Duke starting to answer early questions

Duke guard Derryck Thornton, right, drives to the basket past Virginia Commonwealth forward Ahmad Hamdy-Mohamed, left, during the second half at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Duke guard Derryck Thornton, right, drives to the basket past Virginia Commonwealth forward Ahmad Hamdy-Mohamed, left, during the second half at Madison Square Garden in New York. AP

Four games into the year, Duke’s rotation is starting to take shape.

Games against Siena and Bryant are good for young players to get comfortable and for a team to begin to gel, but not so much for extrapolating long-term projections.

The 74-63 loss to Kentucky was better for that, though it’s important to remember that the Blue Devils won’t play a team as talented as the Wildcats for the rest of the regular season (North Carolina is good, yes, but the Tar Heels present a different challenge).

So after playing Kentucky Tuesday and beating traditional mid-major power VCU 79-71 Friday night, it’s safe to attempt to make observations and project them forward. The 1 p.m. tip against Georgetown (1-2) Sunday at one will add another meaningful data point to the set.

Derryck Thornton is this team’s best chance at a point guard

This was thought to be the case at the beginning of the season, but after four games, it’s clear this is true. Thornton graduated high school in three years but to make that happen, he had to finish his academic duties, which meant he didn’t arrive on the Duke campus until Aug. 17.

The coaching staff didn’t think he was ready to start at the beginning of the season. But after watching Grayson Allen and Matt Jones play out of position and fail to establish any sort of offensive rhythm, Thornton got an extended look in the second half against Kentucky. And coach Mike Krzyzewski liked what he saw.

Thornton’s efforts, which weren’t necessarily reflected in his second-half stat line – 1-for-4 shooting for two points with three assists and four turnovers in 18 minutes – earned him a start against VCU. Against the Rams, he scored 19 points, shooting 7-for-11 from the field with four assists, three turnovers and two steals. But again, it was the intangibles that had Krzyzewski talking.

“What Derryck brought tonight, he brought a personality,” Krzyzewski said. “His talk, he looked strong, and he played that way. Even if there was a mistake, it never rattled him. What he is doing, he’s earning the respect and even more confidence of his teammates. That’s something different – he brings something different to our team. It’s not just being a point guard, it’s not being afraid.”

In competitive games, expect a seven-man rotation

At the beginning of the season, Krzyzewski warned everyone that freshman big man Chase Jeter, a five-star recruit, was facing a learning curve. That became apparent in a big way against Kentucky, as Jeter racked up three fouls in four minutes. He did not play against VCU.

Just two players came off of Duke’s bench – Grayson Allen, who scored 30 points, and Luke Kennard, who continued to struggle to score (0-for-9 from the field in the last two games) but nonetheless earned praise from Krzyzewski for his 20 minutes of work.

“Luke played a really good game, and he didn’t hit a shot,” Krzyzewski said. “We have confidence in him. What we’re trying to show him is that it is more than hitting a shot. Be a good player. And he was a good player. The shots will come.”

If Marshall Plumlee or Amile Jefferson need a break, Duke’s best option is to go small

Early in the second half – at the 17:45 mark, to be precise – Duke’s lineup consisted of Thornton, Allen, Matt Jones, Ingram and Plumlee. The next substitution was Jefferson relieving Plumlee, and then Kennard entered for Ingram, leaving Jefferson with four guards. Duke played with that combination until there was 5:27 left in the game. Over the course of that span, the Blue Devils went from down five to up by 12.

There’s no question that Duke has the most talent on the perimeter and a shortage of depth in the frontcourt. So, against smaller teams like VCU, there is no reason to do anything other than play to strengths and get the best combination of talent onto the floor.

“We have to develop into a team,” Krzyzewski said. “We are not a team yet. We are very much developing into a team. And so all these situations help us.”

And the one Sunday against Georgetown will further that development process.