Winning While Adjusting For Duke

The loss of Kyrie Irving will and has forced the Blue Devils to change the way they play. But can those changes guide Duke to the promised land of late March basketball? Guest writer Justin McTeer investigates.

IRVING'S IMMEDIATE IMPACT

Duke freshman Kyrie Irving only needed eight games to establish himself as one of the best players in college basketball.

In just eight games, he showcased everything that will likely make him a star at the next level—speed, quickness, court awareness, passing ability, scoring in transition and in traffic, and shooting with consistency from long range.

He went head-to-head with three senior star point guards in Jacob Pullen, Kalin Lucas, and Shelvin Mack, outperforming each as if he were the seasoned veteran and they were the first-year players adjusting to the speed of the college game.

Irving managed to have the best debut of any Duke point guard in the Mike Krzyzewski era, and he became just the second Duke freshman to score 30 points in a game.

In only eight games, Irving became the face of the No. 1-ranked Blue Devils even with senior stars Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler putting up great numbers. His game transformed the perception of Duke basketball from the slow-paced system that wins games by shooting 50 threes and taking (or faking, depending on who you ask) charges to the entertaining, high-scoring image the Blue Devils enjoyed in the late 90's and early 2000's.

Did we mention that Irving did all of that in just eight games—imagine what he could do with 30.

EIGHT IS NOT ENOUGH

Now sidelined indefinitely with a serious toe injury, Blue Devil fans will have to settle for imagining what Irving could do in a full season. They very well may need to settle for imagining what he could do in the ACC or how he could dominate the arch-rival North Carolina Tar Heels, because as it stands now, eight games of Irving in a Duke uniform might be all the college basketball world gets to see.

Irving is in a bizarre state of injury limbo right now after being sidelined with a serious (and freak) toe injury against Butler on December 4th.

There has yet to be an official diagnosis released by the school that goes beyond "serious toe injury," which is about the equivalent in the sports world of getting a "tummy ache" prognosis from your child's pediatrician. No timetable has been given for his return, and there have been no definitive statements from the staff regarding whether he is certain to return at all.

At first, talk surfaced that Irving was going to be day-to-day. Then, a month long hiatus looked likely in large part due to Duke's relatively easy December schedule. But Krzyzewski dropped a bomb when he said that Irving's injury could be season-ending following the Blue Devil's win against Bradley on December 8th.

Now in a hard cast and awaiting reexamination, new information about the injury has all but stopped, and speculation about whether or not Irving will play again this season has run rampant. At the very least, there is a significant chance that he will not return.

STILL THE ONE?

Duke is still the No. 1 team in the nation, having dispatched two significantly lesser opponents without Irving by a combined total of 72 points. But are they the best team in the nation sans Irving? Do they still have a truly legitimate shot at repeating as national champions?

There's no sugarcoating the fact that Duke lost it's best player with Irving. He was one of the Blue Devils' best scorers, their best distributor, and best free throw shooter. He was also their most athletic player and the centerpiece of their fast-paced offense. His 17.4 points and 5.1 assists will be greatly missed and difficult to replace.

Losing your best player is never a good thing—there's no way around that.

Fortunately for the Blue Devils, this team is built to take a hit in a way that last season's squad (which featured only three scholarship guards) was not.

Smith and Singler are proven stars with All-American caliber talent. In a season with few upperclassmen stars after last season's mass exodus to the NBA draft, Duke's captains are arguably two of the top five seniors in the country.

Singler has certainly stepped up since Irving's injury. In fact, he has seemed more comfortable with the pace slowed a bit in Irving's absence. He's averaging 19 points while shooting over 50 percent from the field in Duke's last two games, an improvement over the first eight games of the season.

Smith only scored two points in his first game running the offense, but he responded with a 22-point outing against St. Louis.

Duke's star duo combined for 43 points in the Blue Devils' last game. With Irving out of the lineup and Duke's offense shifting to focus on creating scoring opportunities for them in the half-court, that should be about par for the course during ACC play.

Reserve guards Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry will take a big leap in terms minutes and responsibility with Irving out.

Dawkins has been Duke's most improved player this season. He's made tremendous strides on defense (a weakness of his last season), and his prolific stroke is as sharp as ever—he's shooting 54 percent from behind the arc.

Taking Irving's place in the starting lineup, Dawkins set the single game scoring record for a first-time starter with 28 points against Bradley.

Curry's production was dwindling prior to Irving's injury—he averaged only 11 minutes and barley over a point in the three games before Bradley. In his first three games of the season, he averaged 23 minutes and 14 points.

Curry is now spelling Smith at the point and allowing Smith to play off the ball more often. He has experience running an offense, and he's shooting 48 percent from long range on the season. In Irving's absence, Curry is averaging close to double figures in scoring once again to go along with five assists in 26 minutes of action in Duke's last two games.

Miles Plumlee has also stepped up to help compensate for the loss of Irving.

After losing his starting spot in the second game of the season (the second time that has happened to him while at Duke), Plumlee is averaging double figures in scoring and close to seven rebounds per game over the last two games.

