From the Stands: Blue-White Game 2008

After a long off season that has included a number of recruiting twists and turns - not to mention an Olympic Gold Medal - the Duke Blue Devils took the floor on Saturday for the program's annual Blue-White scrimmage. Though it was just the second organized event for the team, there were some observations to be gleaned.

Perhaps the first and most noticeable observation has to do with the lineup that seemed to emerge as the five most talented players on the court. Of course drawing any kind of conclusion based on a game that was, for three players their first time putting on a Duke uniform, would be foolish. And yet on Saturday there seemed to be a clear consensus amongst those in attendance that in addition to returning starters Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson the Duke starting lineup could very well feature junior Jon Scheyer [a former starter turned sixth man] as well as Nolan Smith and freshman Miles Plumlee.

But will that group be the ones that open the exhibition season? What about the regular season? The answer probably hasn't been reached, and most likely the answer will change as the season progresses and matchups demand.

One of the most improved players happens to also be one of the most talented in sophomore combo guard Nolan Smith who spent the summer working out and traveling around with his former AAU teammate MIchael Beasley in Miami. Apparently the gym sessions with NBA players has translated into the 6-foot-2 guard looking like a new player - one that plays with confidence [dare we say swagger?] that seems to be infectious throughout his team. That certainly seemed to be the case on Saturday as Smith got into the lane with ease while also showing off a much improved jumper and a better command of the reigns on offense. Combining a refined offensive attack with his hallmark of tough defense and you've got a player that will certainly figure into the discussion of starting point guard.

Certainly returning point guard Greg Paulus will welcome the competition and, most likely, the ability to move to off guard at certain times during the season. Given the kind of range and experience Paulus has acquired in his first three seasons in Durham, it's likely that Duke can use the senior to extend the defense which will open up lanes for guys like Smith, Gerald Henderson, Elliot Williams, and Martynas Pocius to attack the rim.

On the wing the afternoon was all about Henderson, who many believe will be shaking hands with David Stern in June. The 6'5 small forward certainly looked the part on Saturday scoring at will on a variety of mid-range jumpers and powerful drives to the rim. What was most impressive, however, could have been his performance at the free throw line (9-of-9). It may not seem important, but with such a knack for getting to the rim, and hitting just 66% of his free throws a year ago, seeing such a performance is positive step forward. In addition to the free throw line, Henderson showed a confident and easy stroke past the three point line, while also making his presence known on the defensive end with several rebounds and altered shots from his small forward position.

Fellow returning starter Kyle Singler was just as effective and, like Henderson, seemed to be all over the court on both sides of the ball. One noticeable change in Singler is the weight he's added during the off-season. When he arrived at Duke, the Oregon native tipped the scales around 215 pounds. This year, however, he looks to be north of 230lbs and seems comfortable with the added muscle - especially when he's making a living in the post at the power forward position. Saturday saw him log 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 27 minutes. He missed just one two point field goal attempt (he was 2/5 from three) and seemed just as capable as last season at working off the dribble - a notable concern for any forward who adds so much weight.

The other wing guard position looks to have Jon Scheyer's name down as the starter. After spending the season as one of the nation's top sixth men in 2008, Scheyer looks to move back into the starting lineup as a junior. And while he won't be called upon to carry the scoring load most nights, he's proven more than capable of filling up the stat-sheet when given the opportunity. Despite his shot being off on Saturday, he still influenced the game to the tune of 12 points (5/11 FG), four rebounds, and seven assists.

Returning post Lance Thomas struggled from the field (1/8) and despite adding some more muscle, it's clear that his game will never center around being a center. Thomas doesn't seem comfortable with his back to the basket -preferring to face up and attack the rim and despite his height and athleticism he tallied just three rebounds in 25 minutes of action. Perhaps the arrival of two new post players and the return of Brian Zoubek will allow Thomas to move out of the middle and onto a power wing role at times this season - but that is only going to happen with improved performances on the glass from the junior.

Speaking of Zoubek...perhaps no player aside from Singler has added more noticeable weight than the 7-foot-1 junior center. Saturday showed Zoubek to be a much improved free throw shooter and he had a couple of nice put-back baskets. But, like Thomas, it was a concern that the biggest player on the court managed just three rebounds. There's still a tendency to bring the ball down once he secures the rebound, but that's correctable. The major theme for Zoubek will be remaining healthy this season - something he hasn't been able to do in the first two years in Durham.

Fourth year junior Martynas Pocius once again show cased a very good offensive game, and even showed that his defense may be coming around. Offensively he can get to the rim when he wants and his jump shot, which once resembled a hard hit line drive, now has a bit more arc to it - making it more reliable. For the day he finished 6/10 from the field including 3/6 from behind the arc for 19 points in 24 minutes. With Scheyer moving into the starting lineup, could this be the year Pocius moves into the role of providing instant offense off the bench for the Blue Devils?

Another 'extra year' player returned to action as well in the form of fifth year senior David McClure. In the year Coach K brought in the ultimate intangibles guy [assistant coach Nate James] to the coaching staff, McClure seems to be channeling his new coach's M.O. by doing all the little things that help his team win. Rebounding? Check Getting garbage buckets? Check. Running the floor and following up? Check. Able to guard wings and even the post? Check. While he's not likely to score a ton of points, McClure is the kind of glue guy that has thrived under Coach K in the past and seems to be comfortable taking that role.

The most anticipated debuts were those of the three freshmen - Plumlee, Olek Czyz, and Elliot Williams. Though Williams was the only McDonalds All-American in the group, it was Plumlee who stole the show and had Duke fans buzzing. The 6'10, 230 pounder is immediately Duke's most fluid and agile big man (aside from Singler who is considered a power forward), which could serve him well as he attempts to leapfrog several upperclassmen into the starting lineup. Defensively he's not afraid to mix it up on the boards or in the air while blocking shots. It may have just been an isolated incident, but if you were making predictions based on one open scrimmage you'd have Plumlee penciled in at the center position.

Classmate and projected big man Olek Czyz showed some of his off the charts athleticism in the warm-up line with some impressive throw downs. It was his athleticism and coach-ability that earned rave reviews from many recruiting analysts throughout the nation. When the game started, however, fans learned why those same experts have estimated it will take the Reno native a while to crack the regular Duke rotation. Still, with a solid 6'7, 240lbs frame and a hard-nosed attitude in the paint, it's likely Czyz will earn some minutes against big, strong opponents.

Finally there's Elliot Williams - the newcomer with the burden of being the latest McDonald's game alum to matriculate to Durham. With that title comes all kinds of expectations from a fan base used to having immediate impact players. As Krzyzewski said in his post game news conference, this was just the second collegiate practice of the season and Williams looked to be finding his role on the team. With so many upperclassmen it's likely the 6'4 scoring guard will have to earn his time on the defensive end before he factors into the offensive equation. That's always a culture shock for players who have spent the last few years finding their rhythm by scoring first, and Williams appears to be adjusting to that reality.


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