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Tuesday, August 2, 2011
Summer Buzz: Duke Blue Devils

By Eamonn Brennan

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Duke Blue Devils.

It's too early to be doing in-depth analyses of college basketball teams. I get that. But there are degrees here. For example, take yesterday's Summer Buzz recipient, North Carolina. The Tar Heels have some new pieces they'll be incorporating this season, but all of the primary contributors are back in the fold. We don't know anything for sure, but we have a pretty good idea what to expect.

By contrast, consider the Blue Devils. There are returners here: forwards Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, guards Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, reserves Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton. At first glance, that seems like a lot. But consider what the Devils lost. The usage rates of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith were 30.9 and 23.6 percent, respectively, and freshman guard Kyrie Irving -- undoubtedly the most talented player on the floor in his injury-riddled freshmen season -- used 27.2 percent of available possessions in his own right. No other Duke player topped 17.2 percent usage; the rest of the team's possessions were spread evenly between those role players no matter who was on the floor.

Austin Rivers
Austin Rivers will be critical to Duke's success this season.
All of which is a semi-wonky way of saying the Blue Devils lost their three-best players. For that reason, it's a bit difficult to project just how good Duke will be in 2011-12. Duh, you know?

Of course, there happens to be a certain player arriving on campus this fall who can help alleviate these concerns. His name, as you no doubt know, is Austin Rivers. Depending on who you ask, he's either the best guard or the best overall player in the class of 2011. Good thing, because he's also the single most important freshman in the country, too.

Why is this? Because Duke's returning lineup, for all its talent, is currently best described as a batch of role players. A few of those role players -- Curry, Dawkins, Mason Plumlee -- are very good role players, but they are still role players all the same. In 2011, this group was at its best when Irving, and then Smith, was domineering defenses with attacking offensive basketball and finishing plays with either a) a strong finish at the rim, or b) a pinpoint pass to an open teammate.

In Dawkins and Curry, Duke has two of the best pure perimeter weapons in the country, two players -- most teams are lucky to have one -- who can bury teams with a string of hot shooting at any time. Duke was frequently at its best when one or both was exploiting collapsing defenses.

But neither player, at least so far, has proved that they can get their own shot. Both players attempted the vast majority of their attempts in spot-up situations. According to Synergy scouting data, Curry scored 1.32 points per possession on spot-up jumpers when he wasn't forced to take a dribble. When defenders closed on Curry and forced him to put the ball on the floor, his points per possession dropped all the way to 0.68.

Dawkins, on the other hand, managed to be nearly as effective after dribbling as he was on clean spot-ups, but his sheer number of spot-up attempts speaks to the larger point: Both of these players need someone who can get them their shots.

This is where Rivers comes in. For all his perimeter scoring prowess, Doc's son is at his best off the dribble and in transition. It's a simple calculus: If Rivers can break down defenses with anything resembling the effectiveness of Smith and Irving, Duke's offense is already a long way toward maintaining the high-paced excellence it has displayed in Mike Kryzewski's most recent run of prowess. If Rivers struggles, however -- or teams decide to force him to beat them from outside, rather than off the dribble -- then Duke's offense will undoubtedly have a tough time adjusting.

Of course, Rivers isn't Duke's only freshman. Far from it. Coach K's 2011 class is one of the best in the country, and it includes four other highly ranked players, all of whom could contribute as early as this season. But projecting how that young talent will mesh with the team's current players -- figuring out how all of those revolving pieces will fit -- is something Coach K himself hasn't even attempted yet.

Far be it from me to try. We'll know more in November. But in the meantime, if you're looking for one thing you should know about the 2011-12 Duke Blue Devils, it's that Austin Rivers has to be everything he's cracked up to be. And maybe more.

Like I said: Duh.