Duke is one of the deepest teams in the country. That depth has the talent and potential to fill in for Irving and keep Duke safe as this season's title favorite, though perhaps not the clear favorite they were with him.

THERE IS WORK TO DO

While Duke is as talented as most of the top teams in the nation even without Irving, there are still issues that will need to be ironed out if the Blue Devils hope to be title-worthy without their freshman star.

Smith is now the Blue Devils' primary ball-handler while Irving is out of the lineup. He's a likely first team All-ACC player and one of the leading scorers in the conference for the second straight season, but that won't keep many Duke fans from feeling uneasy about his ability to run the offense.

As a sophomore during the 2008-09 season, Smith overtook a senior Greg Paulus for the starting point guard spot. Though he started strong in his new role, he struggled early in conference play and was eventually replaced by Jon Scheyer at the point.

Having been a bit turnover-prone early in the season, there are certainly concerns that Smith will be able to successfully return to the point once again.

Are those concerns valid? Maybe, maybe not.

In his season debut as Duke's primarily ball-handler, Smith handed out 10 assists while only committing two turnovers. He also failed to hit a field goal. He upped his scoring with 22 points in Duke's next game against St. Louis, but he had nearly as many turnovers as assists. If the Blue Devils are going to remain title favorites, Smith will have to figure out how to combine his scoring prowess while distributing the ball efficiently.

At the same time, some of the concern over Smith's point guard abilities are a little unfair.

During his stint as Duke's point guard in the 2008-09 season, Smith was a sophomore playing the role of lead guard for the first time (even at Oak Hill academy, Smith primarily played off the ball). Throw in the fact that the ACC was loaded with elite point guards like Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Toney Douglas, Greivis Vasquez, and Tyrese Rice, and it's not surprising why Smith had a difficult time succeeding in his new role. The ACC won't be throwing players like that at Smith this year.

Simply put, Smith isn't the same player he was two years ago. He is now one of the best upperclassmen in college basketball, and he knows what it's like to fill big shoes. As Duke fans were lamenting the loss of Gerald Henderson to the NBA prior to last season, Smith elevated his game and surpassed all expectations. Anyone who thinks he's going to fold under high expectations is likely mistaken.

Smith isn't Irving in terms of his point guard acumen, but he's an All-American caliber guard with four years worth of experience under his belt—not bad for a backup plan.

Perhaps the biggest reason for alarm since Irving's injury is the decreased production from Mason Plumlee.

Plumlee may have been the biggest beneficiary of Irving's ability to break down defenses. Prior to "the toe injury heard round the word," he was putting up 10.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Without Irving in the lineup, he has only managed to average 2.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.

Plumlee's game doesn't translate as well in the half-court as it does in transition. He's built for the running game, but he doesn't possess a plethora of back-to-the-basket skills or go-to post moves.

Irving created a lot of easy scoring opportunities for Plumlee. Whether or not he can be highly productive without Irving in the lineup remains to be seen.

Despite Dawkins' fantastic starting debut against Bradley, he only had two points on two shot attempts against St. Louis.

Now an established scorer, Dawkins will get a lot more focus from opposing defenders from this point on. Previously, Dawkins got a lot of open looks as Smith, Singler, and Irving required most of the attention from defenses. He won't be able to hide in the corner and wait for defenses to forget about him.

There will be some ups and downs as Dawkins adjusts to being a higher priority for defenders. On the bright side for Duke, his shooting ability makes for some very high peaks to compensate for the valleys.

COPING

Pages and pages of analysis about how deep and talented Duke is doesn't take away the sting of Irving's potential season-ending injury. He's one of the most talented players to come to Duke in a long time, and the thought of his career in Durham being only eight games in length is certainly a downer for Duke fans, even if the Blue Devils are still the top team in the nation.

But Duke fans can still take solace in the fact that despite all of the speculation, Irving's return is still possible. It may not happen this month or even next, but it's still an option.

Apart from Irving, Duke fans should focus on what they have instead of what they may or may not have lost.

Whether or not Irving returns remains to be seen, but this is definitely the last season that Duke fans can enjoy watching Singler and Smith play. Those two deserve all the attention they can get this year, and Duke fans would be remiss to fail enjoying their respective swan songs in the midst of the frustration surrounding Irving's injury.

Even if Irving doesn't come back, fans should be ecstatic for what he's already done for Duke. He's helped make Duke more appealing to the kind of players the Blue Devils have been missing on for the last few years by allowing Krzyzewski to remind the college basketball world what he can do with NBA-caliber point guards. Make no mistake—recruits have already taken notice.

No matter what happens with Irving this season, he is and always will be a Blue Devil. He's already received more attention than most college players get in an entire four-year career, and he will likely give Duke an NBA star to point to when recruiting top point guards for years to come.

Barring another injury, Duke has enough talent to compete for a title without Irving if the right players step up throughout the season.

The best thing for Duke fans to do from here on out is hope for the best regarding Irving and enjoy watching one of the most talented teams Duke has fielded in a long time.


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