November 8, 2005
DURHAM -- DeMarcus Nelson occupies a unique position on Duke's basketball roster. He is the only active scholarship player who is not either a senior or a freshman.
"You can call me the bridge," Nelson said. "I bridge the gap in the age difference on our team."
The 6-3 guard acknowledges that his unique situation impacts his role on the team.
"I went through some of the adjustments last year that our freshmen are going through now," he said. "So I can kind of help them as far as living in a new environment, going to college and playing ball at this level. Also, having a connection to the upperclassmen and a year of development under my belt, I can bridge the gap."
Nelson was rated one of the ACC's top recruits last season, when he came out of Sheldon High in California. He ended his prep career as the leading scorer in California high school history and was selected as a McDonald's and Parade All-American.
His freshman year at Duke was marred when he suffered torn thumb ligaments in his shooting hand before the season, an injury that bothered him all year. Nevertheless, Nelson had a good (but not great) freshman campaign, earning ACC all-freshman honors after averaging 6.2 points and a remarkable (for a guard) 4.5 rebounds a game.
Now a sophomore, he was in the starting lineup in Duke's 2005-06 exhibition opener, inheriting Daniel Ewing's vacant guard spot. Ignoring another thumb injury (this one less serious and to his non-shooting hand), Nelson displayed better ball-handling (three assists and no turnovers) and a better shooting touch (7-of-11 from the floor, including 1-of-2 three-pointers) than he showed a year ago.
"(Nelson) did a nice job for us last year," Krzyzewski said. "He's a veteran player now. ... He's good."
Is Nelson good enough to fill the shoes vacated by Ewing, who was not only a perfect offensive complement to the sharp-shooting J.J. Redick on the wing, but also a key to Duke's defensive success? The veteran guard, now playing with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, was the Blue Devils' best perimeter defender for each of the last two years.
That's a role Krzyzewski hopes Nelson can fill. The sophomore guard has the combination of quickness and strength that should make him a superior defender, along with one other asset -- extraordinarily long arms.
"I feel like I was a good defender in high school," Nelson said. "There are definitely places my defense could improve and has improved. Experience helps. I know where I'm supposed to be and when to switch, things like that. I'm still learning, but I definitely feel I can be a great defender."
Nelson will be one of the more interesting Duke players to watch early in the season. Can he improve on last year's shooting accuracy (40.0 percent, including 31.9 percent on threes)? Is his ball-handing really that much better? (Last year he committed almost twice as many turnovers, 47, as assists, 27.) Is he the guy who shot 75 percent from the foul line in high school or the guy who hit 53.2 percent from the line last season? Can he continue his extraordinary work on the boards?
Most importantly, can Nelson -- someone who quietly contemplated a transfer last season -- provide the link off the court between the four seniors and the five freshmen trying to fit into the team's rotation?
The first look, in Duke's opening exhibition game, was very positive. Nelson, the sophomore, appeared to be a much more effective player than the injured freshman Duke fans saw last season.
"It feels a lot different, not playing with all the injuries I had last year," Nelson said. "It's showing what kind of player I can be, and it can only get better."
FOOTBALL: THIRD-QUARTER QUESTIONS
The Duke football team recently outscored Clemson 14-7 in the third quarter at Death Valley. That was clearly the high point of the Blue Devils' 49-20 loss. It also was an anomaly for coach Ted Roof's 1-9 squad.
In Duke's first nine games, the Devils were outscored 139-29 in the third quarter, by far the worst period for the team. Going into the Clemson game, Duke had been outscored only 196-107 in the other three quarters. That's still not good, but it's a far cry from the disastrous 15 minutes after halftime.
Roof was asked why his team stumbled so often and so badly after the break.
"We've thought a lot about that," he said. "The first thing you start with is what adjustments can be made. But a lot of the things that are happening are the same things we're seeing in the first half when we're making the same calls. I go back, and I look at what I say at halftime, if we're ready to play when we come out of the tunnel. You look at everything, and I don't have an answer for you. I wish I did, because I would have corrected it a lot of weeks before now."
If Roof could have corrected his third-quarter woes earlier, it might have made a big difference in Duke's season. Aside from the rout of Division I-AA VMI, the Blue Devils have gone into halftime of three games with a realistic chance to win. In all three cases, the third quarter proved decisive.
East Carolina's 7-0 advantage in the third was the difference in a 24-21 loss. Navy's 14-3 edge in the third was the key to a 28-21 loss. Georgia Tech's 28-0 blitz in the third transformed a 10-7 Duke halftime lead into a 35-10 defeat.
On at least three other occasions -- at Virginia and at home against Florida State and Wake Forest -- Duke played a fairly competitive first half only to be buried in the third quarter. A 10-0 deficit in Charlottesville became 31-0 going to the fourth. FSU's 21-7 halftime lead blossomed to 38-14 after three quarters. Wake's 20-6 advantage at the break became a 37-6 lead after three.
Is the third-quarter showing at Clemson evidence that Roof has solved the problem with his team's performance coming out of the break? Winning the third quarter will not turn Duke's program around -- as the lopsided loss to the Tigers showed yet again -- but perhaps it's another small step in fixing the mess that is Duke football.