For this Duke basketball team, a shooting guard-by-committee strategy has become habitual, with four capable players all showing they can contribute heavily when given minutes at the position.
Against Davidson, sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon poured in 20 points. Since then, Sulaimon has struggled, but others have picked up the slack. In the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-off, freshman Matt Jones was not intimidated by the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, canning two 3-pointers to spark Duke's offense in a win against Alabama.
Against Michigan, Jones and the elder statesman of the group, Tyler Thornton, combined to shut down Michigan's leading scorer, Nik Stauskas, with phenomenal man-to-man defense to fuel a balanced win in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. The final member of the group, graduate student Andre Dawkins, made two huge 3-pointers in the second half against the Wolverines to help Duke preserve the 79-69 victory.
On Monday against Gardner-Webb, it was Dawkins' turn to shine again, as he returned from the team's 13-day break on fire, nailing three first-half 3-pointers to break open the Runnin' Bulldogs' zone defense and finishing with 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting in 22 minutes in an 85-66 Duke victory.
"I was just doing my job to come in and provide a spark," Dawkins said. "I've been feeling really good in practice, getting my extra work in, so I felt really good with my shot and I was just able to knock some shots down."
When his teammates were hitting the books during Duke's break in preparation for final exams, Dawkins enjoyed supplemental workouts, working in additional shooting sessions after finishing exams for his graduate classes an entire week earlier. This extra work paid dividends, as Dawkins looked sharper and more physically fit than he has all season after being set back by a tailbone injury.
"Andre played like he's been practicing," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "His extra time has paid off—he's been practicing great, and he played that [same] way today.... When Andre's playing that well, you've got to get Andre on the floor."
Not to be outdone, Thornton and Jones also contributed to Monday's win, playing 25 and 14 minutes, respectively. Thornton made a 3-pointer off an in-bounds play to stretch Duke's first-half lead and snagged five crucial rebounds.
Jones came up with two steals in just four first-half minutes and made several key hustle plays—his energy became infectious, allowing the Blue Devils to snag 15 offensive rebounds and hold the Runnin' Bulldogs to 27 second-half points and take away some positives defensively after struggling in the first half.
"Defensively, our whole team has made an emphasis on trying to buckle down," Thornton said. "For the wings, we usually get playing against the best scorer on the other team. We're taking pride in trying to shut those guys down."
With Thornton and Jones as the team's defensive tone-setters and Dawkins' recent hot shooting streak, the dilemma facing Krzyzewski now is how to balance the minutes at the two-guard position. It is one he knows he will face the rest of the season, especially if Sulaimon climbs out of his current funk.
"[With Sulaimon], it's kind of like in baseball, [when] one of your really good hitters [is] striking out all the time and just can't get a hit," Krzyzewski said. "We [just] have to keep positive with him.... [But] unless they've changed this, there are only 200 minutes. You have three guys who are going to probably take up half of those minutes in [Parker, Hood and Cook]. Then it's a matter of how you do it."
Because of the stability of Cook, Hood and Parker—barring injury—Duke's group of shooting guards will likely often be different role players expected to defend, knock down open 3-pointers and do the little things that make good teams great.
Nonetheless, if the trio of Thornton, Jones and Dawkins continue defining their respective niches and Sulaimon figures out how his explosiveness can contribute, the difference in the outcome of this season could be monumental.
'It's a long season," Krzyzewski said. "Andre three weeks ago at this time, he wouldn't have played like he did today. Things change, and you just hang in there. That part of it is not complicated. All of our guys have good attitudes and are working hard, and we like that."