Last March, in the aftermath of the Blue Devils’ season-ending loss to Mercer, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski declared he would evaluate the way he teaches defense.
The result: keep it simple(r).
“There is a lot more teaching, and it’s a lot simpler than what we were doing last year,” junior captain Amile Jefferson said. “We have absolutes. We’re going to rebound as a team. We’re going to put pressure on the ball. These are things we are going to do each and every play. No matter what defense we’re in, no matter what we’re doing, we’re going to do those things.”
And Duke was in multiple defenses at Tuesday’s practice, the 11th of the preseason. The work day ended with an 8-minute scrimmage – that featured both units playing zone.
Krzyzewski told a group of observers from Duke Children’s Hospital facing a zone could help players learn better shot selection – maybe a player sets his feet better and becomes more accurate against a zone. Play him back film of that, and maybe the habits translate to when he faces a man-to-man defense, too.
But maybe the Blue Devils will play more zone this year – or maybe not. Krzyzewski and several players emphasized the young group was a work in progress. There has been a lot of teaching throughout the summer and early fall, stopping drills and showing players the proper technique and positioning.
The Blue Devils won’t be perfect, and Krzyzewski knows that. He doesn’t have a team full of seasoned veterans, guys like Shane Battier (who was in attendance Tuesday), guys who learned for four years from the upperclassmen who proceeded them.
“I’m more open,” he said. “The level of play will probably never like it has been in the past. How could it? But as long as it’s better than the level of play than the person you’re playing against, that’s our goal.”
To that end brings the focus on rebounding. Mistakes earlier in a defensive position can be nullified if the Blue Devils can get the rebound at the end. And if Duke’s perimeter players can join in on the board-crashing effort, more fast break opportunities can result.
Of course, the perimeter players won’t have to rebound all on their own. The nation’s No. 1 incoming recruit, 6-foot-11, 270-pound Jahlil Okafor, will provide a huge boost in that endeavor.
“He takes up a lot of space, and he moves his feet really well, so that’s the best thing,” Jefferson said. “We can do things like ice the ball screens. It really helps our guards a lot because he moves so well. When a big comes out for a screen, he can jump out and then recover. And he’s so good at the ball, he blocks shots. He’s a rim protector. It helps our guards get up into the ball more. And it helps our defense feel more confident.”
Okafor rejected a few shots in practice Tuesday, an element that was completely absent from last year’s squad. Often after his swats, his team would move quickly up the other end of the floor. And at the end of practice, when he was paired with Tyus Jones, Matt Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow – four freshman and one sophomore – the young ones trounced the team Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, Semi Ojeleye, Marshall Plumlee and Jefferson 36-22.
If the young guys can figure out how to do that – win – on a consistent basis, everything else should fall into place just fine.