Perhaps a main factor in many Blue Devil faithful wishing the season would hurry up and begin for real is the hugely unknown portion of the lineup. With four freshmen all likely to see big minutes throughout the season, many Duke fans were uneasy about the quality of product on display. Judging from Saturday's performance, it would seem that the new kids can play, and play very well.
Leading the charge was 7-foot-1 Brian Zoubek, who scored (27 points), hit the boards (10 rebounds), and defender (2 blocks) while controlling the paint against several opponents, including Wooden Award candidate Josh McRoberts. The Duke center showed off a very deep bag of post moves, and understands how to play as a true big man. He doesn't bring the ball down, and has a soft touch around the basket. In addition to his scoring touch, Zoubek ran the floor surprisingly well, and was active on both the offensive and defensive glass.
When he wasn't facing off against McRoberts, Zoubek was showcasing the possibilities of playing with him. Much as he did in high school (with Ohio State's super freshman Greg Oden), McRoberts seemed quite comfortable with a big man who set up shop in the paint, allowing him to operate from the three point line and in.
At a program that has long been dominated by guards, it would seem as though Duke has the potential to be very good by playing a bigger lineup as Zoubek (7'1), McRoberts (6'10), and new comer Lance Thomas (6'9) all showed the ability to play at the level head coach Mike Krzyzewski demands.
Thomas, who entered Duke with the reputation of a high-energy player, lived up to that in his first appearance in the Royal and White (and Black). At nearly 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Thomas has the kind of quickness the Blue Devil frontcourt has lacked ever since Luol Deng left school early for the NBA. While not nearly the all around offensive threat Deng was, Thomas showed toughness on the glass and does have the kind of midrange game that will keep defenders honest. Despite his string bean frame, Thomas showed no hesitation mixing it up with bigger (stronger) opponents on either end of the court.
Perhaps the most anticipated debut among the four freshmen was that of Gerald Henderson, who was nursing a hip injury. Even so, Henderson logged a solid 14-point effort while showing off the kind of agility and athleticism that made him such a high profile recruit a season ago for Episcopal High. Though there were no real highflying dunks on this night, there is a great chance those will come sooner than later.
From the most anticipated freshman debut to the most crucial -- with starting point guard Greg Paulus still sidelined with a foot injury, the Blue Devils are likely to play through the exhibition season with Jon Scheyer running the team. The 6-foot-5 Illinois native struggled with his shot on this night, hitting just 2-of-9 from the field (and 0-of-5 from the perimeter), but he did run the offense with a steady hand while minimizing mistakes. Scheyer finished with five assists and just two turnovers. Still, Scheyer is playing out of position at this point in time (he's a natural shooting guard who can play the point if necessary), and until Paulus returns he'll continue to moonlight as a point guard.
It's a Long Way To June:
By now everyone knows that Josh McRoberts passed up a chance to play in the NBA after just one season in Durham. And while he will no doubt have a chance to improve his draft status with a breakout season in 2007, there will no doubt be even more scrutiny than a season ago. Gone is the security of Shelden Williams (especially on the defensive end of the floor), which means McRoberts will have to sink or swim as the primary post player in the Duke system. On Saturday you could see the sophomore working hard to be more vocal with his teammates, but he also seemed to be trying to force the issue on both ends of the floor. For the night he finished with 11 points and five rebounds. Much like Scheyer, it's safe to say that McRoberts effectiveness will be largely dependent on those around him. If Zoubek continues his strong play, then McRoberts may be able to shine as a power forward -- a role he seemed most comfortable with. However, to cement his status as a top 10 pick in June he'll have to prove he can handle the responsibility of being a go-to guy for the Blue Devils. After Saturday, the jury is still decidedly out on that topic.
Sure they have a year or more in the program, but Martynas Pocius, Jamal Boykin, and David McClure are most unproven commodities. Boykin is all hustle and scrap, and showed the ability to do the kind of dirty work that shows up as rebounds, steals, and charges taken. Meanwhile Pocius' athleticism continues to scream potential scorer...unfortunately he's still having trouble on the defensive end of the floor. In fairness to both players, however, neither really had a chance to do much in meaningful games a season ago, which leaves them only slightly more seasoned than the four freshmen.
Third year sophomore McClure played the kind of inspired game that could bring to mind memories of players like Chris Carrawell and Nate James. At 6'6, McClure is able to guard positions three through five on any given possession, and can be a steady scorer on the offensive end. Saturday he finished with a full stat line of 8 points, 7 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks.
The lone veteran:
The only junior on the roster, DeMarcus Nelson looks fully healthy after Saturday. Despite struggling with his shot, Nelson managed to do most everything else well -- especially his ability as a perimeter defender. After two seasons with nagging injuries, California's all-time leading scorer appears ready to finally prove himself among the ACC's top guards. To do that he'll have to get his jumpers to start falling (he shot just 3-of-12) though. Still he further his reputation as one of the conference's best rebounding guards.
General Thoughts and Fearless Predictions:
No doubt it is a fool's errand to make seasonal predictions based on one public inter-squad scrimmage. None the less Saturday's showing did make a few things clear when it comes to preparing for this year's version of Coach K's team.
First, this team is very young and largely unproven at the ACC level. Only McRoberts and Paulus saw meaningful minutes throughout last year without incident (Nelson missed a third of the season with injuries). With that in mind it's likely that this year's team won't be your typical Blue Devil squad that has reloaded after losing some talented upperclassmen. Unlike 2000 (after Duke lost Maggette, Brand, Avery, and Burgess) and 2003 (after Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and Carlos Boozer left) there isn't a proven upperclassman presence like a Chris Carrawell, Shane Battier, Chris Duhon, or Daniel Ewing on the roster. Perhaps Nelson could evolve into that, but he's been slowed for nearly two seasons with injuries, and when he has played it's been out of position because the team needed him more as an undersized power player than a scoring guard.
In short, Duke still has the game's best captain guiding the ship from the sidelines, but on the court there are important roles that must be defined. For instance, if Duke is down by a basket and needs a big shot...who takes it? In years past that answer was easy. Now it's a huge question mark. While Duke should be able to cruise through the out of conference schedule with just one or two blemishes on the win/loss record, the ACC season will a whole new ball game for this team. How will the young players have established themselves in the Duke system? How will the team come together in light of that? How will this group react to the ACC's most hostile environments and high-level opponents?
With so many questions left unanswered it's easy to see why some preseason projections have Duke losing more games during the regular season than at any time in the last 10 seasons. Of course it seems as though every time a Krzyzewski coached team is counted out, they end up not only meeting expectations, but also exceeding them. This year could be no different. Duke is arguably more talented and better balanced from top to bottom than they've been in a long, long time. Sure, that talent is young, but with the game's top coach at the helm anything is possible.