PITTSBURGH—Although the Blue Devils boast the nation’s most efficient offensive unit—according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy—Duke has not received much production from its bench in meaningful minutes this season, especially in the last few weeks.
The Blue Devils entered Wednesday’s matchup at Pittsburgh with just 17 bench points in their first three conference games combined, and they have been forced to stick mostly to a seven-man rotation due to a lack of offense on the end of the bench.
But, playing without its usual sixth and seventh men, sophomores Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier, due to their respective knee and hamstring injuries, Duke was forced to extend deep into its bench to fill minutes against the Panthers.
“We’re going to need to play them because we have those two guys out,” Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We we’re in more of a seven- or eight-man rotation when Marques [Bolden] and Javin [DeLaurier] were healthy, and sometimes Alex [O’Connell] came in. So the dynamic of our team changed…. While we're improving, we have to get to know the group we have right now.”
Even with the injuries, nine Duke players were on the floor for more than 10 minutes, as the bench played a key role in the Blue Devils’ 87-52 victory against Pittsburgh.
O’Connell and redshirt sophomore Justin Robinson combined for 11 of Duke’s 50 first-half points and helped spark an offense that had converted on just 25.3 percent of its 3-point attempts in ACC games entering the contest. The duo combined to shoot 5-for-8 from downtown and totaled 18 of the Blue Devils' 22 bench points on the night.
Freshman Jordan Goldwire and junior Antonio Vrankovic each also added a bucket late for Duke, suggesting the Blue Devils may be deeper than fans originally thought.
“They did a great job today,” senior captain Grayson Allen said. “They came in and played with a lot of confidence, which is what we want them to do. They just were themselves. They came in and looked like they were starters. We want everyone to come in with a starter’s attitude like that.”
Perhaps the most surprising development for the Blue Devils has been the continued improvement of Robinson, a former walk-on. After scoring just one point in all of last season, Robinson has seen increased playing time in the last few weeks and shown the ability to make shots from the perimeter, something Duke has struggled with this season.
The San Antonio native has scored at least five points in three of his last four appearances, and has converted on half of his 12 3-point attempts in that span. When starting big man Wendell Carter Jr. went down with an ankle injury Wednesday, Krzyzewski called Robinson's number with 15:47 left in the first half before even putting recruited scholarship players Vrankovic and Jack White into the game.
Robinson took advantage of double teams on freshman Marvin Bagley III to get open on the perimeter and set a career high with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting from deep.
“It’s great that my teammates and coaches trust me that much,” Robinson said. “I feel like when I’m in early like that, and Trevon [Duval] and Grayson [Allen] are talking to me, telling me to shoot my shot, it gives me a lot of confidence.”
Although Robinson said he has always had confidence in his shot, his improvement defensively has been key to earning more minutes.
After focusing on applying pressure on defense in practice through nearly three years at Duke, Robinson appears ready to potentially become a rotation regular—at least as long as Bolden and DeLaurier are out. The son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson, Justin also matched his career high in blocks with three Wednesday and will hope to become a mainstay on the court as ACC play carries on.
“He’s stayed in the gym,” Allen said. “He’s been working really, really hard, and we have a lot of confidence in him. As a catch-and-shoot guy, he’s up there with anyone on this team, and his length is really disruptive on defense, so we think he can give us a lot of valuable minutes.”