The Duke Blue Devils are off to a stro start to the 2016-17 season. They're 8-1, with notable wins over Rhode Island and Michigan State. They pushed a full-strength Kansas team to the final seconds before a dagger from Frank Mason III sunk them.
So they've been really, really good. Especially given their injury situation.
After sitting out the first eight games, two of their top freshmen, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, are finally back in action and made their season debuts against Maine on Saturday.
With those two key pieces at full health, it's likely to have a domino effect that will tumble down the roster. A key question that will need to be answered: What impact will it have on the starting lineup?
Perhaps the most interesting piece could be how Duke handles Luke Kennard. The Blue Devils' current leading scorer has been Mr. Everything this season. With Grayson Allen battling off-and-on injuries early this season, Kennard has carried the team averaging 19.4 points per game. Right now, Gary Parrish has him ranked No. 4 in the Player of the Year race.
However, with Tatum back to health and inserted into the starting lineup, Kennard's role as a whole could evolve as they continue to get healthy.
We got a decent taste of what that new rotation might look like against Maine, though we still have to see how the return of Harry Giles will further impact things. Kennard and Tatum both got the start, while Allen and Frank Jackson sat to nurse minor injuries. But when Allen returns, I would not be surprised to see Kennard and Jackson, who have been starters, jump into a shared role at the guard position.
For as good as Kennard has been -- and he has been really good -- I think there are just too many pieces to keep him in the same role moving forward. When Allen gets healthy, he will likely assert himself into the role that has been held by Kennard. He's the primary scorer. He's the alpha dog that can lead the team. There's a reason he was a leading candidate for national player of the year in the preseason. He is versatile enough to run the offense effectively as a point guard, and has the ability to create his own shot as well.
So back to Tatum. He brings a defensive force and intensity with his 6-foot-11 wingspan in the lineup. With him on the floor, he takes the frontcourt to a new level on defense. But it's his offense that should be the biggest benefit moving forward for the Blue Devils.
Sure, his debut wasn't ideal. He went 2-of-8 for 10 points, but the last live-game experience he had was months ago. There was bound to be some rust. But moves like this can't be duplicated from anyone on the roster. You can't coach athleticism.
The final piece of the now healthy group is Marques Bolden. The 6-foot-11 monster came off the bench to add 12 minutes and seven points vs. Maine and gave us a taste of his potential with a little bit of everything in his arsenal. He threw in some solid rim protection, scored at an efficient clip, and he was a bully on the boards.
With Tatum in the starting lineup, and Allen set to return, one might wonder if Bolden might assume a starting role at the center spot. However, sources indicate to CBS Sports' Gary Parrish that senior Amile Jefferson is expected to maintain his role in the starting lineup.
That frees up a lot of options on the second unit. Jefferson is the most experienced player on the team. He's the bedrock who has averaged more than 30 minutes per game this year. His role won't change much. But bringing Bolden off the bench may allow Jefferson to finally catch a breather to keep him fresh.
Coming off the bench in the second unit is a perfect marriage for Duke and Bolden. Most nights, he'll be the tallest player on the floor. More importantly: He's not just a big guy. He has the ability to use it to his advantage.
Granted, it's still early in the season with a one-game sample size seeing this group together. Heck, he played a whole 12 minutes. But he's already made it clear where he'll make a living: on the glass.
Particularly on the offensive glass is where Bolden's impact will be felt. Six of his points came off picking up scraps on offensive rebounds. He has a nose for the ball and his size will add a rim-protection that Duke has lacked, outside of Jefferson.
Until Duke gets the entire team back to full health, it appears that determining who may fill in the final starting spot may be an experiment. When you have as many supreme athletes as the Blue Devils do, it's nearly impossible to project who should play.
They have already crushed through their early season schedule without three of their main pieces, all of which figure to be key parts of the team moving forward. It will likely continue to evolve throughout the year, and indeed, we'll know more after Duke faces Florida in MSG Tuesday night.