Grayson Allen left the ground somewhere between the top of the circle and the free-throw line, picking up where he left off in Indianapolis with a soaring, one-handed dunk.
On a night where so much looked so different for Duke, that at least looked the same.
By Friday’s opener against Siena, last season was left far behind for Duke, the banner already hanging in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not that the Blue Devils had any choice about it, not with all the players who left after winning the national title.
This is a team of unknowns, of uncertainties, born of a clean break with the past, headed blindly into the future, saddled with expectations that may not be fair given the overall aura of inexperience but are certainly achievable given the raw talent on display in a 92-74 win over the Saints. On Siena’s roster was Broughton grad Cameron Gottfried, son of N.C. State coach Mark and scorer of a late layup.
With Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones gone and a new, less polished group of freshmen in their place, there wasn’t much Siena could do to prepare for this particular Duke team, not that coach Jimmy Patsos was complaining.
“If you think I wanted Okafor and those guys, that answer was no,” Patsos said. “I was glad those three were gone. There’s no problem. I can adjust to the film without those three.”
Allen, expected to be one of the ACC’s dominant offensive players, delivered with 26 points, but even the expectations for him are based entirely on a few late-season cameos and his breakout performance at the Final Four. Only Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson are in roles they have played before, and neither is an impact player, but solid veterans who will step aside to let Allen and Brandon Ingram carry the offensive load – although Jefferson had a monster night on the glass against Siena, scoring 19 points thanks in part to five offensive rebounds.
Ingram is very dangerous and very raw, a high-volume shooter from just about everywhere who will make more shots someday soon than he did Friday. He makes plays, though – stealing the ball away from a Siena player after a missed Jefferson free throw for an immediate dunk – and finished with 15 points in his college debut.
With Marshall Plumlee in foul trouble, Ingram played extensively at forward, and it remains to be seen how his skinny frame will hold up against ACC-caliber forwards. That also led to more playing time for Luke Kennard, who finished with nine points while adjusting to the pace and style of the college game.
“They were more physical than we are, especially when we go young,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That’s the biggest thing our young guys have to get accustomed to. They’re going to play against people who are going to be more physically mature than them. That’s the difference between our freshmen last year and this year.”
Saturday did offer a few other windows into how this team will play. It’s clearly Allen’s team offensively, and no matter who the point guard may be, the ball will spend most of the time in his hands – and for good reason, since he shot from the outside and put the ball on the floor with equal alacrity, exactly as expected.
Ingram is the second option, and along with the returning players, that leaves essentially an eight-man rotation for Duke, with freshmen Derryck Thornton, Chase Jeter and Kennard coming off the bench, which figures to be the case for the foreseeable future.
Duke wasn’t really tested Friday, and the Blue Devils didn’t want or need a test this early, not with this team. Last year’s team would have savored the chance, but this isn’t last year.
“First game of the season, young team – I think we did pretty good,” Allen said.
It’s a new year, a new Duke team, one very far from a finished product but a little closer after Friday.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock