As Duke went on the road Wednesday night, the Blue Devils were without Coach K. That wouldn’t be the only difference, though. There was also a change within the starting lineup. Freshman wing AJ Griffin, who continues to play better and better, made his first career start. Safe to say, this won’t be his last.
The 6-foot-6, 222-pound Griffin pumped in 22 points on 8-of-11 field goal attempts, including three 3-pointers. In what’s quickly becoming the norm, Griffin dazzled with displays of ball handling, step-back shooting and a downhill drive game that’s really starting to take shape.
With only a few months left in the 2021-22 college basketball season, and the coaching career of Mike Krzyzewski, it’s time to consider if Duke has more than one top-five prospect on this roster and what that will mean going forward.
Yes, Paolo Banchero is awesome and will certainly be drafted between picks 1-3 of the 2022 NBA Draft. However, Banchero isn’t the only Blue Devil worthy of this consideration.
AJ Griffin is playing his way up the ladder.
Early on this season, Griffin was used mostly as a backup power forward, while he continued to recover from an offseason knee injury. As his role increased, though, Griffin was used mostly as a small-ball, hybrid-forward when playing with Banchero, his mega-talent teammate. That relationship is evolving, though.
Over the last seven games, Griffin has averaged a ridiculous stat line: 24.0 minutes, 13.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists. During this stretch, he’s shot 62.7 percent from the field, 50.0 percent on 3-point attempts and 71.4 from the free throw line (3.0 FGA per game).
Beyond the stats and the physical profile, Griffin is doing heady basketball things. Watch him tap this contested rebound to Trevor Keels, which launches a transition opportunity for Duke. Six second later, Banchero is dunking the basketball at the opposite end.
The primary small-ball lineup — with Banchero as the de facto center — has included Griffin, Keels Wendell Moore Jr. and Jeremy Roach. That lineup is Duke’s second-most used five-man group (44 minutes) and it’s been awesome, although Miami gave them fits last week.
According to CBB Analytics, that lineup has outscored opponents by 35.5 points per 100 possessions, while scoring 1.25 points per possession on offense, thanks to an impressive free throw attempt rate of 61.3 percent.
That group has also crushed opponent on the offensive glass: 37.1 percent offensive rebound rate.
For the matchup with Wake Forest, though, acting head coach Jon Scheyer shifted things; Griffin and Banchero started at the two forward spots — next to center Mark Williams.
The Moore-Keels-Griffin-Banchero-Williams lineup is massive; it looks like an NBA-sized lineup. All five guys are listed above 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds. (Although I question whether Moore and Keels are truly 6-foot-5. Regardless, they’re big and strong guards who can handle the ball.) All five will be in the NBA next season, too, including at least four first-round picks. Insane.
Duke started the game with Flex action out of a Horns set, which resulted in a post-up score for Banchero.
As usual, Duke mixed in some 45 power pick-and-roll action with Banchero and Williams. Wake Forest “Ices” side ball screens, but Banchero was able to thread in a really difficult pass while falling out of bounds. Williams just couldn’t finish on top of Alondes Williams.
When Steve Forbes brought in size off his bench to match up, the Blue Devils continued to post Banchero — this time off a UCLA screen from Moore.
Banchero is just so technical and skilled. My word, what a talent.
Prior to the Wake Forest game, that lineup had played only seven minutes together all season, per Pivot Analysis. Duke was -1 in those minutes.
However, that group played 14 minutes vs. the Demon Deacons. Now, after Wednesday night, according to CBB Analytics, this lineup has scored 1.4 points per possession on offense, while outscoring opponents by 53 points per 100 possessions.
All season long, the Blue Devils have mixed in some 45 pick-and-roll action. Banchero hasn’t been a high-volume pick-and-roll creator; however, he’s had success and is one of three Duke players, along with Moore and Keels, scoring at least 1.0 points per pick-and-roll possession.
Often times, opponents will look to switch that action, which makes sense. Banchero and Williams are like-sized players. Their defensive counterparts are invariably like-sized, too. So, go ahead and switch, and live with the results.
Of course, Banchero will gladly use that switch — which often comes vs. a sagging defensive center — to get to his midrange pull-up package. Banchero is shooting just above 42 percent on long-range 2-point attempts this season, with nearly 77 percent of his makes coming unassisted.
Primarily, Duke will run this 45 pick-and-roll from the slot or after an entry pass to Banchero from a Horns alignment.
Those sets can start with Banchero receiving the ball around the elbow — or with Williams catching at the elbow and dribbling into a handoff action with Banchero.
During the Wake Forest game, Williams and Banchero engaged in a DHO exchange out of Horns; Griffin shook up from the corner and Banchero kicked out for a catch-and-shoot 3.
