Dennis Smith Jr.’s emphatic dunk after the buzzer was a harbinger.
North Carolina State had just defeated the Duke and the Blue Devils seemed broken. Articles in the coming days detailed how they were disjointed, still learning how to jell on the court, and proposing the unthinkable notion that Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad would miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in decades. Sure, the team still had 15 wins, but it was under .500 in conference play and its overall game play was haphazard and stilted.
The Duke reeled off three straight wins, including one against Notre Dame on the road, and Duke appears reborn entering its rivalry game against North Carolina. What changed?
Krzyzewski and Associate Coach Jeff Capel, who led the squad as Krzyzewski recovered from back surgery, decided to alter the playing time of several Devils. The bench shortened dramatically — before the tweak, 26 percent of the team’s minutes went to the bench, but that rate has fallen to a scant 17 percent. Harry Giles is essentially the only big receiving any additional minutes, and Duke alternates between Frank Jackson and Matt Jones among the guards. Marques Bolden appears to be totally relegated to the bench.
Part of this is out of necessity — Chase Jeter has been sidelined due to the injury — but mainly the shift has resulted in a much more cohesive playing style.
Much-needed lineup tweaks
As many thought the team would do earlier in the season (but couldn’t because of health issues), Duke has gone small. Like, smaller than any Blue Devil team in years. Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson are mainstays, and Krzyzewski augments the trio with either Jackson or Jones and a revitalized Jayson Tatum at the four. By using Tatum in the frontcourt, rather than on the wing, Duke is not only able to take advantage of his rebounding and interior touch, but now Tatum is in better position to score.
Too often the 6-foot-8 freshman tried to create from the perimeter, and the ball would stick in his hands, either leading to a turnover, a much more difficult shot or delaying the offensive possession. Now, though, Tatum only needs to create around the basket, where he can use his quickness, innate skillset and body control to his advantage. The past three games, Tatum’s effective field goal percentage has risen to 57 percent (from 51 percent) and he has made 63 percent of his buckets near the rim (per Hoop-Math.com; his percentage in ACC before the past three games was just 52 percent).
This smaller lineup also plays to and heightens Duke’s scoring strengths. Kennard leads the team in box score plus-minus, per College Basketball Reference, and he doesn’t need much room on the perimeter to launch an attempt. But Kennard can’t carry the offense himself, and while his effective field goal percentage ranks second in the ACC, the team heavily depends on dribble-drives and perimeter movement to help create spacing for Kennard and the other Blue Devils.
Jackson is still far from his ceiling, but he is quick enough to penetrate gaps and find teammates waiting to step into threes (as he demonstrated against Pittsburgh), while Jones has transformed into the consummate playmaker atop the key. When he is on the floor, Jones most often directs the play, allowing Allen and Kennard to run off multiple screens and flares, which has the added bonus of manufacturing angles and other openings within the halfcourt. According to Hooplens.com, a lineup with Jackson — which has only played 50 or so offensive possessions — has an impressive efficiency margin of plus-0.32, while one with Jones is plus-0.29 (with a defensive efficiency of 0.85 OPPP).
This means that there is at least one other shooter — Jackson and Jones combine to make 35-percent of their threes in ACC play — on the floor on every offensive possession.
Now, Krzyzewski is only starting to depend on this lineup, but if Duke is to make an ACC run in February, this small-ball lineup will become the team’s offensive focal point: the past three games, Duke has scored a resounding 1.22 PPP, up from 1.04 through the first six conference games (discounting Georgia Tech, which was a blowout). The team’s defensive efficiency rate has stayed largely the same, but the subtle changes to the team’s offensive flow have been transformative.
More paint touches for Jefferson
The 6-9 senior might be Duke’s most important player. His box plus-minus (10.1) trails only Kennard’s and he is converting more than 50 percent of his twos while using just 17 percent of the team’s shot attempts. But there was a tendency earlier in the season to go away from Jefferson — the team has so much perimeter firepower, why go down to the big?
These past three games have revitalized Jefferson’s role in the offense. He hasn’t been depended upon to just crash the glass — the squad now attempts to flow the offense in part through Jefferson. Against Pittsburgh, he attempted 12 field goals, his fourth most attempts ever of his Duke career. He now receives at least one paint touch per possession, and he has become much more aggressive with the ball in his hands, either driving the lane, using his wingspan to get the ball on the rim (where Tatum is often waiting for the offensive board) or swinging the ball to the opposite side of the court.
By having Jefferson flash to the high post, even against a man defense, Duke is able to create perimeter mismatches. Jefferson is a skilled passer, posting an assist rate of 11.5 percent this season, and that fraction of a moment created by the ball movement is enough for Duke’s shooters.
This is just a small sample of Duke’s resurgence, and it is worth noting that the team’s offense improved against ACC opponents that rank in the bottom half of the conference’s defensive efficiency. But there is improvement, and the tweaks Krzyzewski and Capel made to the squad’s offensive execution had to be if Duke wants to contend against North Carolina and for the ACC title.