Duke basketball is back. Well, not really, but fans will receive a glimpse of the upcoming season as the Blue Devils begin their Canadian Tour tomorrow. Duke will play a set of three games in a span of five days against talent north of the border. The Blue Devils are slated to take on Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, and McGill University.
Despite the Blue Devils having all summer to prepare for these games, you’ll have to take these games with a grain of salt while watching them. First and foremost, the Blue Devils are playing without two of their projected starters in freshmen Tre Jones and Cam Reddish. Even if those two were available, Duke, and any other program’s summer, mostly consists of conditioning and improving physically for the upcoming season instead of Xs and Os. Coach K probably touched on the playbook during the team’s limited time on the court but definitely not to the extent of a regular season game. With that being said, here are some things you can watch out for during Duke’s exhibitions.
What to watch for:
RJ Barrett’s competitiveness
If you’ve watched RJ Barrett enough, you’ve seen the remarkable talent he is but something aside from his skill that truly sticks out is his intensity and competitive mentality. The first time I saw RJ Barrett play, he dropped 38 points on coach Calipari and Team USA in a win for team Canada last year in the U19 FIBA World Cup. The same intensity and alpha-dog mentality he possessed in that game, he showed in the McDonald’s All-American Game, Nike Hoop Summit, the World Cup qualifiers this summer and his final season at Montverde Academy. I believe the kid has a killer mentality that supersedes any freshman one-and-done we’ve seen at Duke. He’s the type of player you still want taking the last shot of the game even though he’s 4-for-15 from the field. He’s going to be the best player on the floor pretty much every time he plays a game in a Duke uniform and he’ll let you know it too.
Zion Williamson’s role
With so much talent in this freshmen class, Zion Williamson’s role is a mystery as of right now. Does he play a glorified Justise Winslow-type role with this team or is he more than that? I don’t think Williamson gets enough credit for his game. He’s much more than the 360-windmills and tomahawk posters you’ve watched continuously on YouTube. He has the ability to be a playmaker and put the ball on the floor in addition to his rebounding and shot-blocking ability. He’ll have the opportunity to show off that skill with Duke missing two guys who can run the offense. With Jones and Reddish out, we’re probably less likely to see Williamson at the five but he’ll still provide mismatches for any big man at the four that is checking him. There’s not many big men in the country who weigh more than Williamson and the ones that do are no match for him in terms of athleticism. The big question mark for Williamson will be his ability to knock down the open jumper. If he hits that, good luck.
Signs of growth for Marques Bolden
Coach K has already heralded junior Marques Bolden as one of the best bigs in the country. The casual college basketball fan would disagree, pointing to his numbers but injuries and lack of opportunity have slowed him down his first two years. Let’s not forget, he was behind two top seven draft picks in Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Bolden became a solid option especially in the second half of last season and gave us short flashes of the player we thought he’d be out of high school. We’ve seen his ability in the post, a developing midrange game, and his defensive potential. Now with a vacant frontcourt, Bolden’s time to shine has come. He has no excuses this year. He’s one of the most-experienced players on the roster so you would hope he plays aggressive and look likes the veteran amongst the group, although he hasn’t had as much floor time as your typical college basketball veteran. Defensively, he’s got to be more vocal than he ever was especially when Javin DeLaurier isn’t on the court.
Man to Man Defense
Rejoice Duke fans, Duke is back to man to man defense (for now, at least). Obviously, Duke’s big issue last year was not being able to guard a soul in man to man defense forcing Coach K to switch to a zone defense, which was the right move with that personnel. This year, Duke is playing with four perimeter players on the court most of the time so let’s hope that won’t be a problem again. As I stated before, Duke hasn’t had enough practice time for these freshmen to be caught up but it’ll be interesting to see Barrett’s and Williamson’s natural ability on the defensive end. Both of them are more than physically-ready for the college game but the physicality is only a small part of defensive skill. I’m also interested to see how Jordan Goldwire performs at the defensive end in predominantly man to man this year as I believe he fits the role of a scrappy player who could earn spot minutes off the bench.
Secondary point guard/Playmaker
No Jones. No Reddish. Despite the small sample size, I think this is a good test for Duke to figure out what they’ll do for the few minutes Tre Jones is out of the game or off the ball. The top four freshmen were names Coach K threw out early this summer when referring to the possible ball handlers but this is an opportunity for Goldwire to show something. Barrett will likely handle most of the responsibility of running the offense for this week but Goldwire is guaranteed to get some touches. Even if Tre Jones is as good or similar to his brother Tyus, the 2014-15 team had an elite secondary playmaker in Quinn Cook and a solid third option in Winslow to lessen the workload on Tyus.