Monday, January 08, 2007

ACC Preview #12: Duke

(A brief note before the start of the preview - I'm on vacation for a week. ACC leaderboard and Duke stats are updated through tonight. Enjoy your mid-January, and I'll see you on the 18th).

Record: 13-2 (0-1 ACC)

Greg Paulus (68.9% minutes, 1.29 PPWS, 21.8 A/B%, 2.5 Stl%)
Jon Scheyer (83.5% minutes, 1.15 PPWS, 10.3 A/B%)
DeMarcus Nelson (79.2% minutes, 1.24 PPWS, 14.5 DRB%, 10.2 A/B%, 2.6 Stl%)
Josh McRoberts (84.8% minutes, 1.07 PPWS, 18.7 DRB%, 21.4 A/B%, 5.6 Blk%)
Gerald Henderson (46.1% minutes, 0.87 PPWS, 13.2 DRB%)

Key Reserves:
David McClure (53.2% minutes, 1.11 PPWS, 19.9 DRB%, 2.9 Blk%, 4.2 Stl%)
Lance Thomas (34.0% minutes, 1.15 PPWS, 9.7 ORB%, 3.3 Stl%)
Brian Zoubek (24.1% minutes, 1.17 PPWS, 19.6 ORB%, 20.5 DRB%, 2.9 Blk%)
Martynas Pocius (18.8% minutes, 0.83 PPWS)

Biggest Win:
71-56 over Air Force on a neutral court in Kansas City.

Worst Loss:
67-69 at home to Virginia Tech to open ACC play.

Conference Schedule:
Play Twice: Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Boston College, Maryland, Clemson
Play at Home: Virginia Tech, Florida State, Wake Forest
Play on the Road: North Carolina State, Virginia, Miami

Duke is a young team, even in a conference that is young on the whole. They start a junior, a two sophomores, a freshman, and a redshirt sophomore (with a couple other freshmen sometimes taking his place). On offense, Duke has played young. It’s a team that doesn’t always look like it’s working well together, that doesn’t have a well-defined sense of roles yet, and that turns the ball over (a lot). But for whatever reason, on defense these guys look like seasoned veterans. In terms of raw defensive efficiency, Duke plays the best defense in the conference (6th in the country). And, once it’s adjusted for quality of opponent (an adjustment performed by Ken Pomeroy, who is far more mathematically sophisticated than I am), it’s the best defense in the country so far this year. Defense will keep Duke in many games this year, and will outright win a few (see, already, Georgetown, Holy Cross, and Indiana).

Duke’s most reliable scorer this year has been 6’4” junior DeMarcus Nelson. Nelson has continually improved his outside shooting, and this year it’s been one of his biggest strengths – he’s hit 44.3% of his 61 3-point attempts, which has led to a team leading .609 EFG%. He’s an extremely athletic guard who loves slashing to the basket and who finishes pretty well around the rim. However, he’s not the greatest ball-handler, and he has this tendency (which seems unchanged in three years) to drive right into the defense and cough the ball up. As a result, his turnover percentage sits at 4.6%. DeMarcus would be benefited greatly by watching some videotape of Daniel Ewing, who developed a very nice mid-range game by learning he didn’t always have to drive all the way to the hoop. Nelson has also been a lock-down defender who’s quick enough to stay with smaller guards and strong enough to play forwards in the post. Nelson generates turnovers (2.6 Stl%) and is a valuable rebounder as well (14.5 DRB%).

