Duke may have found the one piece it was missing in freshman Trevon Duval
The Blue Devils' other fabulous freshman could be the key player for Duke
DURHAM, N.C. – Duke was the No. 1-ranked team in the nation going into the season, and for good reason. It's entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that every member of this starting five (Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr., Trevon Duval and Grayson Allen) could be a first-round pick in the NBA Draft. Even though no team has won a national title starting four freshmen, that doesn't mean you should count out the Blue Devils to make history and do just that on April 2, 2018 in San Antonio. Las Vegas believes it's the most likely outcome, and so should you. This Duke team really does have that much talent.
And yet that does not mean penciling Duke in as college basketball's first 40-0 team would be a smart bet. Far from it. The historic Kentucky team that made it all the way to the 2015 Final Four before losing a game had a ridiculously talented freshman class that included three lottery picks. But the real reason for that team's greatness was the four sophomores and two juniors who were in that team's rotation.
The Kentucky team that went 38-1 had experience.
This Duke team does not.
So start there with why this Duke team may take its lumps in November before peaking come February and March. This is Coach K's youngest ever team. Even younger than the one that, the same year that Kentucky nearly ran the table, won the national title with three one-and-done freshmen starters – and one lesser-known freshman bench player named Grayson Allen.
Bagley may be a transcendent talent, but he's 18 years old and still adjusting to the college game, especially on defense. Allen looks confident and renewed, like a national player of the year candidate, but his name is also synonymous with the emotional outbursts that derailed his last two seasons. All the freshmen look awesome, but there's zero chance of seeing the fully realized version of these players this season. Because, you know, they're freshmen.
But of all the factors that will determine whether Duke is the class of college basketball this year or a disappointing group of big-time talent, the main factor is the same thing that ultimately defined Duke's struggles last year.
Not Allen's overstated habit of tripping opponents. Not the injuries that decimated Duke. Not Coach K's health issues that knocked him off the bench for a month.
Instead, the most elementary ingredient of good basketball: Competent point guard play.
Duke's struggles last season were overwrought. Yes, the season was a rollercoaster for a team that was, like this year's team, No. 1 heading into the season. Yes, they were 3-4 in ACC play after losing to NC State at home on Jan. 23. But then they won seven in a row and rolled through the ACC Tournament. Heading into the NCAA Tournament Duke boasted eight top-25 RPI wins and 13 top-50 RPI wins, tops in the nation.
If there was one problem that most contributed to Duke falling short of its massive expectations, it was point guard play. Freshman Frank Jackson was overwhelmed. Allen often played out of position. It was the undercurrent of every Duke struggle.
Which is why there is no player on Duke's current team with more pressure on his shoulders than point guard Trevon Duval.
Duval is a freshman point guard from Delaware, a possible lottery pick who plays long, with explosiveness and excitement. He describes himself as as a "New York City point guard," someone who grew up valuing flash and swag. When he was growing up, he watched And One mixtapes with his dad, who'd been a New York City streetballer. Duval isn't like Hot Sauce, he emphasized, not someone who tosses the ball off people's heads and then dunks all over them.
"I play like (a streetballer) sometimes," he said. "Especially in high school, in AAU, I kind of did things that you wouldn't see in a normal game. I'd make streetball moves, dribble like a streetball player – but a more controlled streetball player."
The key to Duke's success this season is for Duval to play with all the ego, all the swag, all the confidence of a streetball player – but for him to be reined in from being a point guard who tries to do too much. As Duval put it, he needs to play "controlled."
With all this young talent, what Duke needs is a quarterback – not a game manager exactly, but a point guard who can restrain himself from trying to do too much.
Which will be a challenge for a point guard nicknamed Tricky Tre.
"The things he can do with the ball, the things he can do passing, his vision – you don't want to completely tone it down, but you have to steer it in the right way where it doesn't lead to turnovers," said Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel. "He has gifts and tools, but when we recruited him his dad would always say (that) he's raw. He has to be taught certain things about the position. It's no different from any other point guard who is really good in high school – when they come to college, it's different. I remember Tyus Jones, when he first got here, he really struggled in practice. Stuff that we thought would be easy in practice – he was going against the pressure of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, two guys that were older and bigger and more athletic and in great shape and had played college basketball. It was an adjustment. Tre will have those. But he'll also make plays that you can't teach."
This is a difficult balance for any coach to achieve. How do you preach restraint without hampering a player's aggressiveness? How do you bottle up everything you love about a talent like Duval while limiting the parts about him that can hurt a team?
"It's about giving him some rope to do those things but also teaching him that everything doesn't have to be a home run," Capel said. "Everything doesn't have to be 'Wow' – especially with the talent that we have. It's almost like the leadoff hitter. Just get on base."
Duval will hit plenty of home runs. We've already seen them in Duke's first two games, and we'll likely see it Tuesday at on the big stage, when No. 1 Duke faces No. 2 Michigan State at 7 p.m. ET in the Champions Classic. But Duke's success won't depend on Duval's home runs. It'll depend on the walks, the singles, the bunts – the little things that a point guard must do to help his talented team optimize its potential.
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