Total team effort earns Duke basketball its first ACC win
Rebounding from a disappointing loss in their ACC opener, the Blue Devils overcame a sluggish first half to cruise to a 79-57 victory Tuesday night. Though Rodney Hood scored more than a third of Duke's points on the night, the story was not just about his individual performance, but how the Blue Devils as a team combined to earn the victory on both ends of the floor.
Hood, Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon—who made his first start of the season Tuesday—and Jabari Parker were four of Duke's five double-digit scorers on the evening. Playing early and often, Andre Dawkins accounted for all 10 of the Blue Devils' bench points in the game.
The lone starter to not manage 10 points was forward Amile Jefferson, who added six points along with a team-leading 10 rebounds, a major factor in helping the Blue Devils become the first team to outrebound the Yellow Jackets this season.
"Knowing that's what the team needs—being able to help this team in any possible way—is what I'm willing to do," Jefferson said. "Its not always going to be scoring. Sometimes it is not even going to be rebounding, but its going to be bringing energy, and if I can do that, all the guys have really good enthusiasm, we're a really good team."
Jefferson's classmate, Sulaimon, also made significant contributions to the game. His first shot was not how head coach Mike Krzyzewski drew it up—heaving a desperation shot from beyond the arc as the shot clock expired, which bounded high into the air off the rim before finding the bottom of the net. Sulaimon's struggles have been well-documented, yet against Georgia Tech he showed signs that he is on the way to becoming the dynamic player he was during Duke's successes last season.
"I'm still on the road to get my confidence back, but I fell like I'm on the right track," Sulaimon said. "It starts with my preparation, and every practice I've been coming to practice and practicing hard and it's been translating into the game. I just feel like if I stay on this course I'll continue to do well."
Although Duke relied heavily on Parker and Hood to carry the scoring load during its nonconference schedule, the team's greatest success has come when its supporting cast has stepped up. Two of the keys have been Sulaimon and Jefferson, who were both bright prospects at the close of last season but hit an early sophomore slump, struggling to earn playing time and produce consistently.
The Blue Devils' supporting cast showed glimpses of its true potential during a second-stretch where Sulaimon, Cook and a revitalized Dawkins spearheaded the team's three-guard attack. Playing power forward, Hood had the opportunity to stretch the floor and hit back-to-back 3-pointers in two separate two-minute spans to help put the game away.
"Rasheed and I bring different things to the offensive end," Dawkins said. "He's more of a driver, and I'm more of a spot-up shooter so its hard to defenses to lock in on one thing because we bring so many things to the table. With both of us on the court, it brings an added dimension to our offense, and it gives Hood the chance to play the four which creates a lot of matchup problems."
When players like Jefferson and Sulaimon first entered the Blue Devil program, the team had the benefit of consistency from senior leaders such as Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. One year later, the tables have turned, and it is two newcomers in Parker and Hood that are expected to shoulder the scoring load consistently during conference play.
With Parker struggling to regain top form, Duke will look to its more experienced players to make up for a drop in the freshman's production. Although the 18-year-old's ups and downs have led to two tight games to open ACC play, Krzyzewski noted that forcing the team's veterans to step up could be to the team's benefit when his freshman phenom regains his form.
"This is a work in progress, and I want to coach Jabari that way without putting extra pressure on him," Krzyzewski said. "Our veterans are still establishing themselves."