Here’s what I’ll be tracking and keeping an eye on at Duke’s
Our first look at Duke’s men’s basketball team comes Friday night with the program’s Countdown to Craziness event at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Introductions are probably required for a team with 11 newcomers, and we’ll get those – along with dance routines and such.
The scrimmage portion of the evening is what matters most, at least for these purposes.
There is, of course, a limit here. Duke scrimmaging Duke is a zero-sum game. The Blue Devils’ closed-door scrimmage against Houston next weekend and exhibition against Fayetteville State (Nov. 2) will be better gauges for some of what’s listed below.
Here’s what I’ll be watching at Duke’s Countdown to Craziness:
1. How much can Dariq Whitehead do?
Duke’s heralded freshman has been out for about a month and a half because surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot.
Coach Jon Scheyer said at last week’s ACC Tipoff that Whitehead is “progressing” and moving along in the rehab process. There still hasn’t been a timeline set for Whitehead’s return, though Scheyer has seemed encouraged in updating the status of the 6-7, 220-pound freshman wing a couple of times in the last few weeks.
There’s a bit of a parallel to last season here: AJ Griffin, with a more extensive injury history than Whitehead, didn’t participate in last year’s Countdown to Craziness scrimmage. But he went through warmups and looked unhindered, which was the first indication that he would be healthy enough to play in Duke’s first game.
We’ll see where Whitehead is in that progression on Friday night.
2. Jeremy Roach as captain.
It’s not like this is measurable Friday night or any other night, for that matter.
But particularly early in the season, it’s going to be interesting to watch how Roach – the Blue Devils’ lone captain and only player who’s been in the program for two years – communicates with teammates and coaches.
Given the talent levels around him, Roach probably won’t lead Duke in scoring this season. Scheyer sees it as a position-less offense and given the versatility of the roster, Roach might not even be the primary facilitator in some games.
The 6-2, 180-pounder will be Duke’s most-important player and, more importantly, will be its leader.
3. Balanced teams or starters together?
The answer here is probably an easy one to guess, at least based on previous years.
Last year’s first half of the scrimmage saw a fairly even split – though Mark Williams and Paolo Banchero were on the same team because Mike Krzyzewski wanted them to get comfortable playing with each other.
Again, it’ll be interesting to see if that’s how things are handled this year, too.
4. Dereck Lively II’s versatility
The 7-1, 230-pound center and newly minted preseason ACC rookie of the year isn’t likely to be the rim protector that Williams was.
He’s going to bring more to the table offensively, though, which includes the same rim-running on pick-and-rolls that helped Williams become a first-round pick, and includes range out to the 3-point stripe.
Lively added range to his arsenal late in his prep career and it’s one of the reasons he’s such a tantalizing NBA prospect.
It’s worth remembering that Williams made a 3-pointer during last season’s Countdown to Craziness; he missed the only 3 he attempted last season, which came against Gonzaga in a game that he was 8-for-8 from the field otherwise.
5. Everyone else’s versatility
Lively is hardly the only Blue Devil whose versatility is intriguing; he’s not even the only 7-footer in the freshman class who fits that label.
Filipowski’s ability to play with Lively, and the two 7-footers’ games complementing each other, is going to give Duke a size advantage against most teams. Filipowski’s floor game should then allow Scheyer to move him to the 5 and put a smaller player – like freshman wing Mark Mitchell (6-8, 220) – at the 4.
Mitchell’s preparedness to contribute will determine a good deal of how multiple Scheyer’s lineups can vary. He’s a 6-8 lefty slasher who has 3-point range and, given Whitehead, Lively and Filipowski all being top-5 recruits, it’s easy to forget Mitchell was also a 5-star.
Versatility extends to the backcourt, where Roach is easy to slot in as the point guard, and then we’ll see how far along freshman Tyrese Proctor is and how many different spots Illinois transfer Jacob Grandison can play.
6. Defensive buy-in
Scheyer hasn’t been shy about his dedication to making this team an “elite” defensive team and based on the last few points, the Blue Devils certainly have the size and length to control games with their defense.
The ability to switch 1-through-4 almost feels like a guarantee with Duke’s collective athleticism and size. Getting over the hump in switching 1-through-5 depends on Lively and Northwestern transfer Ryan Young’s ability to stay in front of smaller, quicker guards.
This is where, as long as the structure of the event is similar to last season’s version, it’ll be interesting to watch the first half of the scrimmage to see which players hold up defensively against other rotation players.
7. Backcourt depth
We know Roach will probably play as many minutes as Scheyer wants from his junior point guard, and it’s a good bet that Grandison and Proctor take good chunks of the available backcourt minutes.
Here’s where the subset questions come in, though.
How much can freshman Jaden Schutt offer right away, and how can he offer other than 3-point shooting? How far has Jaylen Blakes come in the past year and will he be able to spell Roach for a few minutes at a time? What’s the extent of Harvard transfer Kale Catchings’ role?
Such questions are more likely to be answered with the closed-door scrimmage and exhibition, but are at least worth keeping in mind Friday night.
8. Christian Reeves’ development
As long as Lively and Young stay healthy, Reeves is likely to redshirt this season – something explained in the recruiting process and understood when he arrived at Duke.
But it’s still worth monitoring how far along Reeves is. The 7-1, 245-pounder is raw and was a late-developer, going underrecruited because of a stress fracture and contracting COVID during the summer between his junior and senior seasons.
Practicing against Lively this season should foster along that development.
9. Open locker room returns
This is more inside baseball but it might be the most-exciting part of the night for yours truly.
Duke is going back to opening its locker room after games, which provides media a level of access that’s rare across college basketball. Players are available for interviews near their lockers, which makes for a more conducive atmosphere for insight into games (or in this case, a scrimmage).
It makes sense for a program that wants to prepare its players for the NBA, where players are required to be available both before and after games, and benefits media.
Obviously without media in the building for the 2020-21 season there wasn’t an open locker room, and last season’s post-game interviews were conducted in a large meeting room – so this will be the first time since pre-COVID that Duke’s locker room will be open.
10. Different feeling?
So just how different will things be at Duke when moving from Krzyzewski to Scheyer?
There has been plenty of time to prepare for it; yet it’s still worth preparing for a shock that Duke’s coach of 42 years will no longer be calling the shots.
The question worth answering is whether it’ll be noticeable at Countdown to Craziness. Or if it’ll be a business as usual (as possible) moving into Scheyer’s tenure.
Only time – starting Friday night – will tell.