Duke basketball went on the road for the first time this season and picked up a conference win over Notre Dame, 75-65.
Playing without the ubiquitous talents of Jalen Johnson (foot), Duke altered its starting lineup (once again) and rotation. For the first time this season, Duke started three (small) guards: Jeremy Roach, DJ Steward and Jordan Goldwire.
That trio is now +22 in 60 minutes of action this season, per Pivot Analysis. It’s an interesting mix, too. As Duke works to replace Tre Jones, there’s no obvious engine of half-court offense on the roster. The Blue Devils don’t have a singular player that can break a defense down from 20 feet out, every time down the floor. Roach (solid burst) and Steward have shown flashes; Goldwire can work as an offensive caretaker. (Roach will get there eventually, but it will take time.) Play those three together, though, and the offense can spread floor with multiple creators.
The decision to start and play Roach, Steward and Goldwire together for extended minutes proved fruitful up in South Bend. Let’s dive in to see what went right on the road for Duke.
Despite attempting only five free throws, Duke scored a season-best 1.24 points per possession. It’s important to remember: Mike Brey’s program routinely produces low-foul rate defenses. That’s by design. However, this is a troubling early-season trend for this Duke team, which has a free throw attempt rate of just 22.3 percent. It’s only five games, but this would easily be the lowest free throw attempt rate for Duke during the KenPom era — dating back to the 1996-97 season.
As a team, the Blue Devils attempted only 15 3-pointers at Notre Dame: 25 percent of their field goal attempts. That’s a low rate, too, but Duke splashed 8 of those 15 attempts, which helps matters.
More importantly: while playing through the interior offense of Matthew Hurt, Duke took care of the basketball. The Blue Devils recorded only eight turnovers — roughly 13 percent of their possessions. Mike Krzyzewski and his staff will take that number every day of the week.
Duke was especially sloppy with the ball in wins over Coppin State and Bellarmine; the Blue Devils posted turnover rates north of 25 percent in each of those games.
As efficient as Duke was offensively, the Blue Devils assisted on just 26 percent of their field goals. Assist rate is an imperfect metric; Duke moved the ball reasonably well in this game. That number does speak to how much individual shot making occurred in this game, though. Winning on the road becomes a lot easier when your best players generate offense and make shots.
Sets That Worked
In terms of half-court offense, Duke isn’t necessarily splitting the atom. There’s very little misdirection and false motion; opposing teams likely have a good idea of what’s coming at them. That, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop.
Duke opened the game with five straight possessions of its continuity ball screen offense, which starts out of a 1-4 high look.
The Blue Devils didn’t generate much slash-and-kick offense off these looks. However, the emphasis was on getting Hurt the ball in the paint: high-low action or isolated post-ups.
Regardless of what Duke ran, Hurt (+10 in 38 minutes) was the central hub on offense. The objective was clear: get the ball to Hurt in the post. If he’s single covered, let him go to work (28 percent usage). If a double comes, pass out to spot-up shooters (3 assists).
According to Synergy, Hurt has scored 1.64 points per post-up possession (78.6 FG%) this season.
When Notre Dame cut Duke’s lead to six points (25-19), Coach K called a timeout with 6:58 before halftime. Following the timeout, Duke went to its floppy/motion action on five straight possessions (1.4 points per possession). Three of those possessions involved a Hurt post touch — all three resulted in points, too.
On the fifth straight floppy possession, Wendell Moore Jr. (26.1 2P%) got all the way to the rim, but smoked the layup attempt. After that, Brey flipped Notre Dame to zone on defense. (That move lasted one possession: Roach hit a floater and Brey called a timeout.)
It’s not exactly Nowitzki-esque, but that little fadeaway jumper of Hurt has proven to be quite a weapon. Overall, Hurt has been excellent offensively this season: 18.8 points per game on 22 percent usage and 59 eFG%.
Unless it’s a straight line drive, Hurt doesn’t usually get to the rim in the half-court off his own dribble. But Hurt has enough of a handle to get to his spots and shoot over the top of his defender, thanks to a high release point.
Even when Hurt sat for a brief period in the first half, Duke still used floppy to establish a presence in the paint. Mark Williams got a bucket from this action, too.
As usual, Duke also went to its tried-and-true high-low action out of its Horns set. The Blue Devils found success here as well.
Hurt’s inside-out game fits nicely with this concept. Defenses must honor his 3-point shot, which stretches things out and opens up the paint for the other big. Duke hammered this action with Hurt and Vernon Carey Jr. all last season.
Matthew Hurt + Jaemyn Brakefield
Following the win over Bellarmine, I wrote about the offensive impact of Jaemyn Brakefield. With his abilities to stretch the floor and attack closeouts, Brakefield pairs nicely with any member of Duke’s frontcourt. For instance, Brakefield can work as a floor-spacer with Johnson, Williams, Patrick Tape and Henry Coleman. (We’ve got to find more playing time for Coleman, by the way.)
