Foot injuries have been a big problem for Duke in the last few years, and Ryan Kelly just added his name to the list of the afflicted. If Kelly’s injury—the severity of which has yet to be revealed—necessitates an extended absence, it could rank on the impact scale closer to Kyrie Irving’s 2011 mishap than Seth Curry’s or Marshall Plumlee’s issues this season.
Kelly is a key player for a Blue Devil team that relies heavily on its five starters, ranking among the bottom 25 teams in Division I in bench minutes. He leads the team in blocked shots, ranks second in rebounding and third in scoring, leaving a significant hole to fill for the duration of his absence.
So how will head coach Mike Krzyzewski respond? After Kelly was forced to miss the second half of the Clemson game Tuesday, Krzyzewski’s substitution choices mirrored his usage patterns from early in the season, only with some additional minutes to split up between reserve forwards Josh Hairston, Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy.
As has been the case all year, Hairston got the majority of the extra minutes, logging 11 after halftime. Jefferson was not far behind, getting nine minutes of action, and Murphy remained a non-factor with just two minutes on the floor.
It may be that Krzyzewski’s extended use of Hairston was just a short-term choice. With no preparation for life without Kelly, he may have felt more comfortable turning to a veteran rather than a freshman. Hairston’s experience is the biggest thing he has going for him compared to the other two players vying for a share of Kelly’s vacated playing time. Hairston has been one of Duke’s least effective offensive players, even in limited action.
Aside from Marshall Plumlee, who has attempted only three shots all year, Hairston has been Duke’s worst shooter so far with a 37-percent performance. He has not compounded his weakness by taking too many shots—only his classmate Tyler Thornton shoots less frequently when on the floor—but with twice as many turnovers as assists on the season, Hairston hasn’t showed much as a distributor either.
He has been an aggressive asset on the offensive glass, but on the other end of the floor, his rebounding has been less than impressive, with fewer defensive rebounds per minute played than diminutive guard Quinn Cook. Krzyzewski would likely be quick to praise Hairston’s willingness to take charges, as he has drawn four over the last two contests, but his defensive rating—which measures opponent scoring per possession—is better only than a gimpy Seth Curry’s among the Duke roster.
So if Krzyzewski seeks some upside, he could try to replace Kelly with redshirt freshman Murphy. Many had projected Murphy to crack the starting lineup from the outset this season, but the Rhode Island native has been essentially invisible for much of the year. It’s difficult to tell anything from his tiny sample size, especially since he rarely has a chance to get into the flow of the offense. But the scouting reports from his high school days suggest that he possesses a complete skill set not too different from Kelly’s. He can shoot from outside, mix it up on the boards and be a mobile asset in Duke’s transition attack. Still, there is obviously a reason he hasn’t earned a chance to prove himself yet this season, and his potential may still be just potential at this point.
So the final member of Duke’s trio of backup forwards may be the Goldilocks choice, as Jefferson possesses the best balance of upside and proven production. Jefferson has shown plenty of flashes on offense, with a 17-for-32 showing from the field that has led to a solid 3.1 points per game average in just 8.8 minutes per contest. He’s produced on the boards, standing just four rebounds behind Hairston despite 43 minutes less playing time, and has even picked up a handful of blocks and steals to round out his stat sheet.
Against N.C. State in particular, the key asset for Jefferson may have more to do with the Wolfpack personnel. C.J. Leslie, a 6-foot-9 forward with excellent skills inside and outside, is one of N.C. State’s key players. Mason Plumlee will have his hands full on the interior guarding 260-pound post player Richard Howell, so Kelly’s replacement will be forced to step up and mark Leslie. Hairston lacks the speed and quickness to hang with Leslie on the perimeter, and Murphy doesn’t have the length to defend Leslie in the paint. That leaves Jefferson, who offers just the right mix of agility and size to put up a defensive fight against against Leslie.
Nonetheless, as nice as it would be to have Hairston, Jefferson or Murphy get some extra minutes to develop and prove themselves, the moral of this story is that the Blue Devils need to get Kelly back as quickly as possible. This roster has clearly been constructed and utilized to maximize the production it gets from its starting five, and any extended change to a new lineup would certainly jeopardize Duke’s No. 1 ranking. In the meantime, though, Krzyzewski will have to choose between experience and upside in replacing his injured star forward, and the race to fill Kelly’s shoes could have a big impact on the roster well beyond this week.