November is the time for hyperbole, but Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t quite ready to live in a fantasy world Tuesday night after his Duke team had performed well in an 81-71 win against a pesky, veteran, shorthanded Michigan State squad.
The question was about how Jahlil Okafor compared to Duke’s iconic big men—a notion Krzyzewski wouldn’t entertain.
"You have to win to be iconic," he said.
His honest assessment of Okafor, though, was telling, and it will probably cause coaches of Duke’s future opponents to shudder.
"This is a learning curve for him," Krzyzewski said of Jah, his one-name superstar. "Maybe by the time we start conference play he’ll really be good."
Okafor was pretty good early on—that’s an understatement—when Duke was feeding him down low often. The big man got a touch on the Blue Devils’ first six offensive possessions—and Duke scored on five of them (the exception came when Okafor was called for an offensive foul—part of that learning curve Krzyzewski mentioned).
This, Duke’s third possession, might be what the Blue Devils look like when they’re at the best offensively, sharing the ball and creating open, point-blank looks (it’s the first clip of the highlight).
Okafor is an old-school center, not some wannabe power forward obsessed with finesse and long jumpers. His first basket came off of a pick-and-roll he set for Justise Winslow along the 3-point line, with Winslow feeding it back to him down low. Okafor’s second basket came on a baby lob pass from Quinn Cook, left up around the rim for him to finish. His third was a little face-up jumper that banked off the glass—that one got the Tim Duncan visions rolling. His fourth—this was all in the 4:30 of the game, mind you—came on a reverse lay-up, as Jah used a left handed dribble to get around his man before finishing with his right.
Pretty good, indeed, Mike K. Dominant, even.
So, no, Okafor isn’t iconic yet—but Krzyzewski is willing to speak about his nearly limitless potential.
"Jah has a chance to be the best one," Krzyzewski said of all his true low post men. "The only two guys like him, are Elton (Brand)—and he still has to play really well to be as good as Elton, he was the first pick and the national player of the year. And then Booz ( Carlos Boozer).
"Those three guys are similar,’ Krzyzewski continued. "Jah is the biggest one, though. And Jah can pass the best. You can get it to him, and he draws attention. He just has to learn what he can do. He got called for a couple of offensive fouls, and people are going to bang on him. I thought he handled things well. People are going to play multiple guys on him. What they didn’t do tonight was double him. He’ll see that, too."
The Blue Devils got Okafor a touch on 11 of the first 20 offensive possessions that he played. Duke was up 32-24 at that point, with 5:45 left in the first half—and then Duke didn’t go to him at all on the next 10 possessions. That—ignoring Okafor for prolonged stretches—is probably not going to be a long-term recipe for success. The Spartans did cut the deficit to three as Duke fell in love with (and missed) jump shots, but the lead was back up to seven, 40-33, at halftime.
Of the first nine possessions that didn’t see Okafor get a touch, four were finished by Cook. He converted on all four chances, too, so it’s hard to fault a guy for following his hot hand. Still, thinking long-term, big picture, there probably won’t be many games—or any games—where Duke wants Cook to take more shot attempts than Okafor. Tuesday night, Cook led all Duke players with 12 attempts from the field, and Okafor was second with 10.
Everyone could laugh about it afterward, especially Cook, who broke into a huge grin when Krzyzewski, who was sitting next to him, said none of Duke’s players are hesitant to shoot. That works as long as said players are taking (and making) good shots.
***Speaking of Cook, both Krzyzewski and Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo were quick to praise him after the game. The senior led Duke with 19 points and six assists against zero turnovers.
"The guy I like is Cook," said Izzo when asked a question about Okafor and Jones, two one-time major Michigan State recruiting targets. "Cook plays hard and with energy."
There was no telling how Cook was going to react to Jones’s arrival, which came with the coronation of starting point guard, too. No one had more visible moments of immaturity last year (most notably throwing a cup of water on the bench in the Maryland game). But, as it was written earlier this year, Cook seems to have calmed down, matured, and welcomed Jones.
It’s easy to forget these college basketball players are still young guys—Cook is just now 21 years old. Thank God I’ve matured since I was 21.
"Quinn’s leadership has been off-the-charts good for us," Krzyzewski said.
***So we’ve covered Okafor and Jones, and it’s worth mentioning the third major stud Duke freshman, Justise Winslow. Not his most efficient shooting night—he was 4-of-11 from the field—but he scored 15 points and went 6-for-9 from the free throw line. And Winslow made two huge baskets, too.
Michigan State, which isn’t in Duke’s class talent-wise, but, after the first two minutes, the Spartans twice managed to cut the deficit to a one-possession game. And, both times, Winslow immediately responded.
It was 32-29 Duke with 4:05 left in the first half. Michigan State freshman Tum-Tum Nairn came off of a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, blowing by both Cook and Okafor—but he missed the wide-open lay-up. Okafor corralled the rebound and fed it to Cook, who quickly found Winslow open beyond the arc, and the freshman buried it, putting Duke back up by six.
Then with 12:19 left in the game, Michigan State again cut the Duke lead to three, 51-48 (I know the Spartans aren’t into moral victories, but it was impressive how they hung around for so long with just eight healthy scholarship players). On Duke’s next two possessions, the three guards—Jones, Grayson Allen and Winslow—did a nice job rotating the ball along the perimeter, forcing Michigan State to defend deep into the shot clock.
The first possession ended with a Spartans’ foul on the floor, and, off of the ensuing inbounds, the Blue Devils again were patient, waiting for the right opportunity. That came as the shot clock was winding down and Winslow had the ball—a nifty behind-the-back crossover allowed him to loose his defender as he drove the lane, making the lay-up.
The young Blue Devils never looked rattled, which was a welcome change from the deer-in-headlights persona of last year’s team when the going got tough.
***It’s no secret that Krzyzewski likes to play as short of rotation as he can get away with, basically. It’s been that way for years. In case you haven’t noticed, Duke has a plethora of shooting guards in Cook, Matt Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon and Allen. Tyus Jones played 31 minutes Tuesday and will likely average at least that all year, so there just aren’t many available minutes in the backcourt.
Sulaimon was sick, otherwise he would have played more than his 12 minutes (and just two second-half minutes after vomiting at half time), Krzyzewski said. Matt Jones played 22, and Cook was on the court for 36. That left one minute (two brief appearances) for Allen, and he didn’t help his cause by taking a wild, ill-advised shot in the lane during his brief cameo. Duke needs a shooting guard that’s going to hit shots (the role Cook filled Tuesday) and/or defend well (where Sulaimon and Jones can earn time). Allen, like most freshmen, has a lot of room to improve defensively.
Krzyzewski is also known for tinkering with his lineup throughout the season, so that should help keep everyone motivated.