What injury-ravaged Duke might tell us about basketball


Marques Bolden, Sean Obi, Harry Giles, and Jayson Tatum sit and watch. (Charlotte Observer)

Duke entered 2016-17 ranked a resounding No. 1 in the nation, capturing 58 of a possible 65 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll. Alas, Mike Krzyzewski’s charges have turned out to be a rather insistently gimpy resounding No. 1.

Freshmen Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden are all yet to appear on the floor this season. Grayson Allen’s been limping noticeably, and both Chase Jeter and Amile Jefferson have been reported as being banged up as well.

Do the math and you’re left with just three current Blue Devil starters who’ve been vouchsafed as possessing more or less normal stores of health and soundness: Matt Jones, Luke Kennard, and Frank Jackson. The descriptive modifier of choice with this team so far on the young season is “injury-ravaged.”

The modifier’s accurate, surely, yet I’ve been moved to wonder whether in this case accuracy can’t additionally be somewhat misleading. If so, it’s possible this particular brand of confusion might be able to tell us an instructive thing or two about the sport.

Duke right now is already better than it was last year

Let’s consider one thumbnail of Krzyzewski’s program in its present “Fine, Calipari was right” incarnation (November 2014 to the present), knowing that, like all thumbnails, it sacrifices a measure of specificity at the altar of brevity….

Duke’s always brimming with players who can shoot, distribute, slap the floor, and draw charges, but when Coach K has guys or even just a guy who can get offensive rebounds and possibly even defend the rim, then truly big things are possible.

By this reading the most significant problem with the team last year wasn’t any alleged deficiency in the point guard department (I’m not convinced there was a deficiency in the point guard department) but instead nothing more complex or abstruse from a basketball standpoint than the fact that Jefferson was absent due to injury. Duke was ravaged where it hurt most in 2015-16, with the one guy who, as it happened, couldn’t be replaced with other personnel on hand. As a player Jefferson isn’t necessarily the second coming of Anthony Davis, but fate’s happy updrafts did make him pivotal on that particular roster.

Now Jefferson’s back, even if he is banged up. Coach K has a starter who gets offensive boards and defends the rim. Add that guy to the program’s standard-issue sack full of floor-slapping combo-guards and you have a team that’s measurably better, even in its present diminished-health state, than it was last year.

My hunch is basketball doesn’t care who’s not here. What matters is whether the players that are on hand have most or all of the necessary boxes checked in terms of skills.

Duke might still be the No. 1 team in the country as is
In its present injury-ravaged state this team came within one Frank Mason game-winner of beating Kansas at Madison Square Garden. Over the course of 368 possessions so far this season the Blue Devils have scored 420 points, and that’s a mostly-neutral-floor number recorded against a schedule that ranks comfortably in Division I’s top tier in terms of difficulty.

If this level of performance were coming from Healthy Team X, I dare say we’d be throwing bouquets the coach’s way and branding his group a clear national championship contender. No, Duke opponents won’t continue to shoot 20 percent on their threes. But even when that number corrects upward this will still be an outstanding team, one that could win a national title with the players currently on hand.

Certainly Coach K’s team can get better with the addition of the three freshmen to the rotation. (See below.) Even so — and maybe this is just me — I’m feeling some serious displeasure from basketball when we talk as though Future Healthy Duke is going to be stunningly and wondrously day-and-night different from what we now see before us.

Take Kennard. It’s true his minutes and potentially his position as a starter will be jeopardized by a more healthy roster, but surely it’s erroneous or, at best, imprecise to think, “Boy, just wait until this unglamorous plodder Kennard gets Wally Pipp’d by a bona fide NBA talent, then we’ll really see something.”

Actually in this instance the incumbent’s shooting 58 percent on his twos and 52 percent on his threes. Granted, Kennard won’t be drawing comparisons to Bill Russell on defense anytime soon, but we saw this program win a national title a couple years ago playing around some iffy individual backcourt defense. It can be done, and Kennard-right-now-level offense makes that bar a good deal lower.

Coach K will at some point have the luxury of replacing or augmenting Kennard with someone who’ll be drafted next summer, but even a Hall of Fame coach lacks the ability to improve upon the insane offensive rating that the sophomore’s currently posting for that position. Always remember the Andrews-Fultz Paradox, and adjust your future expectations accordingly. Basketball really doesn’t care about your draft stock, except insofar as it’s a proxy for “being really good at college basketball in the 2016-17 season.”

Duke can get better when it’s healthy…but probably not that much better
I’m on the record as thinking that not having Giles is actually a big deal for the same kind of roster-specific reasons set forth in the discussion of Jefferson above. Just as the senior brings something unique to the Duke table of plenty, Giles figures to be the only game in town, so to speak, when it comes to high-possession-usage post offense.

That being said, we really don’t know what we’ll get from Giles this season. Maybe he’ll round into Okafor-level form long before March, or perhaps he’s fated to spend his one season of college ball as a fleeting and elusive Kyrie-Irving-in-2011-type presence, cheerfully accepting a relatively low-usage and/or low-minute role for the perceived good of the team. We just don’t know which scenario will unfold. I do expect, however, that Duke will contend for a national title as a No. 1 seed, whether it’s with Beast Giles, Giles Lite, or something else entirely.

As for Tatum, he is by all accounts on a trajectory that will land him in the NBA as a justly celebrated wing sooner rather than later. At the risk of sounding shallow, I want him to hurry up and get healthy largely because I trust he’ll provide spectacularly entertaining moments for me as a viewer.

Clearly there’s a degree of overlap between that ability and the potential to elevate Duke’s performance as a team, but it’s fair to say the correspondence there is far from perfect. And while the NBA as a business enterprise is absolutely correct to chant “length and athleticism” frantically and reflexively as a magic koan that will ward off untelegenic spirits, my guess is basketball as a sport deigns to acknowledge the proverbial L-and-A duo purely as means to an end.