Before the ACC-Big Ten Challenge gets started, let’s take a quick peak under the hood at Duke. The Blue Devils went 1-1 last week — with a loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium to Michigan State. During last week’s two-game sample, Duke mixed in a few new players and lineup combinations. How well did the Blue Devils fare with added playing time for Mark Williams Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman? Plus: a quick look ahead to Illinois.
Man in the middle
Duke obviously would’ve preferred a different result when matched up with Michigan State last week. Plenty still remains unknown with this Duke team; the sample is very small at this point. During the win over Bellarmine, though, the Blue Devils showed greater variety in their frontcourt rotations, which is interesting.
After starting the first two games with Jalen Johnson and Matthew Hurt — who has been excellent so far — as the de facto 4-5, Duke toggled things around. Freshman center Mark Williams entered the starting five; Johnson and Hurt each moved down a spot, to the 3 and 4.
Williams played 15 minutes, including 11 with Hurt on the floor as well (Duke +13). The 7-footer blocked four shots, grabbed four offensive rebounds and kicked out three assists.
He’s still early in his development — both offensively and as a pick-and-roll defender. However, Williams shows flashes: contesting shots around the rim as a help defender and passing out of the post.
The interior passing skills with Williams are fairly intriguing, and could help Duke’s half-court offense. The Blue Devils love to run high-low action out of their Floppy sets. Here, Williams shows a little face-up passing touch, quickly lofting this ball to Hurt for a layup.
In recent years, Duke has used a plethora of future NBA talent to maul opponents on the offensive glass: Wendell Carter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Zion Williamson and Vernon Carey Jr. (Not bad, eh?) When those one-and-done studs collected offensive rebounds, the re-racked possession turned into instant offense: put-back field goals and drawn fouls.
Williams isn’t ready to contribute in that capacity, but he can still have an impact on the glass. Summoning the spirit of Tyson Chandler, a member of three USA Men’s Basketball teams with Coach K, Williams will look to tap back missed shots/contested rebounds to teammates along the perimeter. Given his size and reach, few players can access the same airspace as Williams.
This approach may not instantaneously lead to dunks and layups, but it will extend possessions and generate extra opportunities, which is plenty valuable as well.
Jalen Johnson Half court
One of the reasons Duke mixed and matched so much with its rotation last Friday was due to Johnson’s foul trouble. With Johnson parked on the bench for most of the first half, and playing just 15 minutes all game, Duke shifted Hurt to the 4. This meant more playing time for traditional centers: Williams and Patrick Tape, who played five minutes in his debut.
It can be a strength for Duke to play with that type of size on the floor. Obviously, these lineups can boost Duke’s rim protection. Traditional center lineups also push Duke away from switching ball screens (1-5), which has its strengths and weaknesses.
With Williams on the floor, Duke will guard 1-5 pick-and-roll more conventionally — dropping Williams below the screen and icing side ball screens.
While playing center this season, Hurt has switched with a great deal of frequency. Hurt is no defensive-stopper, but he’s performed quite admirably here. He competes and moves his feet.
However, that approach can leave Duke exposed on the back end. Michigan State looked to post those mismatches in the paint — big vs. point guard. (If Duke is going to deploy this style of defense, the back-side help must be more timely and meet opposing bigs with more force.)
For Duke to optimize its offense this season, the Johnson-Hurt 4-5 combination needs to be sustainable. That’s partially due to how Johnson functions in the half-court offense. When Hurt is the de facto 5, Duke can space the floor with four guards or shooters around Johnson’s drives.
That spacing is critical for Johnson. The freshman forward is a marvelous vertical athlete and an open-floor demon, but there are limitations to his offensive profile, too.
Jalen Johnson's grab&go type ball push and left hand dribble face-up in space was impressive to me.
But his right hand dribble face-up game was weird and seems like need to add some pivot moves for complement his weakness. pic.twitter.com/mUJCYEySz4
— Skyfall (@polarfall) December 2, 2020
Working against a set defense, Johnson can struggle (at times) to beat his man laterally off the dribble. Johnson working one-on-one is a matchup Duke will live with this season; he’s a super talent, and he’ll generate lots of good offense. But it could mean for tougher sledding against certain opponents.