That 5-4 (or 4-5) dribble-handoff exchange is something Duke has run out of Horns for years now, including recent roster iterations with Matthew Hurt and Vernon Carey Jr.
Or Hurt and Jalen Johnson.
At this point, Banchero hasn’t been asked to make too many complicated reads out of screen-roll action. I wouldn’t expect that to change while at Duke, either, although it’s something to consider as P5’s career builds out. He obviously sees the floor and can read multiple layers as a willing passer.
Most of that activity comes in the open floor vs. transition defenses, out of the post, or in isolation vs. a double team.
However, Banchero has also shown lob-passing flashes when opponents rotate back-side coverages and fail to tag Williams on the roll.
Banchero has assisted on 12 Williams field goals this season, per CBB Analytics. Williams has been Banchero’s top target; there’s no other player on the roster that the freshman from Seattle has assisted more frequently.
In fact, the Banchero-Williams connection is tied for third on Duke’s roster in terms of most assists. Unsurprisingly, that list is led by Moore to Banchero (24) and Moore to Keels (15).
From my charting, Duke ran no continuity ball screen sets vs. Wake Forest. Instead, the Blue Devils brought back an old set — as another way to launch Banchero-Williams 45 pick-and-roll: Stack.
Here’s the second after-timeout (ATO) play at Wake Forest: Williams and Banchero stack up in a line, between the arc and free throw stripe. Quickly, Banchero loops out off a brush screen from Williams, who chases Banchero and sets a ball screen. The Demon Deacons aren’t ready; Banchero drives on a straight line to the rim for a slam.
On defense, Wake Forest “Ices” a lot of side ball screens, which is what center Dallas Walton looks ready for on this possession. However, Walton either doesn’t communicate this or Khadim Sy, who vacillates between power forward and center, isn’t completely comfortable being an on-ball defender in pick-and-roll coverages.
Either way, Sy gives up the middle and Walton is too far over to get in front of the drive. Daivien Williamson makes a wise business decision.
Now, Sy and Walton did a much better job when they saw this same action on the very next possession: Stack Out 45 pick-and-roll. This time, Wake Forest’s two bigs switch, Banchero kicks to Keels, and Keels turns the ball over.
The Blue Devils used this Stack Out look last season, too, including several possessions vs. Michigan State with Johnson as a ball handler.
Earlier this season, Duke ran some looks out of its Stack alignment, although those sets were essentially back screen (Spain pick-and-roll) possessions to create hi-lo touches for Banchero — instead of middle ball screen action.
Duke will also use a back screen out of Stack — without a ball screen — to roll a post target down to the low box and isolate in the post or look for hi-lo.
(Sheesh, only Tre Jones could get away with this type of angled hi-lo entry pass.)
Get P5 On The Edge
Duke has also started to scheme some ways to get Banchero in space — attacking the edge of a defense — with some momentum.
Obviously, Banchero is an awesome isolation/face-up player; however, those static looks allow opponents to load up Banchero, which can result in contested jump shots or, worse, turnovers.
Out in Winston-Salem, Duke ran another Stack look late in the first half. This time, though, it didn’t turn into Banchero-Williams screen-roll. Instead, Banchero caught the ball on the move and drove it towards the corner, where Keels was stationed. Banchero had two options: hand it to Keels going into a ball screen with Williams (Miami action) or fake the handoff.
Banchero opted to keep it and Isaiah Mucius did a nice job containing his drive. Ultimately, the Blue Devils are forced to reset the possession.
The Blue Devils will also use their Iverson action — Moore cutting across two screens at the elbows from Banchero and Williams — to open a side up for Banchero isolation. After Moore cuts off the screen, Banchero fans out off another pick from Williams.
This quickly shifts into an iso look and pull-up 3-point attempt.
Here’s that same action to the opposite side of the floor: Joey Baker comes across the Iverson screens and Theo John screens Banchero. On this possession, though, P5 is more aggressive; he faces up and instantly attacks to his right off the catch, which draws a foul.
Banchero is now drawing 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes vs. ACC opponents.
Duke tried this for Banchero earlier in the year, too. Gonzaga doubles Banchero when he looks to isolate and knocks the ball out.
Slot vs. Ice
One of the more impressive aspects of Duke’s win at Wake Forest centered on how the Blue Devils handled Wake Forest’s Ice pick-and-roll coverages.
This is where a defense drops the screen defender and has the on-ball defender angle his (or her) body in front of the screen. The objective is to drive the ball handler down and away from the screen, while keeping action on one side of the floor.