Even with Nelson, the perceived go-to guy, the guy with the most talent and skills on the team is 6’10” sophomore Josh McRoberts. McRoberts has been touted by a lot of people as a guy who can do anything, but that’s not really true. He’s still extremely uncomfortable with his back to the basket in the low blocks. As good a ball-handler as he is, he’s slow on the dribble, and can’t really beat big men to the hoop. And his jumper leaves a little bit to be desired. But enough nit-picking – McRoberts is plain fun to watch. He has the court vision of a point guard, and nearly the passing skills to match. He makes some beautiful passes, both in the half court and on the break, and the offense seems to run well with him distributing the ball out of the high post. McRoberts has, in the course of half a season, transformed himself from a defensive liability to a defensive stud. Last year in the loss to Georgetown, he was on the court for 18.5 possessions, and Georgetown scored 36 points. This year in the win over Georgetown, he played 59 defensive possessions, and the Hoyas scored 49 points. Now, the two obviously aren’t perfect direct comparables, but his defense is markedly improved. He’s a good back to the basket defender who rebounds and blocks shots well. Both his 18.7 DRB% and 5.6 Blk% are among the ACC’s best. On offense, McRoberts is still more of a passer than a scorer, as evidenced by his sub-par PPWS (1.07) and EFG% (.489). He sports the most assists (at the 2nd best rate) and the best A/TO margin on the team. If he starts to figure out how to score more effectively, look out – there might be no stopping him.

Duke has used a bit of a rotation at the “4” spot in the starting lineup. Early in the season, 6’8” freshman Lance Thomas was getting most of the duty. Thomas has shown flashes of brilliance so far this year. He’s a heady player on the court who does a lot of little things – rebounds (9.7 ORB%), steals (3.3%), etc – well. Thomas has also been a capable scorer, although not really a guy the offense ever runs through by design – he gets a lot of put back shots or baskets in transition, as he can really get out and run for a big guy. He’s been a little hampered lately by an ankle injury, and Duke will need him healthy as the season goes on. Bonus Lance fact – he’s one of 4 players in the conference with more than 8 minutes who has zero assists.

More recently, with Thomas hurt, Duke has gone small and started 6’4” freshman Gerald Henderson. Henderson oozes athleticism, and has made some of the more exciting plays on the season. Duke plays some of its best defense when he’s on the court, holding opponents to .751 points per possession. Henderson has shown a lot of confidence for a freshman, translating into taking 24.4% of Duke’s shots. Problem is, his shooting has been, well, real bad. He shoots just 39.2% on 2s and 30% on 3s, for an EFG% under .400 and a PPWS that, at 0.87, is lower than anyone else in the ACC who has played as many minutes. Law of averages (and the naked eye) says that this simply can’t stay this bad all season, and is bound to improve. Let’s hope so, because he’s shown no indication that he’ll stop shooting.

Third in the rotation, 6’6” redshirt soph David McClure has earned one start and a lot of finishes. He’s essentially the 6th starter, and he plays more minutes than either Thomas or Henderson. McClure is not much of an offensive threat, although his shooting numbers aren’t bad – 51.1% from 2 and 60% (on just 5 attempts) from 3. His main asset is as a lock-down defender and a solid rebounder. McClure’s 19.9 DRB% is the best on the team (of players with qualifying minutes) and among the tops in the conference. He also blocks a healthy amount of shots (2.9%) and leads the team in steals (4.2%). Like Henderson, Duke plays some of its best defense when he’s on the court (75.26 DRating). However, Duke plays some of its worst offense when both he and Henderson are on the court – 98.25 ORating with Henderson, and 96.80 with McClure. Unless and until one of them turns into a viable offensive contributor, Duke can’t really afford to keep both players on the court at the same time.

The major minutes in the backcourt go to 6’5” freshman Jon Scheyer and 6’1” soph Greg Paulus. Scheyer has shown hints of a silky smooth shooting touch, but has yet to really unleash the pure scorer’s mentality that was part of his reputation coming out of high school. Jon got off to a hot start shooting, but has cooled down considerably in his last 4 games – just 4 of 20 from beyond the arc. Once again, law of averages suggests that this won’t continue, as does the naked eye. Scheyer has also played extremely good defense – there’s little drop-off between him and Nelson, and he’s much more defensively developed than Redick (the guy he’s replacing in the lineup) was at his age. Paulus has had a very up and down season. On one hand, his shooting stroke has been lights out. He hits 47.6% of his 3s, and leads the team with a 1.29 PPWS and is second with an EFG% squarely at .600. On the other hand, his turnover problem is well documented – his 7.1 TO% is among the league’s worse, and his 1.08 A/TO ratio is very low for someone who assists 21.8% of his team’s baskets. Paulus’ defense has also been criticized (he’s a step slow, and quicker guards leave him feeling like a Linda Ronstadt blew by-you) and the numbers reflect that – Duke’s DRating is 84.68 with Greg on the floor, which is still lights out defense, but is the 2nd worst DRating by player on the team. The team’s margin is also lower when he’s out there, at only 17.73, a full 4¾ points below the overall efficiency margin for the team. I remain convinced that Paulus can be more of an asset than a liability if he can cut down his mental mistakes and play a little more within his capabilities. Duke certainly have him play like he did against VT during the conference season (which he almost certainly won’t – 6 turnovers in 18 minutes is a number that has statistical anomaly written all over it).