According to Pivot Analysis, Duke has scored 117.7 points per 100 possessions this season (+20 in 46 minutes) with Johnson and Hurt as the 4-5 combination.
Duke ran this Stack Out set several times against Michigan State — with varying degrees of success. Johnson starts the possession lined up behind Hurt, before he juts out to the wing. Hurt sets a back screen for Jeremy Roach, who darts off a UCLA cut to the rim. After Roach clears, the middle of the floor empties for Johnson-Hurt pick-and-roll.
Johnson and Duke drew several fouls out of this look, but it also produced a turnover — when Aaron Henry intercepted a Johnson bounce pass — a tough contest long 2-point attempt against Marcus Bingham (with 18 seconds left on the shot clock). That’s a matchup Johnson should look to drive.
If Johnson were to play with a traditional big man on the floor, that means one of his teammates will be in the dunker spot; this puts another defender around the basket. Plus: with less space to cover on the perimeter, opposing defenses can load up with more aggressive help and digs as Johnson attempts to drive rim.
Brakefield: Finding his role?
After playing only four minutes in the season-opener, Jaemyn Brakefield took on a larger role against Michigan State and Bellarmine. Brakefield doesn’t mind getting shots up, especially from deep; the lefty brings some additional stretch to Duke’s frontcourt.
In a combined 31 minutes against MSU and Bellarmine, Brakefield scored 23 points, while splashing 5-of-8 3-point attempts.
Brakefield’s release is a little funky. Similar to Hurt, he doesn’t get much lift on his jumper; hard closeouts could give him issues. However, Brakefield will see plenty of advantage situations this season — playing with Hurt, Johnson and DJ Steward.
The season is young, and the opportunities (thus far) are limited, but Brakefield showed some space creation and craft while driving this pick-and-pop against Bingham. After picking up his dribble, Brakefield uses multiple pump fakes to get Bingham in the air. When the would-be shot-blocker leaves his feet, Brakefield gathers and goes under for the off-hand finish. (This was one of two right-handed finishes for Brakefield vs. MSU.)
Brakefield is a nice fit off the bench for the Blue Devils, too. With his shooting profile, the 6-foot-8 southpaw can pair with any of Duke’s big men. This includes Hurt, another spacey frontcourt weapon.
There’s an inside-out balance to Hurt’s game, though. Lacking another true low-post threat, the Blue Devils want/need Hurt to be somewhat of an interior presence this year.
So far, so good: Hurt is 7-of-11 on field goal attempts (including two dunks) from post-ups and non-post attempts around the basket, according to Synergy. Duke can still work high-low action with Williams and Hurt, too. However, it’s preferable to space it around Hurt — with four shooters or playmakers. When double teams arrive, Hurt will be able to scan the floor and look for shooters.
During the Bellarmine game, Hurt and Brakefield played together for 12 minutes. Duke was +7 in that stretch of play, per Pivot Analysis.
Henry Coleman: Team Defense
One word to describe Duke’s frontcourt rotation this season: busy. The Blue Devils have a lot of pieces up front. With Hurt and Johnson as team stalwarts, there really isn’t that much additional time to splice bench/deeper rotation guys in the mix. The versatility of Hurt, Johnson and Brakefield helps; however, there are but only so many available minutes to distribute.
With that said, Duke must find more opportunities for Henry Coleman.
During his eight minutes of game action (+5) against Bellarmine, Coleman jumped off the screen as an impactful team defender. Given his size and power, it’s incredible just how quick and reactive Coleman is as off-ball force.
While he can’t quite stick the transition finish, the anticipation is wonderful. (It’s also just not normal for 6-foot-7, 230-pound dudes to move like this in space.) Duke wanted to be super aggressive with its off-ball denials against Bellarmine. Predictably, this approach led to some back cuts for layups.
In limited minutes, Coleman came in and executed that plan perfectly.
