With four college level ready freshmen enrolling, the last few months have been ripe with speculation regarding Duke’s potential rotation. After several weeks of practice and the team’s first public exhibition, it seems as though we know who will be the starting five. At least for now.
Currently the Blue Devils’ starting lineup consists of Tyus Jones, Matt Jones, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson, and Jahlil Okafor. That was the White team in the annual Blue-White scrimmage, and the group head coach Mike Krzyzewski tabbed as his starting five at this early juncture.
“We tried to look at different combinations,” said Krzyzewski after the game. “The guys in the white in the first groups are the guys who are playing a little bit better together. We tried to keep that group with Tyus [Jones], Jahlil, and Justise, and Amile [Jefferson] and Matt [Jones] really fit in well.
It’s certainly a dramatic change from the end of last season when Duke started Jefferson along with Rasheed Sulaimon, Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, and Tyler Thornton. Hood and Parker were both drafted into the NBA, while Thornton graduated and is now coaching at Marquette.
All told the new starting five has played a combined 1436 minutes, scoring 411 points over three seasons. That averages out to a 5.9 points per game as a group or a returning scoring average of 1.2 points per game per position.
And yet, Krzyzewski seems incredibly confident in what his team can accomplish.
“I like my guys; I’ve said that from the start. I am really happy with these guys. We just have to see how we will grow. The major thing is we hope we can stay healthy. Then, I think we will grow really well.”
Staying healthy is key and the offseason training regiment has been geared towards building toughness and, hopefully, minimizing the chance of injury. Still, there are positions on the court where an injury would certainly hurt more than others.
Two of the newcomers, Okafor and Winslow, are unique to the roster. Okafor is a true center with a seemingly never-ending bag of tricks to score, whereas Winslow is a powerfully built wing who factors in on both ends of the floor.
“[Okafor] is a dominant player,” said Krzyzewski. “He just makes shots. When he works even more to get some easy shots, then he will continue to grow. He shares the ball, too.”
“He has a great feel for the game and because he has such gigantic hands and great feet, he needs to have the ability to improvise. So we want that, but we would like to have a couple go-to moves. Today, he really faced the basket well. He hasn’t really been shooting his shot from the outside, but he can shoot it. He is a good free throw shooter. He will pass it, too. We have to be careful that we don’t just throw it in there and watch. There are going to be double teams, but we feel we can surround him with guys who can shoot the ball. He is a special player”
The primary shooter early on appears to be sophomore Matt Jones who spent the summer refining and improving his game after a somewhat disappointing freshman season. Jones came to Duke a year ago with the reputation of a perimeter marksman, but struggled to find his role on the roster. He eventually earned his way into 32 appearances largely due to his on the ball defense, but his offense never clicked as he hit just 3-of-21 three pointers for the season.
So why Will Jones be better this season?
The caveat to his incoming scouting report was that Jones was better as a spot up shooter than he was coming off screens or curls. That made sense as Jones played most of his AAU career with a dominant inside player (Julius Randle). Okafor will force defenses to double team and collapse around him, giving Jones the chance the find his spot - usually in the corner or outside the elbow - for an open look.
From a coaching perspective adding Okafor will pay dividends for Jones, allowing him to shake off the rough start to his career.
“A lot of guys in college have to find out who they are and be comfortable with who they are. I think he is really comfortable with who he is this season. He was that at times last year. There were times last year when he really helped us, but he wasn’t able to be as consistent as we think he is going to be this year.”
Jones’ backcourt mate, the other Jones, Tyus, was recruited exclusively for more than three years by Duke as Krzyzewski’s preferred point guard. He looked the part on Saturday, handing out six assists in 24 minutes against just two turnovers.
While his numbers were solid, Jones’ real value can be found by looking at the players he played with from game one to game two.
In game one with Jones running the White team, shooting guard Matt Jones hit 4-of-5 shots for 10 points in 12 minutes. When Tyus switched teams? Matt went 0-for-2 from the field in 12 minutes. The same phenomenon hit Sulaimon as well. Without Tyus Jones the junior went 2-of-4 from the field and scored six points. With Jones? 5-of-8 for 16 points in 12 minutes.
The fifth starter, Jefferson, will benefit just as much from Okafor as he will from Matt Jones’ improvement and Tyus’ floor vision. Jefferson spent much of last season battling opposing centers despite giving up as much as 70 pounds. This season, Jefferson says he’ll make a living on weak side rebounds and similar.
“He’s going to be banging down there and he’ll be such a presence that draws a lot of attention,” Jefferson told TDD. “That’s going to free me up to really attack the offensive glass and I’m going to pride myself on doing that. Jah is such a big target, that I’ll have a more space to find it easier hitting the glass.”
It’s a role that Lance Thomas played well during Duke’s 2010 title run, and Jefferson has the same sort of blue collar mentality as the current NBA forward. However, the current Blue Devil also provides another service for Coach K’s squad.
"I think Amile has a huge role on this team,” Coach K told the media in the preseason. “He is our best on-the-court communicator. He talks well. He understands the game well. It's a huge plus.”
Based on the first scrimmage the first player off the bench figures to be Rasheed Sulaimon, the scoring guard who was famously benched after a poor preparation season leading into last year. Those issues seem to be a thing of the past based on Saturday.
“I thought Rasheed played really well tonight,” said Krzyzewski. “All the kids played really well tonight, but Rasheed was excellent.”
The remaining spots in the rotation are certainly up for debate after those top six players. The primary big man back up will likely be Marshall Plumlee who will see a let down in competition when facing someone other than Okafor. Plumlee won’t be expected to score aside from cleaning up around the basket, and he’ll be asked to provide minutes in relief of Okafor and making opposing centers work by bothering shots and rebounding.
Cook figures to be the second guard off the bench. The senior, who is the team’s best shooter, may also push Jones at time for consideration at the starting scoring guard slot.
The rest of the rotational minutes seem destined to be split between freshman scoring guard Grayson Allen and power forward Semi Ojeleye, both of whom can play multiple positions and will push for minutes.
Starting Five Set For Now
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