DJ Set: DJ Steward & Jalen Johnson press play for Duke

Duke basketball opened its 2020-21 season at home on Saturday — with an 81-71 win over Coppin State. Overall, this was a sloppy performance from the Blue Devils: 22 turnovers on offense, while allowing the Eagles to launch 35 3-point attempts. However, there are plenty of positives to draw from — starting with the play of DJ Steward — along with a few other notes and observations.

Let’s jump right in.


DJ Steward

During his debut in a Duke uniform, Steward put forth a monster effort as a second-side offensive weapon and off-ball mover. Steward scored 24 points on 18 attempts, including 4-of-9 on 3-point attempts. Only RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Marvin Bagley scored more points in their Duke rookie debuts.

Steward’s stroke is compact and he’s plenty comfortable shooting off movement. Early on, Steward showed easy relocation skills: hunting shots by darting into space along the weak side. Steward was shot ready, too. The Chicago product went 3-of-7 on spot-up 3-point attempts in the half court.

When Coppin State’s aggressive help defense scrambled around closed out hard on Steward, he immediately downshifted and attacked off the bounce. This is really poised catch-and-go activity from Steward (5-of-6 FGA at the rim).

This, however, was Steward’s most impressive possession of the game. First, Steward wisely fills to the corner was Wendell Moore Jr. drives. Following the block, Steward once again shows calm in a scramble situation; the rookie guard sprints to open real estate. A scoring opportunity is afoot.

With a quick pump fake, Steward drives left, attacking off advantage. Steward then Euro-steps around the help defender before dropping in an off-foot floater.

This is wonderfully fluid movement; Steward glides through and around eager help defenders. He’s the one dictating the flow. There’s nothing forced from Steward, though. Moving forward, that floater is an excellent counter to hard closeouts.


Johnson stuff the stat sheet

Brimming with lottery-level talent, Jalen Johnson showcased a variety of talents on Saturday. Johnson finished with 19 points (7-of-7 2PA), 18 rebounds (35.7 percent defensive rebound rate), five assists and four blocks.

As an athlete, Johnson jumps off the screen, though there are some potential concerns to monitor, too. However, his frame, vertical bounce and in-air body control are quite impressive. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is an absolute demon in the middle of the floor, especially in transition.

Johnson repeatedly flashed his visions — spraying passes to weak-side targets off a live dribble. The playmaking and grab-and-go potential are undeniable.

While he isn’t a runaway freight train like Zion in the open floor, Johnson grooves and knifes his way to the rim. Keep an eye on Johnson’s low shin angle here as he swoops in for the finish.

(When he plays next to Matthew Hurt, these transition pushes allow Hurt to sprint to the 3-point line and look for juicy catch-and-shoot opportunities.)

Johnson made it look easy at times on offense. He really is a smooth athlete — able to contort himself mid-air for artful finishes around the rim.

All in all, Johnson’s shot looked better than some initial expectations. There’s a long way to go here, but Johnson gets good wrist action as he snaps in his lone 3-pointer.

The decision-making will need to improve; Johnson had a couple awkward turnovers. That will come with time and improved chemistry, though. The bigger concerns may come on the defensive end.

Johnson has it in him to be a destructive help defender, and he will be asked to clean up a lot of stuff at the rim for the Blue Devils. That will certainly produce some highlights, too.

However, Johnson will need to improve his “when to help and when not to help” quotient when he’s put in these types of situations.

As far as his movement goes, Johnson — a truly gifted athlete — has some limitations. While guarding the basketball, he looks upright and stiff, not quite able to lock down in a stance and slide. (At other times, Johnson appears slightly hunched over and rigid guarding the ball.)

This can expose him to ceding driving lanes against zippier ball handlers and senseless fouls when he reaches in.

The same can be second as the second defender in ball-screen actions. Moore doesn’t do Johnson any favors here, but Johnson’s initial positioning is poor. He’s almost complete vertical as he lifts to the screen, too.

Dejaun Clayton rejects the screen, drives and easily gets piece of the paint, which forces Steward and Jordan Goldwire to rotate. Going up against a set half-court defense, the Eagles generate a wide-open 3-pointer off only one pass. That’s not acceptable.

Movement like this can turn an incredible talent — such as Johnson — into a traffic cone. It certainly helps to have the athletic gifts to cover for these types of sins, though.


Matthew Hurt: Year 2

The start of Hurt’s sophomore season should be marked by two distinct aspects. One, Hurt played a majority of his minutes as the team’s de facto center. Mark Williams and Henry Coleman played just five minutes combined, while Patrick Tape sat the entire game on the bench. Secondly, Duke experimented heavily with Hurt as a switch defender in the pick-and-roll.

It’s great to see Duke deploy these types of lineups; playing Hurt and Johnson as the 5 and 4, respectively, opens up so much for the Blue Devils. There will be growing pains, especially on the defensive end, but it can do wonders for Duke’s half-court offense. (With Hurt in foul trouble, Johnson played several minutes late in the second half as the team’s nominal center — surrounded by four guards/wings.)

Hurt isn’t exactly a natural switch defender, nor is he an amazing lateral athlete. However, can still slide and move his feet. This is a big ask, but Hurt competes in these situations.

Duke had Hurt switch when partnered defensively with Moore, Johnson and Joey Baker — among others. When Goldwire was on the ball, though, Hurt would drop as the Blue Devils tried to ice ball screens.

(Duke also used Jaemyn Brakefield as a switch defender against ball screens.)

Going up against Duke’s switching, Coppin State scored a measly 0.68 points per possession against half-court man-to-man defense, according to Synergy Sports. Additionally, the Eagles assisted on only 30.4 percent of their field goals — a product of that switch approach.