Beyond the steals, watch Coleman work on this possession, early in the first half. While sprinting back in transition, Coleman calls out his assignment — the nearest man to him, regardless of position. There’s no transition catch-and-shoot opportunity as Coleman closes out perfectly. Coleman sucks up all the airspace and slides defensively in a one-on-one situation. When Joey Baker overplays going for a steal, Coleman instantly switches off and buys Baker time to get back in the play.
Before a shot goes up, Coleman switches for a third time on the possession — this time trading with Steward to take the taller Pedro Bradshaw.
One way for Coleman to get more time on the floor: play him at the 5 with Hurt and Johnson. This trio could have some spacing concerns on offense, but I love what it brings from a two-way standpoint.
The runway wasn’t long, but Coach K played Coleman with Johnson and Hurt for three minutes in the second half against Bellarmine. On Duke’s first half-court offensive possession, the Blue Devils went to their Floppy action with Hurt as a movement shooter.
There may be something real here. This is a lineup to monitor.
Don’t get ghosted
Duke will matchup up this week with Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge — or what’s left of it. I wish I had the time to do a full offensive breakdown of Illinois, but that’s unfortunately not in the cards. However, there’s still one one component of the Illinois offense I’d like to highlight: ghost screens.
A ghost screen is when an off-ball player sprints at his or her teammate with the basketball as if they plan to set a ball screen. Before the screen can actually be set, though, the player sprints off in the opposite direction — either for a catch-and-shoot opportunity along the perimeter or to set a pindown for another off-ball teammate on the far side of the floor. Often times it’s another guard or wing that performs the ghost/blur screen.
In essence, it’s a screen that isn’t actually a screen. Stay with me: this is a really good way to slip a guard into space with some advantage, while also warping an opposing defense’s middle pick-and-roll coverage.
Plenty of teams run this type of action — in both college ball and the NBA. The Charlotte Hornets frequently use ghost screens with their combo guards: Malik Monk and Terry Rozier. Watch what happens to Seth Curry (trail defender) and Delon Wright (on the ball) when Monk utilizes this ghost screen action.
The two defenders aren’t sure how to handle this exchange. Should they switch? Should Wright stay on Rozier while Curry continues to trail Monk? Everything is moving so quickly; these are hard decisions to process. Before anyone can blink, there’s a wide-open 3-ball flying over the top.
Illinois will utilize several variations of this concept, including some with all five parts moving together. From the Baylor game: Illinois is in a 1-4 low set with star guard Ayo Dosunmu handling out high. Trent Frazier (career 36.2 3P%) sprints toward Dosunmu with Giorgi Bezhanishvili right behind him — double drag action. Frazier is the ghost man; he slips wide to the empty side, which pulls Jared Butler away and out of the paint.
Bezhanishvili presents himself as if he were to set a ball screen for Dosunmu. However, before he makes contact with Adam Flagler, Bezhanishvili slips for a dunk. While this three-man action is going on, freshman sniper Adam Miller clears from one corner to the opposite corner — running off a pindown from Da’Monte Williams.
Mark Vital is taken out by the screen; MaCio Teague, Miller’s defender, sees the slip, but it’s too late for him to contest at the rim.
The start of these sets will alter; Illinois will utilize different designs to disguise the action, as Jordan Sperber highlighted earlier this year.
Illinois ball screen set occupying tag defenders pic.twitter.com/cNlMFsG0Wu
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) March 26, 2020
Dosunmu will be used as the ghost screener, too. (I like when Illinois gets Dosunmu moving before launching him into ball-handling actions, including their weave action, which routinely stations Dosunmu in the corner before sprinting into a guard-to-guard exchange.)
Baylor was better prepared for this ghost/blur concept in the second half. The Bears worried less about the occupying corner action, and instead aimed on gumming up the middle of the floor.
This may be the country’s top defense. Scott Drew’s team is experienced and loaded with excellent defenders. Most teams in the country can’t make the same claims.
Elite defenses will be ready and adjust when needed. Duke has plenty of athletic skill on the defensive side of the floor; the Blue Devils have held all three opponents this season under one point per possession and 47 percent effective shooting.
This will be a real challenge, though: Duke must hit another level while going up against one of the country’s top offensive units.