Curious to see how Duke — Wendell Moore, Trevor Keels and Paolo Banchero, in particular — handles Wake Forest icing side ball screens when the Blue Devils go empty-side or run slot PnR. Matthew Hurt was good slipping into space last year. P5 may have some advantage opps. https://t.co/h7vnD6l3Xe
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) January 12, 2022
Duke, however, had different plans; the Blue Devils took what the Demon Deacons offered up and got to the middle when they needed it.
Here’s Wake Forest looking to Ice a screen late in the game: Walton drops and Alondes Williams tries to prevent Moore from using the Mark Williams screen. Moore doesn’t try to drive right around the Ice coverage, which would string the action out. Instead, Moore goes left, forces Walton to commit (deciding between the ball handler and the rolling big) and hits Williams for a lob dunk.
Unfortunately for Wake Forest, there’s no weak-side tag on Williams, who sprints unabatedly to the rim. Neither Cameron Hildreth nor Sy (dealing with AJ Griffin in the weak-side corner) tag Williams.
Earlier in the game: Duke runs slot pick-and-roll with Keels and Banchero. Once again, Wake Forest Ices/downs the action. This, however, is where Banchero is such a problem: one of the weaknesses of Ice coverage is the pick-and-pop.
With the screen defender underneath the coverage, dropping below, there’s an open pocket at the top of the key, which is exactly where Banchero slips. Wake Forest’s Williams does the right thing and stunts over from the weak side, which buys Mucius time to get back to Banchero.
Banchero, however, sees the hard closeout coming, jabs, gets downhill and spins into one of his comfort zones. This dude is just too good to let roam free in the middle of the floor vs. a scrambling defense.
Here’s more Keels-Banchero slot pick-and-pop action — with Mark Williams in the weak-side dunker spot. Keels forces the issue and drags both defenders with him to the baseline; Banchero is open on the pop. If Keels throws a better pass here, this is a catch-and-shoot for Banchero.
Despite the bad pass, Banchero reloads and drains a 3-ball.
When Duke’s in its small-ball lineup and Banchero is playing 5, this is a bear to cover. Moore and Banchero run pick-and-pop, Wake Forest downs the screen with Williams and Walton; however, Banchero pops and Griffin cuts through on the weak side, which eliminates a stunt from Sy. As a result, Banchero gets to isolate with all kinds of room vs. Walton, who would be far more comfortable in the paint.
Mark Williams is an intriguing pick-and-roll lob target, but the 7-footer doesn’t threaten defenses as a playmaker in space. Williams does his damage when he catches the ball in the restricted area — preferable above the rim.
Therefore, it’s much easier to safely Ice side ball screens vs. Williams. Alas.
AJ Griffin: Space Creation
The 2022 NBA Draft consensus seems to have — in some order — a top three of Banchero, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith of Auburn. In the next tier, Purdue’s Jaden Ivey sits. Jalen Duren of Memphis is in those whereabouts, too. After that, there’s some mixture of Johnny Davis (Wisconsin), Bennedict Mathurin (Arizona), Patrick Baldwin Jr. (Milwaukee), Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee), Harrison Ingram (Stanford) and Kendall Brown (Baylor).
Those are a lot of names to spit out; plenty more could be in consideration, too. However, there’s no reason why AJ Griffin — assuming good health and this type of mobility — can’t move up draft boards to the 4-7 range, joining Ivey and Duren.
Hell, if he keeps playing like this, Griffin will climb even higher.
Griffin is powerfully built, but he handles the ball with ease and plays with incredible amounts of shift and wiggle. Working 1-on-1, look how effortlessly Griffin creates separation and space from Sy,
Griffin is one of the top step-back 3-point bombers in this draft class.
At the start of the season, Griffin wasn’t much of a rim-pressure guy. When he caught a pass, Griffin would shoot, pass or get to his step-back jumper. Since the Ohio State game, though, that’s shifted. Over the last seven games, Griffin has shot 11-of-15 around the rim, according to Bart Torvik’s shot data.
Griffin attempted zero free throws through the first eight games of the season. He’s now attempted 21 free throws since the calendar flipped to December.
On this possession, Griffin comes off a wide pindown from Banchero, curls hard and uses his strength to finish above LaRavia.
This is an old, go-to set for the Blue Devils, but with Banchero at 5, and a spread floor, it’s really difficult to defend.
Griffin’s ascent as a driver includes a 4-of-5 rim finishing display in Winston-Salem. Here, Duke runs its Horns Clear action for Moore, which gets curtailed by some nice on-ball defense from Hildreth. The ball swings to AJ Griffin, who gets busy: crossover, between-the-legs crossover, crossover, hesitation and then the inside-hand finish vs. Sy.
