Since Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury 12 games ago, No. 6 Duke has not been fighting to chase down the No. 1 ranking that they have held on and off in recent months, but rather just to keep its proverbial head above water.
“First of all, we’ve been trying to survive, which no one believes,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re not paying attention to the conference race. We’re not paying attention to seeds. The only thing we’re paying attention to is the next game.”
Despite the blow that Krzyzewski’s talent pool took when Kelly got hurt, the team has done more than just survive, however. It has not been the unstoppable force that went undefeated with Kelly in action, and has taken a few lumps along the way, even in games that it ended up winning. But for all the inconsistency and close calls, Duke went 9-3 without Kelly and never slipped out of the top 10 in the country.
Now Kelly’s return—which had been an abstraction without a timeframe—appears to be drawing near as the senior said Sunday he intends to return sometime during the season’s final week.
While Kelly has been dressing in khakis and quarter-zip sweaters, other players have made strides given the extra opportunities. This progress was on display in Sunday afternoon’s 89-68 win against Boston College at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Other guys have stepped up,” Kelly said after the game, “and I believe when I come back, it can help us to another level. Those guys will continue to step up. We have a multitude of guys that have played in big games now that might not have, and that’s exciting.”
Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson each set career highs in points against the Eagles, and that duo, along with junior Josh Hairston, have all demonstrated marked development during the 12 games that Kelly has missed.
Sulaimon may not come to mind as one of the players who would have stepped into Kelly’s shoes, because the 6-foot-4 wing plays a different position while utilizing a very different skill set. But Sulaimon’s aggressive style, athleticism and continued maturation have led the freshman to reap the benefits of an increased role in the offense.
Overall, the currently healthy members of the roster have seen a 21-percent improvement in points per minute since Kelly got hurt, which roughly reflects the fact that at any given time, Kelly represented one of five players on the floor and thus took about a fifth of the scoring opportunities. Sulaimon has absorbed an outsized proportion of the extra scoring load, though, taking his scoring average from 14 points per 40 minutes with Kelly to 20.6 without him, a 47-percent improvement.
Sulaimon’s development is particularly crucial for the Blue Devils, since unlike Jefferson and Hairston, the rookie shooting guard will not have to give up minutes to make room for the returning Kelly. If he can maintain the efficiency improvements despite ceding some scoring opportunities—which is typically not difficult to do, since in general the worst scoring opportunities are the ones that a player will pass up as he becomes more selective—that makes Duke’s starting five an even greater threat.
Jefferson, who posted 14 points in just 21 minutes of action while making 5-of-7 shots from the floor and 4-of-5 free throws Sunday, has not seen the same per-minute improvement as Sulaimon but has nonetheless taken an important step forward. Jefferson has moved from 11.9 points per 40 minutes to 14.1, an 18-percent uptick that is the product of the natural redistribution of scoring. But he has kept his production consistent while seeing a significantly expanded role, which not all players can manage.
The Philadelphia native has been by far the biggest recipient of Kelly’s minutes, seeing eight more minutes of action per game since Kelly went down, and he has kept his production levels up while being counted on more frequently.
“I’ve definitely been putting the pounds on,” Jefferson said. “I’ve gained a lot of weight since the summer, since I’ve been here. And hopefully it’s starting to show, especially with being able to finish, being able to bang with guys that might be bigger.”
Hairston has not played as many of the new power forward minutes as Jefferson and did not have as much impact Sunday with just three points, but he has led the team in productive improvement. The junior has more than doubled his per-minute output during the past 12 games, from 5.3 points per 40 minutes to 12.5, while providing a more physical alternative to the wiry Jefferson.
Both Jefferson and Hairston will likely see their chances reduced back closer to prior levels, but Krzyzewski now has a dozen games’ worth of proof that the bench duo can contribute if given playing time. Greater confidence in the reserves will give Duke the flexibility to rest Kelly and Mason Plumlee more frequently, especially in the postseason crunch of two games every weekend. It also offers Krzyzewski options in the event that Plumlee’s down game against Maryland repeats itself for a player who has been relied upon so heavily to provide both minutes and production.
The news of Kelly’s impending return is in itself bigger news than the changes that have taken place during the senior star’s absence, but with the rust and adjustment period that may accompany his comeback—whenever it finally occurs—the development that has taken place while he has been out could prove crucial, especially in postseason settings.
With Kelly back and the progress on the part of Kelly’s replacements, the Blue Devils may be able to once again aim to do more than simply survive.