Small-ball euphoria is back at Duke with the awakening of Jayson Tatum


Duke’s starting lineup has been a revolving door in Durham this season. Injuries to multiple players, and a suspension for Grayson Allen, have caused Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Capel, who had to run the show when the Hall of Fame coach was sidelined as well, to mix and match.

The team, en route to its 22-6 record, has used nine different starting lineups in 28 games. That is tied for the most in the ACC this season with Louisville; only one other team has used more than five (NC State).

However, as Duke has heated up, winning seven of its last eight games, the Blue Devils have unlocked a versatile starting five that 99 percent of the teams in America would envy. The single most important part of this discovery has been the awakening of Jayson Tatum — the star freshman who missed the first eight games of the season. After finding his footing, Tatum has blitzed the ACC as a small-ball power forward.

Perhaps the comparison is a bit trite, but it is hard not to draw parallels to just two seasons ago, when Duke downsized and converted then-freshman Justise Winslow to the team’s nominal 4. The Blue Devils won 11 of their final 12 games and bagged the program’s fifth national championship. Much like Winslow, Tatum pogo-sticks past opponents to grab rebounds (13.2 per 100 possessions), creates sizable mismatches for Duke’s hyper-efficient offense and allows the team to get switch-happy on defense. College power forwards will rarely be able to outmuscle Tatum, and on the other end of the court, his athleticism and shooting prowess (51.4 percent on three-pointers since Jan. 28) are a problem for opponents.

The results are mostly positive: Tatum is playing the best ball of college career, and Duke has taken on the look of a team that can contend for a national championship.

A critical turning point in Duke’s season was marked with the win at Wake Forest — not just because of the last-second win that helped Capel stabilize the ship without Coach K. But because that is largely when the Blue Devils decided to punt on playing two traditional big men.

Also beginning with that game, Duke has used just two different starting lineups; Tatum, Allen, Amile Jefferson and Luke Kennard have started every game in that stretch, too. Those four players — along with Frank Jackson and Matt Jones — form the core of Duke’s rotation. Over the past eight games, this six-man group has combined to play 92.5 percent of the available minutes.

Tatum became a fixture in Duke’s starting lineup in nonconference play, but since the loss to NC State, Marques Bolden has appeared in just six games, playing a total of 21 minutes. Harry Giles has been relegated to a bench-rebounder role.

Giles, while recovering from a serious knee injury, has played hard and shot 79 percent from the field, but starting with the win in Winston-Salem, he has averaged just 11 minutes per game — the vast majority of those minutes have come in the first half, too. Chase Jeter started six games before the calendar flipped to 2017, but he has not appeared in a game since the Jan. 14 loss at Louisville.

Those minutes belong to Tatum now, and unless injuries or foul trouble crushes Duke, this appears to be the coaching staff’s preferred look. And who could blame them? There is a lot to like.

OpponentOffensive ratingDefensive ratingTotal rebounding rateeFG%
at Wake1.211.1950.8%60.3%
at Notre Dame1.181.0459.7%56.5%
at UVA1.120.9548.3%56.0%
at Syracuse1.171.2258.3%46.9%

The Blue Devils have been winners in all but one of these games, and if not for John Gillon and those meddling kids (that is my second Scooby Doo reference this season, by the way), this could easily be an eight-game winning streak. Duke has scored better than one point per possession in each contest, with the high-water mark coming in the Durham-based shootout against Wake Forest (1.46). Duke has recorded an effective field-goal rate below 53 percent in only one of these games, which came in the loss to Syracuse. This is what will happen when Allen, Jones and Jackson shoot a combined 3-of-21 (14.3 percent).

Defense will continue to be an issue for Duke, however. In half of these games, the Blue Devils have allowed better than 1.1 points per possession, which is problematic. Duke does not switch everything with this group of players, but it takes a liberal approach, and across a variety of positions. Opponents have countered that by getting one of Duke’s guards to switch onto a post player and then exploiting that mismatch.

That does not always work, of course. Tyler Lydon of Syracuse is reluctant to back people down, and Wake — for whatever reason — failed to get John Collins, a cyborg who has been trained to drop-step and score, the ball when he had Jackson or Allen on him. But keep an eye on this: Duke could be vulnerable in this department.

With Tatum at the four, there is no place to hide for opposing defenses. Duke can dot the arc with shooters and utilize Jefferson, or Giles, in the middle of the floor for pick-and-rolls, dribble-handoffs and ball reversals.

If the Devils can smooth over those defensive kinks, then this team is capable of just about anything. Until then, however, this group will have to find avenues to improve on the margins defensively and look to punish opponents on offense.