On Duke’s Relationship With The Three Ball, And What It Means For Their March Aspirations
They’re Tough To Beat When They’re On From Deep, But Don’t Discount Their Ability To Drive The Basketball.
The Duke Blue Devils have arguably the most talented team in college basketball. They sport a roster littered with McDonald’s All-Americans (nine to be exact) and are led by one of the games most respected coaches, in Mike Krzyzewski, but they haven’t quite lived up to expectations this season.
Outbursts from Grayson Allen and a Coach K injury brought the drama, while the highly touted youngsters have taken their time to figure out their place in the college game. Amile Jefferson hasn’t had much help in the front court, and Allen’s struggles have held Duke back to the point that they are no longer the clear-cut national championship favorite, but just another team in a crowded, meaningless poll.
However, their most recent win over North Carolina, their fifth in a row, showed just how good Duke can be when they play their best game. One discovery this year, in concert with seasons past in Durham, is that the Blue Devils approach their ceiling when they shoot it well from beyond the arc.
When you look at their losses this season, the 3-point percentage stands out. Forgetting the early season Kansas loss, where Duke’s frontcourt and rebounding were bigger issues, the dukies have lost when they have struggled from three.
In their most recent loss to North Carolina State, Duke shot 8/28 from three (28.6%), and lost by just two. At Louisville on Jan. 14, they shot a solid 41.7%, but made just five threes. In a loss at Florida State, Duke made a mere 7 of 24 attempts from deep (29.2%), and finally, in their road loss to Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils connected on only 5 of 16 trifectas (31.3%). The difference in their percentages in wins and losses is not drastic, (In wins — 38.18%, In losses — 34.58%) but to me tells a greater story.
To put it simply, the majority of Duke’s bad losses have come when they have been inefficient from deep, and their best play has been on the back of tremendous three point performances. During their current five game win streak, Duke has averaged 43.32% from distance, a number that would usurp the nation’s current leading 3-point percentage team, Weber State, who averages 43.2% from three.
Much of that increase has been the result of a rekindled Grayson Allen. Allen, as much as he is known for the athletic flare that landed him in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest, is a deadly shooter of the basketball (41.7% 3 pt shooter last season). He is currently hovering around 36% on the season, but there have been encouraging signs of improvement.
Allen has ascended at the perfect time for Duke, helping aid a five game winning streak that has the Blue Devils sniffing the top 10 again, with a tough Virginia match-up approaching tonight. Over his last five games, he has averaged 44.16% from three point range and 18.8 points per game, while missing just one shot at the free throw line. He has been big-time from long range and been almost as dangerous as a driver, getting to the free throw line and taking advantage when he’s gotten there. With the emergence of Kennard, Allen’s recent play could spark a Duke back court that has been longing for its missing piece.
When Allen, Kennard and the rest of the crew are hitting from distance, it complements another great skill a few of the dukies possess: the ability to get to the rack. Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard are known for a lot of things, but their ability to get to the rim is what adds to their versatility as NBA prospects.
Kennard may be known as a sniper, but when you break LeBron James’ high school scoring record, you don’t do it on jumpshooting alone. He has also thrived this season in the painted area, often starting with a ball fake and ending with a sort of contorted finish that makes you shake your head. I looked at the UNC game for some of Kennard’s unique driving ability and footwork, but he’s really been doing it all season. Check it out.
Good shooting opens the flood gates offensively. If you can pair the ability to shoot with driving skills, opponents are going to be outmatched most of the time. Kennard can both beat you from the outside and score inside, making him tough to guard, but even more importantly, he opens up drive and kick possibilities and creates more room for his teammates to operate by drawing multiple defenders.
The third catalyst to any March aspirations for Duke is Jayson Tatum. He has benefitted tremendously from the open space created by Allen and Kennard and is starting to figure out that he is basically impossible to guard one on one. When Duke is thriving at the three point line, and their guards are creating space, it has made driving room available for Tatum and allowed him to take advantage of his NBA frame that has scouts very excited.
Tatum has not only found his way as a driver of late, but he is impacting the game on the boards and even playmaking on occasion. During the Blue Devil’s five game win streak, he has delivered 12 assists and collected 41 rebounds, a team high in that stretch, clear of Jefferson’s 31 by a 10-spot.
Take Tatum’s improved play, and add it to Kennard and Allen’s combination of paint poise and perimeter prowess, and you have a pretty terrifying, three-headed monster. The three are starting to figure out their roles as the calendar approaches March, and that’s going to scare any opponent taking the court with the Blue Devils down the stretch.
The number three is going to be everything for Duke as the season approaches its most important portion. It’s the number Allen wears on his jersey, representing one of the crucial heartbeats of this team, but also tells the tale of the three point shot, which has been almost essential to Duke’s success this season. The final representation of the number three is in the “Big Three,” of Allen, Kennard and Tatum. Those are the guys on which Duke’s fate will rest. The team will go as far as those three take them, and if the pattern continues to trend upward as it has of late for the Blue Devils, they may be on track to play deep into the calendar’s third month.