January 10, 2006
DURHAM -- This was supposed to be the year that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski finally had some depth.
The combination of four experienced seniors, a potential all-star sophomore and a five-man recruiting class rated by almost every guru as the nation's best had seemed to guarantee that Coach K would finally -- maybe for the first time since 1999 -- have more than six or seven players to count on at crunch time.
"We'll have more depth," Krzyzewski told reporters before the start of preseason practice. He even joked about his desperation going into the 2004-05 season, when assistant coach Johnny Dawkins lured Reggie Love, cut from the Green Bay Packers training camp, back to play basketball. "We're not going to be recruiting anybody who used to play football for us to come back. I think our practices will be more competitive. That's really good for the development of your guys."
The Duke coach also suggested that his increased depth would give him more tactical flexibility.
"I think it lends itself to doing more things defensively," he said. "We were not a very complex defensive team last year. (Shelden Williams') shotblocking really saved the day for us. Whether we press or not, we can get after it and sub for J.J. (Redick) and Shelden. They can be higher-performance with a little less time."
Well, through the first part of the 2005-06 season, Duke's two stars were playing just a bit less time. Redick's average minutes were down from an ACC-high 37.2 per game to 35.2 (third in the ACC). Williams has gone from 33.6 minutes to 31.8. However, those numbers could be a bit misleading, in that they include a number of blowout games that allowed Krzyzewski to loosen up his bench-strings.
It's more interesting to check out the distribution of playing time in Duke's four most competitive games:
In the tight NIT final against Memphis, Williams played 39 minutes and Redick
- In fact, the five Duke starters all played at least 31 minutes. Just seven players saw action, and one of those (freshman Marty Pocius) played just five minutes.
At Indiana, Redick played all 40 minutes, while Williams -- in some first-half foul trouble -- played "just" 34. The top six players played 195 of a possible 200 minutes.
In the thriller against Virginia Tech, Williams played 38 minutes, Redick 34 and senior guard Sean Dockery 36. The top six players played all but 11 of the 200 minutes.
In the blowout of No. 2 Texas, Duke built a huge lead, but Redick still played 37 minutes and Williams 35. Dockery and freshman point guard starter Greg Paulus played 34 and 33 minutes,
As Duke prepared to enter the meat of the ACC schedule, Krzyzewski appeared to have nothing more than a six-man rotation. Four starters were averaging more than 30 minutes per game, freshman power forward Josh McRoberts was getting about 23 minutes and senior sixth man Lee Melchionni was averaging almost 22.
Pocius, the team's seventh man in minutes played, was averaging a mere 10 per game. Even that was misleading, since he averaged fewer than seven minutes in the team's four key games.
KEY COMPLICATIONS: INJURY, FRESHMEN
Where is all that depth Duke was supposed to have this season? Basically, two things happened.
The first was the injury to sophomore guard DeMarcus Nelson, which robbed Krzyzewski of a player who was projected to play a huge role. Before he was hurt in the opening minutes of the NIT semifinal victory over Drexel, Nelson was starting and averaging 26.3 minutes per game. Clearly, when Nelson returns to good health -- which should be very soon -- Krzyzewski will have an outstanding seven-man rotation.
Whether it gets any deeper than that will depend on the second factor that has led Duke to be thinner than expected, the uneven development of the heralded freshman class.
As it has played out, that great five-man class basically has become a two-man class, at least in terms of immediate impact. Paulus, who is leading the ACC in assists, and McRoberts, who is unofficially leading the league in highlight dunks, both are starting and making major contributions.
But the other three members of the class have yet to find even a secondary role, at least not when it matters. Pocius, forward Jamal Boykin and center Eric Boateng have played fewer minutes combined than sixth man Melchionni has played on his own.
Normally, you'd think that Krzyzewski would use his early season games to give his young players long looks. But in his system, minutes are earned in practice, and it's obvious that his freshman trio wasn't doing the things in practice that earn minutes. For instance, neither Boykin nor Boateng got even one minute in the opener against Boston U. That game wasn't a blowout, but Duke was up 14 at the half.
That trend continued through the Texas game, especially for Boykin and Boateng. The two young big men did get a combined 21 minutes in the rout of Seton Hall, but in Duke's other eight early games, Boykin made just four appearances for a total of six minutes, and Boateng made seven appearances for a total of 14. Even Pocius, who played in every game, was averaging fewer than 10 minutes.
However, something happened over the Christmas break, and in Duke's last four pre-ACC games, Krzyzewski's handling of his forgotten freshmen clearly changed. Pocius became a real seventh man, averaging more than 17 minutes per game. Boykin, who had been buried behind Boateng, clearly moved ahead of his classmate and averaged almost 10 minutes in those four games.
More importantly, the two freshmen were used early in games, when they played with Duke's regulars, and not just in garbage time.
"You can see them every day, getting better and better," Dockery said of the three freshmen. "I see more confidence. They're enjoying themselves more. I think they're ready. They've been practicing well."
Of course, the real proof that any of the three has arrived will be Krzyzewski's willingness to use him in a crucial situation. Pocius appears to be the most ready to contribute, and he's getting the most minutes at the moment.
Of course, Pocius also is the one most likely to be hurt by the return of Nelson. When the sophomore returns, he'll probably take many of those minutes that have been going to Pocius. And with Nelson around to share time with Redick, Dockery and Paulus, Duke is pretty well set on the perimeter.
Where Krzyzewski really needs an extra contributor is up front. After Williams and McRoberts, there's not another clear-cut post player in the rotation. When one of the two goes out, Melchionni -- a natural small forward -- usually assumes the power forward position. That's much like last year, when the team's third post player was either Melchionni, the 6-3 Nelson or football refugee Love.
Krzyzewski would have a lot more flexibility if the 6-7 Boykin or the 6-10 Boateng emerged as a dependable substitute in the post. It could mean a lot to the Devils if Boykin, the 2005 California player of the year, could claim that role. Even in limited minutes this season, he's emerged as a Cameron favorite, a sub who seems to energize the crowd every time he gets off the bench.
"He puts a smile on every time," Dockery said. "That's the thing about Jamal. He's a kid who dreamed of coming here, and he's going to give his all. He's getting better and better this year."
It's obvious that Duke is not going to blow anybody away with its depth this season. There will be no 10-man rotation, no waves of talent rolling off the bench. Still, the current six-man rotation will grow to seven when Nelson returns.
And if one of the three freshmen can step up just a little bit, Krzyzewski would be eight-deep. That might not sound like much, but it would be a deeper rotation than the Blue Devils have had in this century.