November 6, 2007
DURHAM Coach Mike Krzyzewski promised that his 2007-08 Duke basketball team was going to play at a faster tempo this season. He told reporters that unlike recent Blue Devil teams, this squad would press on defense, run on offense and use a lot of people off the bench.
So far, so good.
Of course, Krzyzewski's Blue Devils merely have played two exhibition games and the competition is not what it will be when the real season starts much less what it will be during the ACC season.
But it's impossible to watch this team in action and not understand that Duke is playing at a much faster speed this season. It's like the difference between a record that plays at 33 rpms and a 45 ... or to update the reference, the difference between downloading on a dial-up modem and DSL.
Duke scored an astonishing 134 points in its exhibition victory over Shaw, which is coached by Krzyzewski protégé Robert Brickey. Two nights later, the Devils overcame a slow start against defending Division II national champion Barton and still hit 105 points scoring 96 points in the final 31 minutes.
More impressively, Duke limited Shaw to 55 points (17 in the first half), forcing 34 turnovers and limiting the Bears to 32.3 percent shooting. Barton managed just 44 points (17 in the second half) with 36 turnovers and 34.0 percent shooting.
"We would love to defend the way Duke does," Barton coach Ron Lievense said. "We're trying to tailor our defense after Duke, but we can't simulate the athletes, the size or speed they present. Their guys got going, and they never shut down."
Krzyzewski can play that kind of pressure because he's using more players than in recent years, when his top two or three players would have to pace themselves for 35 minutes a game. So far, nobody has played more than 25 minutes, and 10 players are seeing significant action it will be 11 when junior David McClure recovers enough from preseason knee surgery to rejoin the rotation.
"We started to put (this system) in last year, then we were not sure if we were going to have our point guard (when Greg Paulus injured his foot in preseason practice). Then (Gerald Henderson) was out for preseason. We didn't have the depth to play it then. Or the point guard."
Now Krzyzewski has all the depth in the world including two point guards.
Indeed, the competition between the veteran Paulus, healthy again after offseason foot surgery, and freshman Nolan Smith, the son of former Louisville and NBA standout Derek Smith, is one of the more interesting stories of Duke's preseason.
It had always been assumed that Smith, a blazingly fast 6-2 combo guard who started alongside talented point guards Ty Lawson and Brandon Jennings in his two seasons at Oak Hill Academy, would see a lot of his game action as the wing guard, playing in the same backcourt with the veteran Paulus.
Instead, Krzyzewski is rotating his two playmakers at the same spot keeping a freshman point guard in the game to attack the ball on defense and run his high-speed offense. He said that Paulus and Smith would only play together in late-game situations, when Duke was trying to protect a lead and needed to load up with ballhandlers and good free throw shooters.
The two guards never played a second together in either exhibition. Paulus started both games and played a total of 38 minutes, while Smith got 40 minutes off the bench (neither point guard was on the floor for the final two minutes of the Shaw rout).
In that time, Paulus combined for 12 points, seven assists, four turnovers and two steals. Smith had 29 points, 13 assists, four turnovers and three steals.
Although Krzyzewski earlier praised Smith as the team's best on-the-ball defender, he also defended Paulus' much-maligned defense.
"Greg's defense has improved tremendously," Krzyzewski said. "He moves his feet better. He's attacking instead of reacting. He's worked at it. He's as hard a worker as we have, and he knows he needs to do that. Playing against Nolan every day in practice helps him."
DEVILS DEEP ACROSS THE BOARD
The Paulus-Smith rotation is reflected on the wing, where Krzyzewski can mix or match any combination of returning starters DeMarcus Nelson, Jon Scheyer, Marty Pocius and Henderson, and in the post, where freshmen Kyle Singler and Taylor King rotate with sophomores Lance Thomas and 7-1 Brian Zoubek.
Amazingly, all 10 of those players scored in double figures against Shaw. That's never happened in a regulation game. And as far as anybody can remember, Duke's never put 10 players in double figures in an exhibition, either.
The most pleasant surprises for Krzyzewski are the play of Henderson and Singler.
Henderson, hobbled by a preseason injury and conditioning problems last year, rarely got to show off his extraordinary athleticism as a freshman. Now he's healthy and in shape and appears to be Duke's best all-around athlete since Corey Maggette's days with the 1999 Duke team. He scored 31 points and 12 rebounds in the two exhibitions and made at least half a dozen "SportsCenter"-worthy plays.
But Singler, voted the preseason ACC rookie of the year at Operation Basketball, has been the team's best player in the exhibitions. He scored 23 points in 19 minutes against Shaw, hitting 10 of 11 shots from the floor. The 6-8 Oregon native followed that up with 27 points in 25 minutes against Barton, hitting 10 of 12 shots from the floor.
All three of his misses have come on 3-pointers, as he's gone 19 of 19 from two-point range so far. He's added 15 rebounds, four blocked shots and four steals.
"Obviously, he's a special player," Krzyzewski said. "He's a two-handed player, and he plays hard every second he's on the court."
The addition of Singler, Smith and King (Duke's top rebounder per minute so far) have obviously made a difference to this team. The health of Paulus and Henderson, plus the maturity of Thomas and Scheyer, also seem to help. The new style seems to have energized Pocius, a little-used player in the last two years but a real spark off the bench so far.
And as good as Duke was in its two exhibitions, the Devils should be much better in one area 3-point shooting. A year ago, Duke shot 38.1 percent from behind the arc (second-best in the ACC). With all those shooters back (Josh McRoberts, the only player missing from that team, was 5-of-23 on 3s), Duke opened the exhibition season by missing 41 of 55 3-point tries.
"It made (our halfcourt defense) look good," Barton's Lievense said. "Duke didn't shoot well. They had a lot of open looks. There will be a lot of days when they knock those down."
It's ridiculously early, but not too early for the buzz about this team to rise.
"We've made improvement," said Brickey, who lost to Duke 96-45 in an exhibition game before last season. "Their improvement is much better. We played them last year, ... (and) they are a much improved team."
Of course, it's reasonable to retain some skepticism. A year ago, Duke scored 96 and 92 in its two exhibitions, then didn't hit 90 again (and only hit 80 three times). It's not likely that the Blue Devils will be putting 134 points on any real opponents.
But it is looking more and more like this Duke team will be very different in tempo and style than what we've become used to seeing in Durham.