Duke in the NBA Update

Last month we looked at former Blue Devils’ movement in NBA free agency and Dukies that were just starting their first NBA season. With the NBA season well underway and the current Blue Devils taking a few days off between their matchup against Georgia Tech and their ACC home opener against Virginia, let’s examine how our former Blue Devils in the pros are faring so far.

Irving's success at Duke has translated to the NBA (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

We have to start with Kyrie Irving, who was the top overall pick in last year’s NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers and has started off his rookie year on the right foot. Irving has started all eight games for the Cavs, who sit at 4-4, and is averaging 15.0 points and 5.1 assists per game. His breakout performance thus far was on January 3 against Charlotte, when he scored 20 points on 8-of-10 from the floor and dished out six assists in just 22 minutes. Kyrie has produced for Cleveland thus far, but is taking 12.9 shots per game and is only shooting 43.7% from the floor. He’d like to see that figure increase, but I don’t think anyone would call this a subpar start for a rookie point guard that couldn’t spend the offseason with his team due to the lockout. The Cavaliers are impressed with Irving’s progress, commending him for his leadership qualities, which is not something a rookie typically exhibits in the early going. They expect him to continue to grow into an extremely productive NBA player.

Smith's transition to professional basketball has been a slow one (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Duke’s other NBA rookie this season, Nolan Smith, has played limited minutes for the Portland Trail Blazers. Smith has appeared in four of Portland’s eight games this season, averaging 6.5 minutes and 3.8 points per game. Nolan made his presence felt last Friday night in a blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns, logging 14 minutes and scoring six points and adding three assists. Despite the early retirement of Brandon Roy, Smith is at a disadvantage due to the Trail Blazer’s deep and talented guard rotation. Most of the backcourt minutes are split between Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford, and Raymond Felton, all of whom are established NBA guards. This leaves Smith and fellow former Blue Devil Elliot Williamson the outside looking in at times.

Luol Deng will be in charge of guarding LeBron James come playoff time (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Luol Deng has continued to be a consistent weapon for the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are off to an 8-2 start and are arguably the best team in the NBA. Deng is putting up his usual stellar numbers– 15.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on a team with a lot of weapons. He has also been huge on the defensive end for Chicago, and consistently has to match up with the best offensive threats in the NBA. Just today Yahoo Sports published an article proclaiming Deng as “the most underrated player in the NBA“. Deng hopes to make his first All-Star team this season, but would surely settle for an NBA championship ring with the Bulls.

Deng’s Bulls teammate, Carlos Boozer is another reason for Chicago’s success in the early going. Boozer has put up a very respectable 14.0 points and 8.3 rebounds this season– not bad for a player that many thought would be a victim of Chicago’s amnesty clause this offseason. He has proved to be a reliable inside threat this year, scoring double digits in all but one of Chicago’s game. His best performance of the year came last Friday, when Boozer posted 20 points and 13 rebounds in a Bulls victory over the Orlando Magic.

The line's a couple feet farther back, but Redick has made his living in the NBA from deep (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Speaking of the Orlando Magic, JJ Redick has appeared in all nine of Orlando’s games this year, scoring 11.1 points per game. He continues to develop a more versatile game, as he has actually struggled a bit from beyond the arc this season. Redick is shooting just 35.7% from 3-point range on the year, down from 39.7% in 2010-2011. He has still asserted himself off the bench as a threat to score in bunches, however. Redick had 21 points in Orlando’s victory over the Toronto Raptors on New Year’s Day and 20 points in a Magic win over the Rockets on December 26. Redick often teams up in the backcourt with his former Duke backcourt teammate Chris Duhon, who is Orlando’s backup point guard. Duhon is averaging 3.7 points and 3.0 assists per game in 19.4 minutes per game this year.

Some things never change- Henderson still throws some vicious dunks down in the NBA (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Another pair of Duke teammates are producing for the Charlotte Bobcats this year. Gerald Henderson has stepped up his game thus far, averaging 14.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. Meanwhile, Corey Maggettehas been effective as well, posting 12.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. The Bobcats have struggled on the year with a record of just 2-7. Maggette was also recently injured, and will miss the next 2-4 weeks with a strained hamstring.

Shane Battier was considered one of the top prizes of the NBA’s free agent frenzy. He found a new home this offseason with the Miami Heat and is playing a more limited role in South Beach than he is used to. Shane is playing a career-low 21.3 minutes per game for Miami and is mainly used as a defensive stopper. He is averaging just four points per game and has made just one start for the Heat this season. Clearly there’s not much pressure for him to score with guys named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh on his team.