Brakefield continues to shoot the hell out of the basketball (8-of-13 3PA) this season; he splashed two more 3-pointers in South Bend.
When opponents closeout hard on Brakefield, he’s flashed the ability to drive in either direction and finish with his non-dominant right hand. While compared with two recent Duke one-and-done southpaws — Marvin Bagley III and RJ Barrett — Brakefield is less dependent (at this stage of his career) on his left hand as a finisher.
The partnership with Hurt is especially intriguing, though. When those two guys play together, Duke can morph into a 5-out/4-around-1 offense — headlined by two guys 6-foot-8 or taller that can shoots 3s and make plays around the restricted area.
On this possession, Brakefield cans a 3-ball from an after-timeout Horns set — with Moore coming out of the corner to receive a handoff from Roach and launching into staggered pick-and-roll action.
Duke has scored 113 points per 100 possessions (+11 in 56 minutes) with Hurt and Brakefield on the floor together. Those two played 22 minutes (+9) together vs. Notre Dame: Duke scored 1.34 points per possession during that stretch.
Here’s Duke running more of that high-low action from Horns. This time it’s Hurt as the inside target.
Once again, Hurt showcases his shooting touch on that fadeaway.
On the next trip down the floor, Duke goes into the same action; this time, however, it’s Brakefield as the post threat. With a downsized Notre Dame lineup on the floor — Dane Goodwin as the de facto 4 — Brakefield can take his time in the paint and pick out a cutting Steward.
With Johnson on the bench, the more Duke can play through Hurt and Brakefield in the middle of the floor, the better. During the win in South Bend, the Blue Devils went to their Horns interior handoff set a couple times. This is something to look for with with Hurt and Brakefield working together in the middle handoff exchange.
(Nice little pass out of the pick-and-roll from Roach here, too.)
DJ Steward: Cutting down the mistakes
Speaking of Steward, this was another dynamic offensive performance from the physical Chicago guard. At times this season, Steward has struggled with his awareness and decision-making; however, he’s a gifted scorer, with layers to his skill set.
Cormac Ryan got a small taste of what Steward’s space creation abilities with about eight minutes to go in the game. Watch Steward rhythm up beautifully for a balanced step-back 3 after the wipeout crossover.
Steward is a busy player away from the basketball. He doesn’t need a live dribble going to immediately snap into offense. Steward scored four of his 16 points against Notre Dame via backdoor cuts: one assisted by Brakefield, the other courtesy of Goldwire.
There’s a hot-and-cold element to Steward’s spot-game shooting: he’s 5-of-17 (44 eFG%) on half-court field goal attempts this season, per Synergy. However, Steward has drained 1o-of-24 3-point attempts (41.7 3P%). Steward has some nice movement shooting/relocation abilities.
These types of makes from Steward are huge for a number of reasons: 3-point hits can force hard closeouts and help unlock Steward’s catch-and-go game.
This is wonderfully fluid movement from Steward, who seamlessly drops his right knee and shifts into his dribble drive.
After nine combined turnovers against Bellarmine and Illinois, Steward played within himself at Notre Dame. The rookie combo guard registered only one turnover, which came on a somewhat dubious charge call courtesy of Nate Laszewski.
DJ Steward: Defense
On the defensive side of the floor, Steward can get into trouble at times away from the basketball. It’s not for a lack of effort; he’s an aggressive defender. Steward can be guilty, though, of ball watching or rotating from the wrong location (helping off strong-side corner). However, Steward showed some real positives on defense against the Irish.
Early in the second half, Hurt and Goldwire switch a high ball screen, which puts Goldwire in the post against the 6-foot-10 Laszewski. Goldwire correctly and effectively fronts the taller Laszewski, while Williams sags off Nikola Djogo (a non-shooter) and uses his enormous wingspan to block out a perimeter passing lane.
Keep an eye on the back side of this play, though: Steward is the weak-side/back-line helper.
Steward sees the size mismatch in the post and rotates over — just in case there’s a lob over the top. Once the ball is reversed, Trey Wertz is open for a second along the perimeter, but he isn’t shot ready, and Ryan isn’t ready to swing the ball. This gives Steward time to get back in the play.
Over the last three games, Steward has collected five steals; he can be a bit of a pest in passing lanes. Finally declared eligible to play, Wertz (understandably) looked rusty at times in his debut, but Steward is all over this bad pass, which he cashes with an and-one layup.
Duke will now disperse as a team for a few days, which will allow players to see their families for the first time in months. The Blue Devils don’t return to the court until Dec. 29: Pittsburgh in Cameron Indoor Stadium.