Backing up (and sometimes playing alongside) McRoberts in the post is 7’1” freshman Brian Zoubek. Zoubek is a little bit of a statistical anomaly in and of himself. He’s the focus of the team’s offense while he’s in, taking 29.1% of shots and scoring 33.2% of points. He shoots alright from the field (53%) and is good in getting to and converting from the line (71.8 FT% and a 73.6 FTRate). He’s also a monster on the glass, pulling in 19.6% of offensive rebounds and 20.5% of defensive boards. Looking at these numbers, it’s a wonder he only plays 10 minutes a game. One reason is his turnovers, a shockingly high 9.9 TO%. Complicating matters further is his defense. When he gets put in isolation, he’s looked real bad, particularly if said isolation occurs more than 8 feet from the hoop. However, as bad as it’s looked, it hasn’t had bad effects – Duke’s DRating of 74.58 while he’s on the court is the team’s best. The team’s ORating while Zoubek is on the court is its second best, at 107.20. The efficiency margin this results in is +32.62, which is a full 10 points above the team's margin as a whole. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – more minutes for the big guy would be a good thing. Doesn’t need to be a lot more, but even 15 minutes a game (instead of 10) could make a difference.

Finally, the 9th man off the bench is 6’5” soph Martynas Pocius. Touted as a slasher and scorer coming in, his offense has really struggled – he shoots just 33.3% from 2 and 27.8% from 3, and has an ugly 5.3 TO%. His minutes will remain limited as long as these struggles continue, because he’s not such a solid defender that his defense alone would merit him being out on the floor. He’s currently played a shade under 8 minutes/game, but look for that number to drop to around 5 in conference play.

Duke has enjoyed a lot of success in the early going – too much for one hiccup against Virginia Tech to spell doom and gloom for the season. However, that doesn’t mean that everything is perfectly rosy up ahead either. At some point, the offense for Duke is going to need to step up, because defense alone simply won’t win us enough games. I actually think that this team compares very favorably to UNC last year, a team that relied a lot on youth and struggled early before gelling in the second half of the season. UNC had 52 fewer turnovers in its last 8 games than it did in its first 8. Its offense went from barely over a point per possession in the first 8 games to 1.15 ppp in the last 8. That team’s constant was also defense – they posted a conference leading 95.53 DRating that stayed pretty steady throughout conference play. If Duke can keep up the defensive intensity, the odds are that the offense will eventually improve. If the offense ever really gets clicking, this could turn into one of those teams that no one wants to play in March.

Duke obviously has a long road to go in the season, and it’s one that’s made longer by the conference schedule. Playing UNC, Maryland, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and BC in doubleheaders is as tough a schedule as anyone in the conference. They got a little help in their single-header road games (Miami, NC State, Virginia), but it’s still brutal. The only silver lining is that it’s back-loaded, which gives the team still more time to come together. The final 8 conference games are: vs. FSU, vs. UNC, @ Maryland, @ BC, vs. Georgia Tech, @ Clemson, vs. Maryland, and @ UNC – this is probably the toughest 8 game stretch for any team in the ACC this season, and it’ll really define Duke’s season. I’m confident that the team will be ready for the stretch run by the time Feb. 4 (FSU) rolls around, and that the conference record will look something like 10-6 when it’s all said and done, which sounds sub-par compared to Duke teams of past, but for this team, and against this schedule, it would be a very good finish. Anything better will just be gravy.

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