DURHAM — Remember when Duke opened its season with 15 consecutive victories, including three wins over top-5 opponents?
That’s all in the past now, as a key component to that early run, Ryan Kelly, is out indefinitely with a foot injury. Duke is a markedly different team without him.
“This is a new team,” assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said on his weekly radio show Monday. “The team went 15-0 was the team that had Ryan Kelly. The team without Ryan Kelly is 0-1. And so, the group that is healthy has to figure out how we win.”
Duke lost its first game without Kelly, 84-76 at N.C. State on Saturday. The loss was Duke’s first this season, and the Blue Devils dropped to No. 3 in the AP poll as a result. Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston, who took the bulk of Kelly’s minutes, actually exceeded his season average on offense with a combined 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocks. But Kelly was most missed on the defense.
C.J. Leslie, who would have been guarded by Kelly, scored a game-high 25 points. Fourteen of those points came while Hairston was in the game, seven when Jefferson was his primary defender, and six after Mason Plumlee switched on him for the final seven minutes of the game.
Jefferson was effective – when he played. The freshman was limited to 12 minutes because of foul trouble. Four of his fouls came while guarding Leslie, the ACC preseason player of the year. Three were when he left his feet under the basket.
“I’ve got to play better, I’ve got to do better,” he said after the game. “If somebody goes down, you’ve got to pick them up. Too many fouls, got to play stronger. I can’t let things like that happen. I’ve just got to make some adjustments, and I will be fine.”
Jefferson said most of the adjustments are minor, and he’s looking at Kelly’s game for inspiration. Jefferson said Kelly “rotates with the ball like it’s on a string” and also defends well without using his hands. Jefferson expects to be able to do those little things better with more game experience.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game he was pleased with the play of Hairston and Jefferson. He didn’t expect either to fully replace Kelly.
“It’s just that they just don’t know the defense and execution of the offense as well as Ryan does,” he said. “We’re not a great team with Ryan, we’re a really good team, but we’re better than our parts when we have all our parts together. You lose a part, whoever that is, Seth (Curry), Mason or Ryan, especially, and there’s going to be hiccups. It’s just the way it is.”
Duke announced last Wednesday that Kelly was out “indefinitely.” Despite a few attempts to put a more definitive timeline on Kelly’s return, Krzyzewski has been adamant that there isn’t one.
“With Ryan, it’s really an indefinite period of time,” he said in an interview the school posted on its website Tuesday. “And we’re not trying to be evasive, or anything, with that. We don’t know. If we knew, we would put a time frame on it. If you don’t know, and you put a timeframe on it, you create pressure that shouldn’t be created.”
Kelly was dressed in street clothes on the Duke bench Saturday. He wore a boot on his right foot and used crutches. Krzyzewski said he is using the crutches to reduce stress on his foot, and he is wearing the boot so that he can do underwater rehab work. When Kryie Irving injured his foot in the 2010-11 season, part of his rehab included running on an underwater treadmill.
“He can be worked on better on a day-to-day basis because when you’re coming back from an injury, it’s not just the site of the injury, it’s everything that leads to the site of the injury,” Krzyzewski said of Kelly’s boot. “And if you’re completely immobilized, then those tendons and muscles, they atrophy. You’ve got to keep them alive.
“So, he’s getting the best attention. But we don’t know.”
Duke’s next chance to test itself without Kelly comes Thursday in Cameron against Georgia Tech. After that, the Blue Devils will be back on the road at Miami, which boosts a long, athletic player at the 4 position in Kenny Kadji. The 6-foot-11 senior averages 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. It will be up to Kelly’s replacement to shut him down.
“If you take any really good team, if they lose one of their top two or three players, you’re different,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re just different. We just have to find out what that means.”
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley