What a difference a true center makes.
Last year’s experiment of playing without a big man is done, retired and stuck in a corner of Mike Krzyzewski’s brain where it can collect dust for the next few months. It won’t be needed this season, not with the nation’s consensus top recruit, Jahlil Okafor.
With Okafor in the middle, defenses must constantly account for him. And if it’s a defense that doesn’t have a solid option to guard him one-on-one – that will be the case for most defenses Duke faces – then it’s going to take more than one person to keep track of Jah, as he’s called.
That will leave one Duke player accounted for.
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In a 115-58 exhibition win against Livingstone, Matt Jones was most often the player left open, and he took full advantage. Jones – who was 3-of-21 from 3-point range last year – was 4-for-4 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Duke players and coaches have been raving about Jones’ improvement, and the sophomore was more upbeat during practices open to the media. Jones was in what’s right now the starting five, along with Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson and Okafor.
Whoever fills the off-ball guard spot – Jones, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon would be the main candidates – is going to need to reliably knock down shots. Tuesday night, Jones certainly looked the most capable.
Jefferson benefited from the Livingstone defense collapsing around Okafor, leading to open chances around the rim. Twice Jefferson was able to run the floor and get behind the defense on a fast break – that, too, can be a move Duke uses against more capable opponents.
Jefferson finished with 10 points, 3 of 3 from the field and 4-of-4 from the line. He also added a team-high eight rebounds and two assists.
Early on, Okafor displayed a nice passing touch, something he hadn’t flashed in the Countdown to Craziness scrimmage. He’s capable of finding the open man along the perimeter, as well as collecting offensive rebounds and finishing around the rim. His final stat line: 15 points, 6 of 7 from the field with five rebounds.
Tyus Jones ran the offense effectively, finishing with 11 assists against just one turnover, which came on a Hail Mary-type pass attempt late in the second half. As a team, Duke shared the ball well, recording 25 assists on 34 made baskets.
Duke used a platoon in the first half, with the starters taking two shifts totaling nine minutes and the reserves – Quinn Cook, Grayson Allen, Rasheed Sulaimon, Semi Ojeleye and Marshall Plumlee – ran two shifts that totaled 11 minutes.
The starters went 12 for 19 (63.2 percent) from the floor and 5-for-6 from 3-point range, while the reserves went 4 for 17 (23.5 percent) from the floor, 2 for 11 from 3-point range. The reserves did cash in from the line, where they had plenty of chances thanks to the bonus, hitting 11 of 14.
After the first 20 minutes, Duke was up 56-14.
Don’t expect to see that during the season – coach Mike Krzyzewski said he wanted to give guys pretty equal playing time. It’s been a good preseason, with no guys missing practice because of injuries or sickness.
Jones was by far the best option for the reliably hit open shots role.
(Sulaimon played a team-low 14 minutes because “he didn’t play wall,” Krzyzewski said). Jones is a good, not great 3-point shooter, Krzyzewski said, but if he can take great shots, he makes himself better.
Jones doesn’t need the ball long – a plus when playing with more talented offensive teammates. He finished with 17 points, 6 of 10 from the field and 5 of 8 from 3-point range. He is shooting with confidence, and, thanks to Okafor, plenty of space.