November 30, 2004 DURHAM After two home blowouts and a difficult contest against Davidson in Charlotte, Duke's basketball team remained a work in progress. And the work is certain to continue into the new year.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski is trying every possible combination in seeking out suitable lineups for specific situations. He's gone big (in Duke's case, that means Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph as starters), small (neither of them), and, more often than not, with just one of them playing.
While it's far too early to determine what kind of season the Blue Devils will have, some situations already have developed. Example: When senior guard Daniel Ewing is the primary ball-handler as opposed to a typical Duke point guard the Blue Devils have found themselves caught in compromising defensive positions.
Although Duke's tenacious on-ball defense stripped UNC Greensboro enough times to force 24 turnovers and caused woeful 29 percent shooting, the Spartans' point total would have been even more diminished had they not gotten several cheap baskets because the Devils didn't have a defender back.
Ewing clearly is not a typical point guard. In the first three games, he had eight assists and 11 turnovers. He also led the team in scoring. That's been part of the problem. When Ewing goes for the basket, often Duke has been caught with nobody back. Against UNCG that was no problem, but against a very tough ACC it will be.
Meanwhile, in something of a surprise, J.J. Redick has been the assists leader. After three games, he had one point less than Ewing and averaged 18, although he was just seven-for-25 on his trademark three-pointers. However, nobody was concerned about Redick's shooting, and, along with Williams, he draws more defensive attention than anybody.
Redick also missed his first free throw of the season, against Davidson, before making his next seven. However, he has developed nicely as a playmaker. Rather than settling for threes, J.J. has driven into the lane far more often and is handing out passes for baskets. He had a career-high eight assists against UNCG and only one turnover. That gave him 14 assists for the short season, four more than erstwhile point guard Sean Dockery.
"J.J. should get assists," Krzyzewski said. "He has the ball a lot, and he does something with it. He's going toward the basket, and he draws a lot of attention."
Dockery's role is becoming more developed in a hurry. After doing nothing against Tennessee-Martin and playing timidly on offense, he scored a career-high 15 points against Davidson, a team that had just won at Missouri.
Because Dockery has no reputation as either a shooter or scorer, and because Redick and Ewing are so dangerous offensively, he's going to continue to get a lot of open looks. Against UNCG, he had three baskets on seven shots all of them threes. This is a whole new scene for Dockery.
"He doesn't have the mindset of a shooter (although he once scored 53 points in high school) yet," Krzyzewski said. "But he worked hard on his outside shot all summer, and he's become a good shooter."
Defensively, the junior guard is still a pest, but he'll need to expand offensively to take advantage of the certain opportunities.
Duke also is trying to develop other specialists. In 11 minutes against UNCG, junior forward Lee Melchionni had 12 points. Like Dockery, all of his shots were three-pointers. He made four of six, three from the corner.
"That's what we need from Lee," Coach K said. "He's a really good three-point shooter, and he doesn't need to pass up any (attempts)."
By contrast, if there was a surprise against the Spartans, it was ex-footballer Reggie Love, who turned his energy and athleticism into a career-high 10 points, all inside. Love is not a shooter. In fact, he's instructed not to take jump shots. But even at 6-4, he can be effective inside at times, with his NFL-caliber strength, frame and quickness.
"When Reggie is in the game as one of the bigs," Coach K said, "he usually can beat his man down the floor. He can really run."
Redick spotted Love, who returned to school in August to seek a second degree after getting cut by the Green Bay Packers, on a break and hit him with a lob for a dunk.
Williams, another of the many juniors, has been impressive thus far, with two double-doubles. He made a foul-line jumper in each game, when the opponent opted to leave him open. But Williams draws a double-team on almost all set plays, which means that Duke needs another option.
Randolph, Rookies Works In Progress
The staff would prefer that to be Randolph, the 6-10 junior who is healthy for the first time in his college career. Shavlik has played very hard, but he continues to think way too much. When he's on the court, there is little natural flow to his game, and the most common expression on his face reminds many of a rookie who's not sure what to do next.
Randolph has excellent footwork, especially inside, but instead of going for the immediate dunk, he tends to fake far too much and has led the team thus far in shots blocked and missed layup opportunities. Considering that none of the first three opponents had a strong inside presence, that also was a disturbing trend.
Krzyzewski has been consistent in his public praise for Randolph. The coach undoubtedly is aware that Duke isn't going to be an ACC contender unless the big man lives up to the considerable hype he brought with him out of Broughton High in nearby Raleigh. Coach K also knows that public criticism probably wouldn't go over well with either Randolph (a sensitive, reflective personality) or his family, who likely are concerned that the one-time McDonald's All-American is not yet on an obvious path to the NBA.
As Krzyzewski also tries to find ways to utilize the varying talents of freshmen DeMarcus Nelson and Dave McClure, the learning process continues. Nelson, the scorer, hasn't become comfortable while recovering from a ligament tear on the thumb of his shooting hand. But he definitely has the mentality.
"DeMarcus just needs minutes," Coach K said. "He missed almost three weeks."
In mop-up action against UNCG, Nelson played with four walk-ons and made a couple of jumpers, one his first three. Meanwhile, "McClure has been solid," Krzyzewski said. "He knows his role. He's a good rebounder. What we don't need him doing is (as he did twice against UNCG) forcing shots."
It's simply too early to determine how much of a contender Duke will be in a season in which the Blue Devils were selected fourth in the ACC, the lowest they have been picked since 1996. What's clear is that they have a different challenge on their hands this time.
"We're putting this team together (in bits and pieces)," Coach K said. "We have experienced players, but they are in different roles." He mentioned Ewing and Redick. "Dockery's in a different situation, and Randolph is healthy for the first time."
Krzyzewski, always the tournament coach, obviously wants his team to develop throughout the regular season. That may happen, and the Devils still may not be good enough for a special season, but there are enough potential weapons to make Duke a force.
"We're a work in progress," Coach K said. "And we will be all season. That's just what we have, and it's interesting." It also figures to be more challenging than usual. "I've had Laettner, Hurley and Hill and just had to throw the ball out. This is different."