It’s clear at this point, that Duke isn’t going to be the juggernaut everyone thought it would be, way back when before the season started. Injuries of varying degrees early in the season, not to mention Grayson Allen’s self-inflicted drama, deprived Duke of both the talent it was counting on and the opportunity to meld it into a cohesive unit.
Thirty-two games and 24 wins into the season, one of each into the postseason, Duke still has no idea what kind of team it is, let alone wants to be, and is in a race against time to figure it out.
“Every game is different,” Duke guard Matt Jones said. “It’s just been a weird year for us. It’s almost like we take it game by game, just try to grind it out now. I can’t be the person to give us an identity. I don’t know what it is, but I know we can make it work.”
All of which made Wednesday’s 79-72 win over Clemson, beyond the drama of an ACC tournament game that came down to the final minute, both a step forward and a step back. Frank Jackson continued to develop as a go-to option and Jayson Tatum appears to have figured out his proper role in the offense, while Grayson Allen continued to befuddle, both with his play and his impulse control.
To be its best, Duke needs all four of its scorers – Allen, Jackson, Tatum and Luke Kennard – contributing. It had three going on Wednesday, each with 20 points, but not Allen. He was held scoreless for the first time since the 2015 NCAA tournament and picked up his fourth technical foul of the season – for the triple whammy of slamming the ball to the floor, swearing in the general direction of an official and, possibly, just being Grayson Allen – while playing only 12 minutes.
“I just need to play better,” Allen said. “It’s simple.”
It’s hard to figure out what was more concerning for Duke: Allen’s continuing inability to make a shot or his continuing inability to avoid making a scene. This technical foul was mild, and had the feel of being driven by his reputation as much as his actions, but Allen really should know better than to tempt fate by this point.
He’s clearly not fully healthy – he has a total of 16 points in Duke’s past three games – but Duke needs him both physically and mentally sharp to make a postseason run, whether that’s here in Brooklyn or in the NCAA tournament, and more acutely, to get past Louisville on Thursday. Duke can’t do this without him.
“If we can get Grayson to be Grayson, that’s how we’re going to get better,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
But that’s the way it’s been all year. Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Jayson Tatum were all injured to varying degrees to start the season, Allen has missed time through injury and suspension and Amile Jefferson has never been able to fully shake the foot injury that kept him out for almost all of last season, not to mention Krzyzewski’s midseason absence.
This Duke season has been a constant shuffling of the deck, and even now that most of the pieces appear to be in place, the uncertainty surrounding Allen continues to hold the Blue Devils back even as the team moves forward in other ways.
Perhaps that’s just the new reality, in which case Jackson’s emergence – he has 73 points over the past four games – may be less about supplementing Allen and more about supplanting him. It’s impossible to say right now. Even Krzyzewski admits he doesn’t know “who we are, completely.” There’s so much in flux about this team, even at this extraordinarily late date, that anything is possible.
“Maybe we’ll develop a little bit more of an identity here,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve got another chance, let’s put it that way.”
Krzyzewski twice mentioned Tatum adding a new wrinkle to his game, a quick flash to the post that created two easy buckets for his teammates and would have added a third if Jefferson hadn’t been so surprised by the pass. It’s that kind of ongoing evolution, delayed from preseason to postseason, that will determine just how much of its considerable potential Duke ends up fulfilling.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock