Duke men’s basketball still molding identity as postseason heats up

Photo by Hank Tucker | The Chronicle
Jayson Tatum had to will a few shots into the hoop with Duke down by four in the first half, but at other points the freshman has not gotten consistent touches.
NEW YORK —When Duke fell behind by four twice in the first half against Clemson, it looked to talented freshmen Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson for quick responses around the rim.
When the Blue Devils were locked in a one-possession battle late in the second half, they put the ball in their leading scorer’s hands, and Luke Kennard delivered with two clutch shots in the final 2:04 of the 79-72 victory. By Hank Tucker / The Chronicle
Senior Matt Jones is 2-of-15 from 3-point range in his last five games.
Duke has benefitted from having several playmakers, but it still does not have a defined gameplan in the clutch, instead choosing to ride the hot hand from game to game. Most elite teams are done figuring out who should get the ball in crunch time in December and January, but the Blue Devils’ lack of continuity has disrupted their chemistry and forced almost every scoring threat to step up at different times.
Kennard carried the team through the first month of the season with a trio of freshmen injured, Tatum shined during Duke’s seven-game winning streak in the middle of conference play and Jackson has seized the opportunity for more playing time in the last two weeks with junior guard Grayson Allen hobbled by an ankle injury.
“Crazy as it may sound, I think we’re still evolving,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know who we are completely, but I have good kids. I have really good kids, and they play hard, and they share the ball. Maybe we’ll develop a little bit more of an identity.”
As it stands, though, Duke’s identity can change from half to half and even from possession to possession. Sometimes, the Blue Devils are a team of slashers that can get to the rim or kick out to shooters, and Tatum finished with four assists Wednesday.
Other times, they run more of an isolation game through Kennard and hope he can maintain the level of play that made him a unanimous first-team All-ACC selection this year. By Hank Tucker / The Chronicle
The Blue Devils are having to find a balance between finding the hot hand and going to their most consistent scorer in Luke Kennard. By Hank Tucker / The Chronicle
After the Blue Devils struggled with foul trouble in the first half, Amile Jefferson and company were more disciplined on defense late in the game.
“It’s always something new, and that’s a good thing,” senior Matt Jones said. “Hopefully we can put it all together.”
These multiple identities converged Wednesday in Duke’s 79-72 win against Clemson at the Barclays Center. But the Blue Devils cannot expect to get 20 points apiece from Tatum and Jackson on a combined 14-of-25 shooting every night, and Kennard was not himself in the first half, shooting just 1-of-9 before he poured in 17 points after the break to save his team.
“Coach just told him to slow down, just play at his speed, don’t let anyone make him feel rushed,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “In the second half, he did a great job of taking shots that he knows he can make. It doesn’t matter where he shoots from, every time he puts it up, I think it’s going in.”
The Blue Devils have very few players that have put together complete 40-minute performances in ACC play and few options off the bench to absorb an off night by a starter. That is a big reason why they find themselves sweating out every win down the stretch and have not beat a team by more than 12 since Jan. 4.
Duke has a lot of players that can score on any given night, like Kennard, Tatum and Jackson showed Wednesday, but most of those threats are streaky players that can also go cold at any night. Junior Grayson Allen, the Blue Devils’ third leading scorer, went scoreless in 12 minutes against the Tigers and also picked up three fouls, and Duke only had two bench points as a team.
If Allen has a good night alongside Wednesday’s trio of 20-point scorers, the Blue Devils are good enough to beat anybody. However, Duke is still struggling with how to keep all four players involved in the offense, and that is how a collection of elite talent struggled to defeat one of the ACC’s cellar dwellers for the second time this season.
“We have four really good scorers. [Luke] and Jayson can really score the ball, but Frank can score, and so can Grayson,” Krzyzewski said. “If we ever get all four of them going, that’s who I would like to be.”
Duke is quickly running out of time to become who it wants to be. At a time of the year when most teams are peaking, the Blue Devils are stuck experimenting, and it is hard to beat experienced squads in March like No. 10 Louisville and No. 6 North Carolina—Duke will play the Cardinals Thursday and could see the Tar Heels again Friday—without a well-defined identity.
A week from now, the Blue Devils will begin play in the NCAA tournament. They are capable of making a run, but nobody knows how they would go about doing it, and it remains to be seen whether that will be a blessing or a curse.
“It’s been a very up and down season for us, but we always have confidence in ourselves. We know we’re not top five in the rankings or anything, but we feel good that we can play with any team,” Tatum said. “if we’re all clicking, we can be one of the best teams in the country.”
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