Coming off of a huge Thursday night victory over archrival North Carolina, the Duke Blue Devils were in prime position for a potential letdown against the Clemson Tigers yesterday afternoon. Despite cruising to an early double digit lead, Duke’s inability to get to the rim on the offensive end allowed Clemson to crawl back into the game. Had it not been for the late-game heroics of Luke Kennard, Duke very likely would have walked out of Cameron Indoor Stadium with a tough loss.
The Tigers’ 34-18 advantage in the paint is evidence of a Blue Devils frontcourt that relied very heavily on a slim rotation, particularly in regards to Amile Jefferson. The graduate senior has logged heavy minutes since returning from the foot injury that cost him a few games in January, and still appears to be at slightly less than 100 percent. The Blue Devils were exposed for their weak interior defense against Florida State and Louisville, and teams have since gone right after their big men, resulting in increased foul trouble especially for Jefferson.
However, Duke’s bigs are not only being taken on defensively, but are also getting neutralized on the offensive end. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s preference to play smaller lineups with freshman Jayson Tatum at the four allows for more length and versatility on the floor, but also inhibits the team from running offensive sets through the post. Even in the win over North Carolina, Duke had just 24 points in the paint, relying instead on their outside shooting and the scoring ability of Tatum, Kennard, and Grayson Allen.
The Clemson matchup has made it clear that Duke needs a more established threat inside. If the Blue Devils aren’t lights-out from deep, it becomes harder for them to get into a rhythm. Having post options or bigs that can score in the pick and roll would be a huge benefit to this team. For these reasons, it may be time for coach K to put some more faith in Harry Giles and Marques Bolden.
Neither Giles nor Bolden have logged more than 25 minutes in a contest, which is surprising considering the level of foul trouble that has plagued Amile Jefferson lately. That problem once haunted Giles as well, but he has made strides defensively in his limited time. As for Bolden, the freshman behemoth has become a practical ghost relegated to bench duty. This is surprising, considering his size and physicality, as well as his decent quickness for someone of his size.
It is well-documented how much coach K loves to play experienced players like Jefferson in crunch time, but Giles’ athleticism and Bolden’s physicality may be too much to ignore. Giles scored on both shot attempts against Carolina, both times on beautiful pick and roll plays with Luke Kennard. He finished one of those plays with a nifty double clutch at the rim, showing the kind of ability that made him one of the hottest recruits in the country. This kind of offensive differentiation is huge for Duke. The high screen and rolls that they run with Jefferson aren’t as effective, because Jefferson is more of a back to the basket type of player. But with Giles’ ability to catch lobs and shoot the midrange jumper, he could be a huge asset offensively.
As for Bolden, why not isolate him in the post. As mentioned, his size and quickness makes him unique amongst most bigs, and he’s too talented to get buried on the bench. The Blue Devils are so reliant on their finesse, but they should look to establish some physicality as well.
This is a pivotal moment in Duke’s season. They seem to be trending upwards, with Grayson Allen firing on all cylinders and Kennard at his consistent best. However, it will be tough for the Blue Devils to overcome offensive inconsistencies if they can’t get to the rim and score the ball in the paint. This means they must try for more scoring distribution and a variety of different sets that involve their bigs. Duke can still win the ACC and make a bid for a top two seed in the NCAA Tournament, but it may hinge on whether or not coach Krzyzewski is willing to place faith in his young big men.