Griffin has a dunk in four straight games, too.
Of course, Griffin can leverage his drive game to become a facilitator as well. Assists are an imperfect measurement of a player’s true passing craft, but Griffin’s numbers have jumped, which is encouraging.
Since the Ohio State game, Griffin has dished out 2.7 assists per 40 minutes. Nothing earth-shattering, but a nice trend to see, nonetheless.
The step-back jumper is a real weapon for keeping defenders off balance. Once Griffin splashes one or two step-back jumpers, defenders will overcorrect and start lunging at him when he pulls the ball back. This opens pathways and gaps to the rim.
Here’s a small-ball Horns set that flows from pick-and-pop into an isolation for Griffin. Roach cuts baseline and Griffin, after getting a piece of the paint, drops in a nice touch pass.
I really like this design from Duke: it looks like a 5-out/Delay set with Williams initiating the action in the middle. Banchero and Keels flip spots. Moore cuts through. Williams dribbles into a handoff with Griffin, who turns down the initial handoff, flips directions and grabs the ball while going to his left. As Williams rolls, Moore is in the lane to set a little back screen on Walton, which helps open up the Griffin-to-Williams lob smash.
The brute power and speed of AJ Griffin can also be magnets for attracting extra defensive attention. The same can be said for Griffin’s movement shooting.
From the Appalachian State game: Duke runs Flex action from Horns, which leads to a weak-side pindown from Banchero for Griffin. Griffin exits the down screen looking to score; however, he gets a hard closeout, attacks his defender’s top foot, forces help and drops a pass to John.
Using P5 and AJ Together
One of the real fears for ACC coaches that must prepare to scout Duke will be the ways the Blue Devils involve Banchero and Griffin together.
Duke launched the second half at Wake Forest with a designed two-man action for P5 and Griffin. Banchero lifts to the top of the key and catches an entry pass from Moore, who exits to the weak side, which clears the floor for Banchero and Griffin. Banchero dribbles toward Griffin and hands the ball off; Wake Forest switches and Griffin sticks a jumper over Walton.
There’s just no good answer for this.
Spot, On The Dot
Griffin is certainly deserving of more on-ball opportunities; his usage remains low (17.6 percent), although that’s starting to increase, too. Griffin’s usage rate hangs just under 19 percent over the last five games.
The Blue Devils have an abundance of creators on this roster. Now a junior, Moore has been one of the best guards in the country and emerged as a top 20-25 draft pick. While the jumper is a little iffy, Keels is a talent with the basketball as well. Wisely, Duke wants to play through Banchero at the elbow or other various mid-post targets.
This makes for an interesting development pathway for Griffin, who — on the fly — must find ways to excel as an off-ball player. So far, the early returns are encouraging.
According to Synergy Sports, Griffin has scored 1.2 points per spot-up possession (58.8 eFG%). Griffin ranks in the 83rd percentile nationally in catch-and-shoot efficiency, too.
Cut And Paste: AJ Griffin
The most encouraging part of Griffin’s off-ball game — outside the ridiculous efficiency — is his movement. Griffin doesn’t remain stationary; he flies around the floor, looking for pockets of space to attack.
Griffin will hunt for offense in every possible avenue, including as an off-ball cutter. That’s bad news for opponents. When Griffin catches the ball with a head of steam, things at the rim get kinetic, quickly.
The Blue Devils run a few different actions out of their 21 set — a guard-guard exchange set that involves handoffs, fake handoffs, back cuts and ball screens.
Moore has crushed opponents all season on fake handoff actions — as a means for attacking baseline. Frequently, Keels is Moore’s handoff partner.
Duke even used Griffin as a possible ball handler — working in concert with Moore for a layup late in the first half.
However, it’s Griffin’s work as a cutter that’s of importance here. According to Synergy, Griffin is 7-of-7 on cut field goal attempts this season: 17 points on nine possessions (1.9 PPP).
From the Wake Forest game: it’s Roach faking the dribble-handoff with Keels — as Banchero lifts for a possible ball screen. Roach turns the corner on Jake LaRavia and gets downhill. That rim pressure draws help from Isaiah Mucius, Griffin’s defender. This is an open invitation for Griffin to crash down from the weak side.
Griffin is a violent cutter; it’s one of the many ways he’s able to apply his incredible power/vertical leaping package.
Here’s another 21 setup vs. Georgia Tech. This time, though, with Moore handling, there’s no fake handoff. Instead, Roach sets a brush screen for Moore, who turns the corner and drives baseline. With all five Yellow Jackets looking at Moore, Griffins blasts off for the rim, racing by Deebo Coleman and punching down a thunderous slam.