Last year, eight was enough for Duke. This year, even though it’s still early, Mike Krzyzewski has already established a solid rotation playing a minimum of seven guys and sometimes an eighth.
The coaching staff, along with the players, will be evaluating their performances to date during this exam week break. Here’s a quick look at how each contributor for No. 8 Duke (8-1) has fared thus far. Players are listed in order of descending playing time.
Allen has been everything the Blue Devils could have hoped he would be (save for one bad performance against Kentucky). It’s easy to forget that, as a freshman, Allen averaged just 9.2 minutes and 4.4 points per game. Compare that to what he has done this year through nine games: 21.8 points per game in 33.6 minutes, and he is the Blue Devils’ go-to option, using more than 25 percent of Duke’s offensive possessions when he is on the floor.
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Allen does more than drive in a straight line to the basket and score reliably – he also leads Duke with 3.0 assists per game and set a new career-high for rebounds with 11 last time out against Buffalo.
“Grayson has been excellent, obviously,” Krzyzewski said after Duke beat Utah State. “He has probably been one of the better players in the country, not just on our team.”
While Jones figured to at least be a sentimental leader due to his upperclassman and captain status, he has contributed significantly on the floor, too. Jones is averaging 30.8 minutes per game – up from 21.7 last year – and 13.3 points per game, too. He has had to play point guard far more than expected, as freshman Derryck Ingram has not been ready to claim that job full time (more on that below). Jones is a defensive anchor on the perimeter for Duke, too, especially since Allen tends not to communicate well on that end of the floor. Krzyzewski has said several times that he is worried about Jones getting too worn out – it would help significantly if Thornton could start taking more minutes at the point.
In past years, Jefferson has been a piece easy to overlook, and he was replaced by Jones midway through last season in the starting lineup. This year, though, Jefferson has been a vital piece of Duke’s frontcourt. Jefferson is pulling down an average of 4.78 offensive rebounds per game, a stat that ranks just behind Baylor’s Rico Gathers among high-major players. Most of his 11.4 points per game come via offensive rebounds.
“Amile has been an outstanding player for us,” Krzyzewski said after the Indiana win. “He is averaging a double-double, he is one of the top offensive rebounders in the country and we don’t set anything up for him.”
It was a slow start for Ingram, as the freshman had a rough adjustment to the physicality of the college game. But in Duke’s two most recent games against Indiana and Buffalo, Ingram has found his rhythm and looked more like the projected lottery pick that he is expected to be this spring, averaging 23.5 points and shooting 60 percent from the floor. His length, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, is an issue on both sides of the floor.
There’s no reason to expect for Ingram to do anything other than continue to build on those two strong performances. Perhaps Duke found the way to best maximize his potential before the Indiana game: assistant coach Nate James put him through a tough post-dinner workout before the 9:30 p.m. tipoff. That way, when the ball was tipped, Ingram was already warm and ready to go.
Like Jefferson, Plumlee has grown into a significant contributor. His 25 minutes per game average is way up from last year (9.6), and he has proven to be a capable defender, which is the role Duke most needs him to fill. According to Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, the Blue Devils are significantly better defensively when playing two big men (almost always Jefferson and Plumlee) as opposed to just one. With two bigs, the Blue Devils give up an average of 0.92 points per possession. With just one, that number rises to 1.03.
Plumlee was also the only reason the loss to Kentucky wasn’t a blowout, as he singlehandedly kept the Blue Devils in it early with the team’s first nine points off of four offensive rebounds and a three-point play from the foul line. While the 74-63 loss was painful, the experience was invaluable.
“We just learned so much from those games, especially the Kentucky game,” Derryck Thornton said. “They really brought it to us. Since then, we’ve really turned it around and been playing a lot harder.”
In an ideal world, Thornton would be Duke’s unquestioned point guard, averaging north of 30 minutes per game. But in reality, the fact that Thornton couldn’t be on campus with the rest of the team this summer put him significantly behind developmentally, and he is still working to catch up to them. Currently, Thornton is averaging 8.6 points and 2.7 assists in 24.9 minutes off the bench.
Krzyzewski has been quick to publicly praise Thornton, unprompted, whenever he gets the chance. It’s clear that he’s trying to do what he can to instill confidence in the young guard. The ceiling for this team is limited with Jones at the point. And it’s much higher if Thornton can grow into that role.
“Overall, he’s done a good job,” Krzyzewski said of Thornton after the Buffalo win. “We wouldn’t have won in New York (against VCU and Georgetown) without him. Today, he was a huge contributor to us winning. He’s young. He didn’t have the summer to transition, so that makes him even younger. So, we’re happy with him.’
Entering the season, Krzyzewski figured Duke’s best sources for offense would be Allen, Ingram and Kennard, with Kennard definitely third on that list. The freshman had one standout game, against Utah State, where he shot like he did in high school, pouring in 22 points on a 7-for-9 shooting performance. In Duke’s four games against top-40 opponents, according to Ken Pomeroy (Kentucky, VCU, Georgetown and Indiana), Kennard is averaging 4.8 points in 17.5 minutes.
Kennard could take a similar trajectory as Allen did last year, coming on strong late in the year. Once he figures out how to speed up his game to the college level, he should become a productive scorer.
Krzyzewski has made a point to say that he has eight guys that should consider themselves starters, but Jeter averages just 8.1 minutes per game. And make no mistake, the Blue Devils would love to get more out of him, as he is the only true big reserve capable of playing. He’s not ready, though. Against a bad Buffalo team—which should have been a prime opportunity for extended minutes – Jeter only logged three, as back-to-back, ill-advised blocked shots on the offensive end limited him to just one first-half minute.
With Jeter not able to crack the rotation in competitive games, Duke will be forced to play Ingram at the 4 more, which isn’t ideal defensively, especially against teams like North Carolina and Louisville.