Elton Brand is making the most of his minutes with the upstart Philadelphia 76ers. Though his time on the court has decreased due to the amount of young talent around him, Brand has helped the Sixers to a 6-2 start, their best in quite some time. Elton has played 27.6 minutes per game for Philadelphia this season, which is the least he has played in his entire career. He has contributed 8.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this year and still has some moves down in the post, but you can tell his history of injuries is really starting to catch up with him. Brand has just one double-double this season, coming on January 4 in a Sixers win over New Orleans when he scored 12 points and added 12 rebounds.

Grant Hill decided to return for a 17th NBA season with the Phoenix Suns, and although he too is playing a more limited role, his age doesn’t seem to be slowing him down too much. Hill has played 26.4 minutes per game for the Suns this year but has started every game for Phoenix. He is posting 9.8 points per game on the year, but it is safe to say Hill’s glory days are behind him as well. With the amount of time he has missed in his career due to injury, some are quite surprised that he is still able to play at age 39.

The landlord now resides in New Jersey, as Shelden Williams has been tearing down boards for the Nets this season. Williams, who is playing for his seventh NBA team in just his ninth year in the league, has made two starts for New Jersey this season, averaging 4.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. His best performance came in a 101-90 loss to the Miami Heat last Saturday in which Shelden scored eight points and pulled down 13 rebounds in 31 minutes of action. He did have some struggles in a recent game against the Indiana Pacers, where he went 1-for-9 from the field and dunked on himself. I think I’ll leave you at that.

The Evolution of Austin Rivers

The Duke basketball program is used to bringing in highly touted freshmen. In any given year, odds are that Duke has landed at least one of the top five high school players in the nation. The Blue Devils have been represented in every single McDonald’s High School All-American game since 1993. Last season, super-freshman Kyrie Irving needed only 11 games to take the NCAA by storm and earn the #1 overall pick in the draft. But although he’s stepping directly into the shadows of Irving, I think we all can agree that there hasn’t been more hype for a Duke freshman than for Austin Rivers.

Rivers’ story is already well known. The Winter Park, Fl. native is the son of former NBA guard and current Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Doc spent the first nine of his fourteen NBA seasons as a player with the Atlanta Hawks (he also played for Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks, and San Antonio Spurs.) Living up to a father who played in the NBA is no easy task (and not an uncommon one in the Duke program, just ask Seth Curry, Gerald Henderson or Chris Collins). But being the son of a former NBA player and one of the top coaching minds in basketball means much more than that. Not only do you have to be physically gifted, you’re expected to have excellent basketball instincts.

Rivers was on display from the beginning in the Friendship Games (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Every fall at Duke is special thanks to the arrival of 1700 new Cameron Crazies, but more importantly it means the arrival of a handful of new campus “gods”: the freshman basketball players. As one of the most heavily hyped freshmen in the country, I can assure you that it didn’t take very long for Rivers to attain celebrity status on campus. Not only had we heard our favorite college basketball analysts raving about this kid and seen endless highlight reels of him on YouTube (my personal favorite being this one of him crossing up 2010 NBA #1 overall pick John Wall), but we were able to catch a glimpse of him playing with the rest of his Blue Devil teammates at the Friendship Games in China and the UAE over the summer. When the season finally started, however, the “Austin Rivers legend” and the 18 year-0ld player were not exactly identical.

Our first glimpse of Rivers at Cameron was at Duke’s annual Countdown to Craziness. Though the general excitement surrounding the event was the kick-off to this team’s run toward a fifth national championship, there wasn’t a soul on campus that didn’t walk into Cameron that day wondering what this kid could really do. Austin was well received by the Duke crowd- as the first player introduced, he received the loudest ovation of the entire evening. Rivers came out on fire, knocking down shots from all over the floor as his White team jumped out to a double-digit lead by halftime. In the second half, the wheels started to fall off a bit. Rivers’ shots were not falling and he became visibly frustrated, affecting his play on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, the Blue team led by veterans Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins came storming back and eventually took home the victory.

Another month of hard work and fine tuning went by, and the Blue Devils were finally ready to start their 2011 season. Even in just 11 games this year, you can examine Rivers’ season in three distinct phases. Here’s a look at Rivers’ performances to date, game by game.

