A healthy Marques Bolden is big for Duke
Each blocked shot and each slam dunk brought the raucous crowd in the tiny Lahaina Civic Center to its feet.
Two years after arriving on campus as part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, a group that included future NBA first-round picks Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, Marques Bolden looked like he could join his former classmates at that level one day.
A 6-11, 250-pound center, Bolden had never had a day in a Duke uniform like he did last Tuesday afternoon on Maui. He blocked seven Auburn shots, equaling all the shots he blocked in his entire freshman season.
He scored 11 points, displaying power moves in the basket to score with authority. He grabbed nine rebounds.
“The huge difference, I think, in the game was Marques’ play, especially in the second half,” Krzyzewski said after Bolden helped the Blue Devils win 78-72. “Just for awhile there it was play after play.”
With each play, Bolden was, well, emboldened. He played with confidence he’d rarely shown over his first two seasons at Duke. The only non-freshman starter on a team that’s expected to ride the talents of newcomers R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones to success this season, Bolden played like more than a spare part.
“We’re a lot better, as you see, or as you saw today, with what he’s capable of doing,” Jones said. “We knew all along what he was capable of doing. We knew he could play like this. It was only a matter of time for it to come out in games. So hopefully he can stay like this and he can bring us to the next level.”
Though it didn’t stay like that even 24 hours, with Bolden producing six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes in Wednesday’s 89-87 loss to Gonzaga, his standout performance against Auburn still has his coaches and teammates confident he can be a major factor for the Blue Devils this season.
Bolden believes that, too.
“I mean I know what I can do,” he said. “I trust the work that I put in. So for me to come out and have good games it’s no surprise to me or my teammates.”
Prior to Tuesday, most of Bolden’s best work for Duke came in practice.
Krzyzewski pointed out a reminder on Tuesday that Bolden was in Duke’s starting lineup during October of his freshman season before a lower left leg injury sidelined him.
So Bolden played in 24 games with one start as a freshman, averaging 1.5 points and 1.1 rebounds.
Last season, Duke’s frontcourt was stacked with freshmen Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter, who became NBA lottery picks. A sprained knee ligament further stunted his development and Bolden finished averaging 3.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
“He hasn’t been the luckiest guy in the world,” Krzyzewski said. “And we’re proud of him because he’s stuck in there and we’re fortunate. These freshmen are fortunate to have him on our team.”
This is what Duke expected when Bolden arrived.
He was a five-star recruit who didn’t make his college choice until May 2016. Kentucky, Kansas, Oklahoma offered him and hosted him on campus visits. Duke assistant coach Nate James helped convince him to pick the Blue Devils and the rich got richer.
Or so everyone thought.
After two unproductive seasons he called “frustrating,” Bolden has started all six games -- twice as many starting assignments as he had over his freshmen and sophomore seasons. He’s averaging 6.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per game with 13 blocked shots.
“This is the first year he’s been healthy the whole time,” Krzyzewski said on Tuesday. “So he has continuity of preparation, shape, and it’s a big thing. It’s a big thing. He’s made the most of it. He’s really gotten in great shape and he’s taken great care of himself and as a result he’s good. And he’s good and he’s healthy.”
After his outstanding performance in the Auburn game, Bolden was asked about finally breaking out and silencing those who doubted him.
“I really don’t pay much attention to a lot of noise,” he said. “I know that my coach and my teammates have my back, so that’s really what matters most to me.”
When he wasn’t as effective against Gonzaga, Krzyzewski switched to a smaller lineup. It allowed Duke to erase a 16-point, second-half deficit before losing in the final minute.
For all he showed against Auburn, Bolden still has to prove he can be emotionally ready to play that way in every game.
“I think it was tough for Marques to come back from (Tuesday),” Krzyzewski said after the Gonzaga game. “That was such an emotional thing for him to play at that level and that well. And again, there’s some of youth in there, just handling all -- not that he wasn’t ready, but it just, it’s tough to get on at the same level when you are not accustomed to playing at that level. You showed you were so damn good and then it’s tough to do it 24 hours later unless if you’re, that’s who you are. So hopefully we can all learn from that.”