5 Takeaways From Duke Basketball’s Canadian Tour
For three games over six days against some of Canada’s leading collegiate talent, college basketball fans were able to catch an early glimpse of the 2018–2019 Duke squad last week on the new ESPN+ platform, part of a partnership that will also feature a documentary set to release in October on the team’s preseason development.
But avid followers desperately waiting for a chance to watch the Blue Devils’ historic roster in its full glory were left wanting, as top-ranked freshmen Cam Reddish and Tre Jones sat out the entire trip due to injury and sophomore sharp shooter Alex O’Connell suffered a facial fracture early in the first game, sidelining him for the rest of the trip.
With two probable starters and O’Connell’s experience/shooting unavailable for action, viewers were left to enjoy a “Duke Lite” version.
Great taste. Less filling.
All eyes turned to Canadian native and consensus #1 freshman R.J. Barrett who returned to his hometown of Mississauga for the first two games. But Canadians also have an internet connection, which means they were acutely aware of social media sensation Zion Williamson, the 6’7, 275 lb “Mack truck with ballet dancer’s feet” as Jay Bilas described him.
The duo did not disappoint.
Barrett and Williamson both averaged 30 points per game with highlight reels to match. And with little scoring ability surrounding them, both freshmen earned plenty of playing time and field goal attempts.
But the freshmen on the court and on the bench weren’t the only noteworthy takeaways. Here’s 5 observations from Duke’s Canadian tour.
1. Free throws
With all of the notes Coach Krzyzewski and his staff will take back to Durham, It’s hard to imagine a more glaring area for improvement than free throws.
Last year, Duke ranked 27th in free throw attempts and 184th in free throw percentage, shooting 71% from the line. Not great, but also not terrible considering big men Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III held the largest number of total and per-game attempts. But Duke has flipped the script this year with a very guard heavy roster, which should mean solid numbers from the charity stripe.
However, the team shot just 55% on 60 attempts, with Barrett and Williamson accounting for the lionshare. This will definitely be a point of emphasis for the remainder of the season as Duke’s offense will rely heavily on slashing guard play and scrappy rebounding.
2. Zion Williamson’s Shot
If you’ve heard or seen anything about Zion Williamson’s game, it has either been about his freak athleticism or the question marks around his perimeter game (I do a full breakdown his pros and cons here).
After three games against bottom-tier D1 talent and a hefty grain of salt, it’s clear Williamson will be a legitimate force at both ends. What’s more clear is his growing ability to be effective from the outside, rather than just breakaways, put backs, and allyoops.
Williamson made his first three three-point attempts in game one, sending a shockwave through college basketball punditry. He them converted on a smooth mid-range pull up in game three, which is a part of his game no one has seen. These developments combined with his extraordinary ability to elevate and finish tough shots in the lane will add much-need dynamism to Duke’s offense.
3. The Bolden Dilemma
Junior Center Marques Bolden has proven to be somewhat of an enigma over the past two years. A five-star recruit with tremendous upside and obvious skill, his production has not met expectations to say the least. Unfortunately, this three-game stretch showed more of the same.
Duke fans had reason to be optimistic about Bolden’s Junior season, as Krzyzewski touted his potential in a June interview. “In Marques, I think we could have as good a big guy as there is in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “In his first two years, he got hurt during the season. … Marques has really improved. We think he could have a huge year.”
But Bolden’s performance last week underwhelmed expectations to say the least. He did not start game three, played 39 minutes over three games, scored zero points, and committed four turnovers. Not great.
Hopefully the coaching staff will be able to light a fire under Bolden before kicking off the season against red-hot Kentucky, and the Blue Devils will need every ounce of experience and depth up front to make a championship run.
What the team lacks in size they made up for in toughness. The classic “Duke grit” was on full display in diving for loose balls, snatching second-chance rebounding, and flying around on transition defense.
Of course their opponents were not as athletically gifted as the ones they’ll face in the regular season, but Duke was aggressive (almost to a fault) on defense and definitely made it a point to win 50/50 balls. Coach K was seen getting on Joey Baker for not diving on a ball in the backcourt as Baker walked to the bench in game one.
This will be a key component for the Blue Devils this season, as they won’t have the luxury of the Carter Jr. and Bagley twin towers to clean up the glass and protect the rim.
5. International Rules
Among the list of oddities Duke faced abroad was the shift from traditional NCAA rules to international FIBA rules. This included an extended three-point line, shortened shot clock, and quarters rather than halves, which meant a different timeout schedule and 5 team fouls to qualify for the bonus, with fouls resetting after each quarter.
These might seem like insignificant changes on the surface, but their impact was profound both for the players and the fans. A shortened shot clock meant a greater sense of urgency on offense and rewarded defenses for forcing rushed looks. Perhaps the most meaningful difference, though, was in the foul count.
It has become more obvious over the years how traditional NCAA rules around time and foul structure are hampering both the player and fan experience. Seven team fouls per half and five personal fouls to last two 20-minute stretches means coaches are forced to pull a player after only their second foul in the first half and fans are relegated to watching teams walk up and down the floor for an endless barrage of free throws with 12 minutes still remaining.
However, the international rules seemed to naturally deter unnecessary foul trouble while maintaining a fast-paced flow. Less abrupt TV timeouts, less penalty free throws, faster offense, all good things. It’s doubtful the NCAA will alter these fundamental components anytime soon, but it’s hard to argue against the merits of a more internationally-minded game.
It’s a long way from their season opener on November 6 in the Champions Classic, but if Duke can stay healthy and sort out their front court question marks, the team’s Canadian excursion points toward a highly talented, capable, and tough group that clearly have their eyes set on the program’s sixth national championship.