[table id=21 /]

Rivers' worst performance of the season was against Michigan State (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

As you can plainly see, the first few games of the year for Austin Rivers didn’t go so hot. In fact, he looked downright out of sync with the rest of the Duke team. Part of Rivers’ struggles in the opening games of the season resulted from increased pressure for him to step into his team’s vacant role of point guard. When Austin was bringing up the ball more often, he felt more pressure to create and facilitate the offense. This combined with a slightly naïve sense of invincibility left over from his high school playing days resulted in a lot of forced shots and turnovers, and the Duke offense struggled.

Rivers earned his chances at the rim when he was the centerpiece of the offense (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Following a dreadful performance at Madison Square Garden against Michigan State, Rivers finally started to slow down and trust in his teammates. In turn, he allowed other players to set him up for open looks and made sure not to waste his opportunities. The point guard responsibilities shifting toward Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton only made matters easier for Rivers, who was able to roam the perimeter in search of open threes when he was off the ball and split double teams to drive down the lane when he was on the ball. However, Rivers’ transformation into the offensive force that he now is was not complete. There were still moments where he would revert back to his old bad habits and force a bad shot or turn the ball over. This second phase of his season was still extremely important, as Duke was able to get quality wins over difficult opponents like Michigan and Kansas. Duke’s drubbing at Ohio State marked the last game of this phase. Rivers put forth one of his better offensive outputs of the season, netting a career-high 22 points while pulling off some dazzling drives.

A more patient Austin Rivers has blended into the Duke offense splendidly (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

The third phase of Austin’s season was an intriguing one. Rivers stepped back from his role as the team’s primary scorer and once again the Blue Devils scored by committee. However, this is when he began to play his best basketball of the year. It seemed as though the less Rivers had to do, the more he could do. In Duke’s past three games, Rivers hasn’t had to take as many shots, but has converted as a higher percentage and has not stuck out as an individual entity wearing a Duke jersey, but rather a contributing member of Duke’s fluid offensive set. This is a role he has thrived in- his scoring has not dropped whatsoever and he is contributing more to the team. I’ve watched every single Duke basketball game this year and wrote about most of them, and I’ll still contend that the Austin Rivers moment that got me the most excited had nothing to do with a steal, dunk, or 3-pointer, but rather when I got home from the Colorado State game on December 7, checked a box score and realized he scored a beautifully quiet and efficient 17 points, and then rewatched the game and witnessed how incredibly he flowed within the offense for the first time all year.

Our mission at Crazie-Talk is to bring you all aspects of Duke basketball: the good, the bad, and the Crazie. Ironically, that is exactly the way to sum up Austin Rivers’ young freshman season–the first part was bad, in the second part he became the focus of the offense and went a bit Crazie (not necessarily in a good way), and the third part has been very, very good. Let’s take a look at Austin’s averages from his three phases of this season, “The Bad” being the year’s first three games, “The Crazie” being from Davidson to Ohio State, and “The Good” being Duke’s past three games.
[table id=22 /]

So which of these would you rather have? Obviously we’re getting rid of Austin at the beginning of the year where he wasn’t playing well overall, but I’d rather have the Rivers that plays fewer minutes and shoots less, while making more, and doesn’t disrupt the flow of the offense. It sounds almost like a no-brainer.

Just like last season, the Blue Devils enter the ACC regular season headlined by a stud freshman as their leading scorer. Unlike last season, this year’s stud freshman is not sidelined by an injury that will cost him 20 or so games. Just like any first-year player, the ACC  season will be another transition for Austin Rivers, so don’t go jumping off the bandwagon if he has a tough game or two, especially as he gets accustomed to the intensity of ACC road tests. But over the course of this young season, we have learned a lot about who Austin Rivers really is–he is developing, he is learning quickly. He has become an integral member of this offense and he is earning the hype. At this point in his freshman year, Rivers is nowhere near the “finished product” that Kyrie Irving was in December, but he is improving at a scary pace. And we get to watch. We see these glimpses of greatness that a year ago were only reserved for our computer screens on YouTube, as game by game the greatness begins to take over.

It will be something special to witness.

Deviled Eggs: Countdown to Craziness Edition, October 11th, 2010

This Monday, we’re doing a special Countdown To Craziness edition of our weekly Deviled Eggs. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’re unbelievably hyped for this Friday and for the season to get underway! Stay tuned to Crazie Talk for more CTC coverage, and keep an eye out for highlights from front and center in Section 17 later this week.

