Thoughts, observations on the Duke Blue Devils

By Jeff Goodman | College Basketball Insider

DURHAM, N.C. -- Just as North Carolina doesn't have the look and feel of a vintage Tar Heels team, the same can be said for the group down the road in Durham. There's one given -- and that's the fact that Mason Plumlee will be the face of the program this season at Duke and should emerge as one of the nation's top players. Beyond that, there's no shortage of questions waiting to be answered.

We try and answer a few of those after spending Friday in Durham:

1) As if there were any question, this is clearly Mason Plumlee's team. "Our team knows it, and other teams know it," Plumlee said. "I'd be shocked if teams don't double-team me and, that's fine because we have guys like Seth [Curry], Ryan [Kelly] and Rasheed [Sulaimon] that can make them pay." A year ago, Mike Krzyzewski and everyone on the staff maintained the Blue Devils would focus on getting the ball down low -- but that didn't happen, as the entire offense was built around Austin Rivers. This year, it's all about the middle Plumlee brother -- and he looks like a different player, especially in the mental aspect of the game. He has that swagger back, which he seemed to lose at various times throughout his first three seasons. On Friday night, the team made it clear the No. 1 option was to feed Plumlee in the post. Don't be shocked if Plumlee winds up averaging 15 points and 10 boards this season.

2) Leadership -- Plumlee and Ryan Kelly weren't emotionally prepared to lead the team last season after the departure of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer. Plumlee is naturally reserved, and the same can be said for Kelly. Then freshman Rivers came in and was immediately the team's most talented and valuable player -- and the dynamic of the locker room just didn't click. Now, due to a combination of Rivers' departure and Plumlee's maturity, he has become a leader -- and it's already evident this group will follow him. Rivers wasn't going to follow Plumlee a year ago, but this cast will.

3) There are X-factors such as Rasheed Sulaimon and Alex Murphy, but the key to this team is sophomore point guard Quinn Cook. Everyone around this program knows it. He struggled mightily last season while trying to play catch-up coming off a knee injury, but the question remains whether Cook is talented enough to be the full-time lead guard for a Duke team that can make noise and be a legitimate factor in the postseason. Cook was really good at times Friday night, giving teammates easy looks. Then there were times when he didn't make quality decisions with the ball. The key for Cook will be consistency, because this team can't afford to have an enigmatic floor leader.

4) Plumlee calls the redshirt freshman Murphy the "X-Factor" on this team. "We don't have anyone else like Alex," Plumlee said, "when you combine his size, athleticism with his skill set." The 6-foot-8 Murphy gives Duke much-needed length on the wing. He still needs to be more assertive on the offensive end and become more consistent with his perimeter shot, but he'll get the first crack at the starting small forward spot due of his versatility and potential. He was effective on the glass in the scrimmage with a team-high eight boards, blocked a few shots and also ran the court well. His biggest issues: Confidence and aggressiveness on the offensive end. "He needs to believe he's a really good player," Coach K said.

5) I'm not sure Sulaimon shouldn't be the starting two-guard -- even though he's just a freshman and will make his share of mistakes. He can score it in a variety of ways. He's not the pure shooter that Seth Curry is, but he can put it on the floor -- and would also give Duke a potential lock-down on-ball defender. Coach K might take his hits early going with Sulaimon over Curry, but in the end, it's clear Sulaimon has a higher upside and can bring more to the table. He also gives Duke a bigger, physical wing. A starting lineup come March of Cook, Sulaimon, Murphy, Kelly and Plumlee with Curry and Marshall Plumlee coming off the bench might be Duke's best chance of going deep in March.

6) Curry did not participate in the scrimmage with what the school is saying is a lower leg injury. "We have to monitor Seth," Krzyzewski said. "It's one of those injuries that's difficult to predict and also could hamper him all year long." Curry could be back in a week -- or could miss the first couple of games at the outset of the season. No one knows just yet, but one thing is clear: He's the best pure perimeter shooter on the team, and one of the best in the nation. The concerns are regarding his defense -- and that's why I'd bring him off the bench and go with Sulaimon as the starter.

7) Marshall Plumlee will likely miss the next six weeks or so while recovering from a stress fracture, but he'll be a factor this season. The reason? He's big and strong, plays hard and knows his role. He doesn't care about getting the ball; he brings energy and just wants to rebound, run the court and block shots. Duke should have enough on the offensive end that the youngest Plumlee will be ideal for 15-20 minutes -- and it'll also allow Mason to slide to power forward for a stretch. The other aspect that Marshall brings to the team is a vocal presence. He's far more outgoing than his two older brothers, and that'll help since this team is comprised mostly of a laid-back personalities. "He gives us a 7-foot, 240-pound center," Coach K said. "He's one of our top-six players and has had a really good fall. He'd play a lot for us."

8) Kelly is just one of those guys who seemingly everyone forgets about because he's so quiet and unassuming -- both on and off the court. He's never going to be a star, but he's extremely underrated. He'll likely give the team a dozen points and a half-dozen boards a night, won't ever complain and will help open the floor for Mason Plumlee in the paint.

9) Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood was a huge addition this past offseason. He isn't able to play this season, but his game is so smooth and he can slide in and immediately replace Plumlee's scoring production a year from now. Hood would arguably be Duke's best player this season if he were eligible.

10) Freshman Amile Jefferson isn't ready to make an impact. He's talented but doesn't really have a position yet -- and isn't physically ready. He needs to put on weight and also work on his skills, but he has a chance to be a quality player. If Duke had enough bodies, Jefferson would be an ideal redshirt candidate.

11) It's always fun to try and speculate as to when Coach K will step down and call it a career. It doesn't look like it'll be anytime soon, but that could depend on recruiting. Then the question becomes who are the candidates to succeed him. You've got to assume it'll be someone in the Duke family, but there just aren't a ton of candidates. Stanford's Johnny Dawkins hasn't lit the world on fire out on the West Coast, Harvard's Tommy Amaker is an option -- and then you've got the current group of assistants. My gut -- and it's just that -- is Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who spurned the Dayton job a little more than a year ago.

 
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