Hurt so good

On the other end of the floor, Hurt went through an entire package of finishing techniques, including a rim-run dunk off a delayed cut when Coppin State tried to ice Duke’s pick-and-roll.

Once again, Hurt flashed a little step-back 3-point game out of isolation, though he missed the shot. During his freshman season, this is something Hurt went to on occasion.

However, there’s still a bit of a processing delay when he catches in pick-and-pop or spot-up situations. With his size and high release point, Hurt has the ability to shoot this ball over the weak-side stunt. The load time on Hurt’s shot is a little slow. If he feels uncomfortable launching from deep here, then he should swing the ball quickly to Baker for an open 3.

When Hurt attacks off the dribble, he continues to shy away from or shrink from contact at the rim. It’s not on every paint attempt, but there’s a pattern. Over the offseason, a big deal was made regarding Hurt’s added weight. It’s time for that to pay off. In theory, that extra muscle should help him finish around the basket.


What’s better than free?

With the departure of Vernon Carey Jr., Duke is missing an efficient, high-volume post presence. Over the last few seasons, the post-up has played a critical role in Duke’s half-court offense: Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., Zion and Carey. Not only is this a source of high-percentage field goal attempts; it’s also a means to an end for generating fouls and free throw attempts.

As a team, Duke’s free throw attempt rate has dropped in recent years — even with some of these killer paint scorers. However, going up against Coppin State, the Blue Devils recorded just 10 free throw attempts: 15.6 percent three throw attempt rate. The Eagles got up 21 free throw attempts.

Turnovers certainly played a role; Duke coughed the ball up on 29 percent of its possessions. There were some truly head-scratching passes, too. It’s also just a one-game sample, but this is something to monitor.

Johnson, Hurt, Steward, Moore and the other rookie big guys must be able to pressure the rim — creating contact and finishing through it.


Roach for the stars

Clearly, Steward and Johnson were the headliners for Duke, but Jeremy Roach had a nice little game, too, minus the turnovers. Wearing the No. 3 jersey, Roach had moments defensively on the basketball that would make Tre Jones — that number’s previous tenant — proud.

Roach, who finished as a game-high +18, was billed as an intimidating point-of-attack defender. From the looks of things, Duke can utilize Roach as an on-ball pest — working to extend opposing offenses and delay actions. Along with Goldwire, Duke has multiple guards that can get in a stance and hound ball handlers.

Away from the basketball, though, Roach showed he can cause additional havoc.

Throwing a pass like this, while on your back, isn’t advisable; however, Roach does a tremendous job breaking on the ball. Roach should’ve dropped the ball off to Brakefield for an easy spike, but the reactive defensive play to generate the transition opportunity is pretty sweet.

Roach will have plenty of opportunities this season to work as Duke’s primary half-court initiator. In fact, that job is probably his for the taking. Goldwire is absolutely a part of Duke’s rotation, but he’s not a primary threat. (Steward, Johnson and Moore can handle some of the load as well.)

There will be rough patches, but Roach plays heads-up basketball and can pick out cutters off of a live dribble.

(Hey, look: more quality off-ball movement from DJ Steward.)

Out of Duke’s pistol action, following the fake handoff, Roach (four assists) leaves his feet with the ball, which is risky, but he’s able to hit Hurt on the the cut for a layup.

When Coppin State iced middle ball screens against Roach, the freshman guard showed the ability to read multiple lines of defensive code, hitting second-side targets with a skip pass.


Team Defense: Don’t evacuate the strong side

In the midst of the most challenge season/year ever, Coach K and his staff must prepare a young team to play at a high level. Talent isn’t the concern, neither is depth. Duke is loaded with versatile pieces. The concerns come more in terms of offensive cohesion in the half court — in a post-Tre Jones landscape — and attention to detail on defense.

Duke kept its half-court offense rather vanilla against Coppin State. The Blue Devils mostly went to their Horns (roll/pop) action, along with some 1-4 high continuity ball screen looks.

Making a young team switch 1-5 can be tricky, but there are also advantages. Players should know what their assignments are defensively: switch if there’s an on-ball screen. That’s simple, right?

Offenses can counter this with slips and various off-ball actions; defenders must still be assignment-ready. Mistakes will happen; gaps will be discovered and exploited. The approach worth it, however, provided the switching largely covers up other vulnerabilities.

In terms team defense, though, Duke made the same cardinal sin twice on Saturday: leaving the strong-side corner.

Johnson was the first culprit. After Moore and Goldwire switch the pick-and-pop action, Moore lunges at his new assignment. Before Clayton can drive into Duke’s defense, Johnson ventures away from Nendah Tarke in the near corner, which makes for an easy kick and corner 3-ball.

Now, Johnson is trying to make a play and help out a teammate. In some ways, that’s not so bad. But this type of move — leaving the strong-side corner shooter — is an absolute no-no. Moore needs to do a better job closing out under control, but Johnson has to stay home. If Clayton drives by Moore, Hurt and Steward have the help.

Later in the second half, Steward made the same mistake. Anthony Tarke rejects the screen; Moore is out of position, in auto-switch mode. Goldwire is beaten, but instead of letting help-side do its job, Steward leaves the corner. It’s another easy pitch-and-catch for three points.


Next up: Michigan State

It’s silly to react too hard here; the matchup with Coppin State is just one game. But in a matter of days, the competition level is set to spike: Michigan State (2-0) comes to Durham.

The Spartans are deep and experienced. This will provide another valuable learning experience for the Blue Devils.


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