Who knows what Nolan has planned for this year's CTC? (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Approximately 189 days ago, Gordon Hayward threw up a last second, Hoosier-esque, half court heave that arced through the air at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for seemingly an eternity. By this point, Crazie Talkers Amogh and Jake, over in the Duke student section, had probably spontaneously combusted out of sheer nerves. The collective nation held its breath, knowing that if this prayer of a shot managed to find its way through the net, it would undoubtedly become the greatest college basketball moment and one of the most memorable sports moments in history. Movies would be made, Butler basketball jersey sales would instantaneously skyrocket, and the hearts of four thousand Duke students eagerly watching in Cameron Indoor back at home would simultaneously shatter.

…of course, we all know how it actually turned out.

For you see, one day in middle school, Gordon Hayward decided to go watch the movie Hoosiers with his bros, skipping one very important math class in the process…y’know, that one class where you learn how to use a protractor? Thus, he miscalculated the x-axis launch trajectory of the shot by less than .5 of a degree, and the ball graciously bounced off the backboard and the front of the rim. “Poor” Gordon. Remember kids: Be cool…stay in school.

The 2009-10 college basketball season ended with a bang, Duke University went up in flames (the good kind), and your Blue Devils won the NCAA championship. Seems like forever ago, huh?

That’s cool and all, but I’m sure you’re asking, “Arun, what the hell does any of this have to do with Countdown to Craziness?” Well, let me remind you, my impatient little bloggers, that any great story with a great ending has to have a great beginning, too. And that’s just what Countdown to Craziness (CTC, for you cool kids) is. Almost a year ago today, the 09-10 Duke basketball season started off with it’s shiny, (not-so) new “Midnight Madness” event.

…Alright, so we didn’t have a big name in the music industry performing live…well, sort of. And yeah, we weren’t unveiling a championship banner.  Oh, and there definitely wasn’t…this.

But there was still much fun to be had in and around Cameron. And the best part? We were front and center for it all (been there for two years straight, actually)! And that’s why I’m here writing this today. Let me help you relive the glorious start to our glorious 09-10 season, as well as assist you in elevating your hype level so that it can, perhaps, match mine! Good luck with that…

So, without further ado, here’s this week’s Countdown to Craziness edition of Deviled Eggs! The first three Eggs are about last year’s event, while the following three focus on this Friday’s. As always, thanks to Dave Bradley of Duke Blue Planet for all the great footage and pics.

Cool truck, bro. (Courtesy DukeBluePlanet.com)

1) Counting Down the Top 10 at CTC

Let’s start things off with an overview of some of the best moments from last year’s CTC. We got our first look at Andre, Ryan, and Mason, and they definitely didn’t disappoint. And of course, The Beard was unleashed.

2) Alarmingly (Un)athletic

Yeah right. Last year’s dunk contest was absolutely ridiculous, and we can expect more of the same this year…but without Olek, unfortunately. I wonder who the judges will be for this year’s event? Maybe Duke’s best dunker of the last decade can make a guest appearance…

3) Schedule of Events

From GoDuke.com, here is the event schedule from last year’s CTC. I’d assume that we’d stick to the same schedule and most of these same events will  probably be making a return. CTC, as well as other schools‘ various Midnight Madness events, will be broadcast on ESPNU. Look for an updated schedule of events to be released sometime this week.

***UPDATE***  This year’s schedule of events can be found here.

4) “Are You Not Entertained?!”

Next up, we’ve got an article talking about how Duke University Improv will again be involved with this years CTC event. For those who don’t know, Duke University Improv (DUI) is Duke’s premier improvisational comedy troupe known for YouTube smash hits such as “My New Haircut, Asian Edition” and “Jon Scheyer in 75 seconds“. As you might have guessed, they’re pretty good friends of the basketball team and have worked together with them to deliver hilarious and sometimes…peculiar…videos.

5) Welcome Blue Devils Past, Present, and Future

Blue Devil dignitaries will surely fill the house on Friday night. You can anticipate last year’s squad returning home to Cameron to get their hard-earned championship rings. You can also expect Duke’s future stars to be in attendance, including 2011 commits Mike Gbinije, Marshall Plumlee, and the newest Blue Devil, Austin Rivers.

6) The Fourth Banner

Hopefully it's not gonna hang like that though. (Courtesy DukeBluePlanet.com)

‘Nuff said. It’s gonna be a beautiful sight.

That’s all we’ve got for this special Countdown to Craziness edition of Deviled Eggs. Hope you enjoyed reading the article as much as I enjoyed writing it. The show starts this Friday at 7:30PM, with festivities aplenty before then. If you can’t make it to Cameron in person, Crazie Talk will have highlights up on YouTube soon after the event ends.

