amile Jefferson, at 6-foot-8, 195 pounds, gives Duke a taller, longer wing player that the team sorely lacked last season. Rasheed Sulaimon is a 6-foot-4, 185-pound combo guard. Both were ranked in the top 25 of the 2013 class by ESPN.

Also new to the floor are two redshirt freshmen. Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee took a redshirt year primarily to get stronger, and both did just that, each adding 15-20 pounds. Murphy is another long forward while Plumlee will be able to help his brother in the post.

Practice priorities: Duke is looking for two starters to complement Curry, Kelly and Mason Plumlee. Ideally, either Quinn Cook or Tyler Thornton will emerge as main point guard, but both will see time at the position. Depending on whether the Blue Devils want to go big or small, look for Murphy, Jefferson or Sulaimon to fill out the starting rotation. In addition to size, Duke also will be looking for chemistry amongst its starters, something it lacked last year.

It’s not a secret that Duke was disappointed in its defense last year, especially on the perimeter. Duke ranked No. 251 in opponent turnover rate and No. 213 in steal rate. This year, with the addition of Jefferson and Murphy, Duke has more size and strength. And, unlike last year, the team has the options and added versatility with Jefferson. Marshall Plumlee and Josh Hairston will sub in for Mason and Kelly at times as well.

What they’re saying: “The main focus for the newcomers, and for Duke’s coaching staff, will be repairing the relatively shoddy defense the Blue Devils played in 2011-12. Sulaimon could make an impact here right away, but freshmen are always unpredictable. No, this restoration will require a total team effort.

“That’s a coaching buzz phrase, but one that is nonetheless applicable here. The offense will be there. Bank on it. Now everyone on this team, from the perimeter in, has to get better on the defensive wing and on the defensive glass.

“If the Blue Devils want to live up to their typically high expectations – which means competing for a national title, and nothing less – then that’s the key. It really is that simple.”

– ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan

Keeley 919-829-4556

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