A Season on the Brink?

Elliot

For Duke fans, happiness has been a transient emotion for several months.

The joys of an ACC title and return to the Sweet 16 were spoiled by a painful defeat to a hungry Villanova squad. In spite of a fervent campaign to keep him for a fourth year, Gerald Henderson entered the NBA draft. The recruitment of star point guard John Wall ended in bitterness when the future lottery pick signed with the Kentucky Wildcats. Most recently, due to tragic and unforeseen circumstances, Elliot Williams – the program’s most promising underclassman – transferred to the University of Memphis to be closer to his family.

Ironically, none of these events are mystifying—each loss and disappointment has a valid explanation. The only appropriate reaction is a sigh of disbelief and a look towards the coming season. Nonetheless, many Blue Devils have already started looking ahead to 2010-11, while writing the upcoming season off as the product of a series of unfortunate events.

To be certain, the departures of Henderson and Williams, coupled with the graduation of Greg Paulus, Marty Pocius, and Dave McClure, have left the coaching staff with a daunting challenge: to contend in a guard-driven league with only two scholarship guards. In an interview with The Chronicle, former great and current assistant Chris Collins explains:

“Coming into the year I would think that Jon, Nolan and Kyle would be the starters there based on experience and talent and that they’ve been starters. Obviously we will need Jordan to be in the position to be a ball-handler to give us some minutes off the bench…I think also that guys like Lance Thomas and Kelly, Mason and Plumlee, those guys will have to help us with ball-handling. Lance especially will have to be able to guard other teams’ wing players, really the way we’ve defended the last couple of years with a lot of switching…. More defensively, you’ll see that Lance and Kyle have to guard more perimeter guys and then there’s no question that Jon and Nolan will have to be in the kind of shape to log a lot of minutes and take a lot of our ball-handling responsibilities and our guard duties.”

Gone are the days when Nolan deferred to Greg on the perimeter, or looked towards a streaking Henderson on the fast break. Nolan, who has been playing in a summer league in his native D.C., will have to be a more prolific scorer. Jon has shown the ability to play point guard, and will be called upon even more this season to conduct the offense.

However, neither guard will be challenged as much as Kyle Singler.

The brilliant junior’s versatile game will be stretched next year. He will be asked to defend quicker guards—he showed that ability shutting down a red-hot Jimmy Baron in last season’s nail-biter against Rhode Island. His improved perimeter jumper will be needed more than in his first two seasons. However, Kyle will have to adapt to being the focal point of the opponent’s defense every night. He is the one recognized star on next year’s team, and his skills, toughness, and leadership will help determine how far this team goes.

Beyond the performance of individual players, a noted sea change in strategy must be implemented next year. Since the departure of All-American Shelden Williams, Duke has sustained a high number of wins without a dominant big man. We have relied on guards to carry our team, and it has served us well. This year will be different. For the first time in several years, our big men outnumber our guards. This means several new changes in strategy:

  • Zone defense. It has been taboo in Cameron during K’s tenure, but a lack of perimeter quickness means that a zone may be the only option.
  • Slow the pace. We have a much, much better chance at winning games playing in the half-court instead of trying to keep up with quicker teams. We will win more games in the 60s and 70s than in the 80s and above.
  • Ryan Kelly must deliver. Ryan won the McDonald’s All-American 3-point shooting contest, and will have to shoot well while using his length and deceptive quickness around the basket.
  • Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek have to be the post’s anchor. As seniors, it’s up to Lance and Z to direct traffic and teach the younger guys their roles in the offense. Their numbers improved last season, but they will have to score and rebound more effectively.
  • The Plumlee brothers must be interchangeable. Although Mason is higher rated coming out of high school, Miles showed flashes of his talent this past season. They have similar builds and are both competent athletes. We can’t afford to lose steam when substituting one for the other.

As a premiere program in college basketball, Duke’s goal each season is to win championships. This next season the ACC will be weaker than usual. Even with a depleted roster and a crop of unproven players, Duke can contend for another conference title. Indeed, the new-look Blue Devils will buck the trend of guard-led teams of the 2000s. Coach K enters his 30th season at the helm—he will have one of the most difficult coaching jobs since the mid-1990s.  The development of the young players on this team will help determine our role in the national picture for the next four years.

College basketball, like history, is cyclical. While next season may not promise a Final Four, Duke basketball is on its way back to the top.