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Deep rotation highlights youth on roster

Mason Plumlee scored 16 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting night against the Knights.
Mason Plumlee scored 16 points on a perfect 8-for-8 shooting night against the Knights.

Duke substitutions came fast and furious Saturday against Bellarmine, with new players entering the game on nearly every dead ball. In the final tally, 11 players saw court time, and all but one of those played double-digit minutes.

In last year’s exhibition against Cal Poly Pomona, the 2009 Division II champions, ten players appeared and only eight garnered 10 minutes of action or more. The five starters last year averaged 25.6 minutes, while this year’s starters played just 21.2 minutes in the game.

Even without much official practice time since the Friendship Games in August, the coaches have already made changes to the lineup. In China and Dubai, the five starters were Seth Curry, Austin Rivers, Andre Dawkins, Ryan Kelly and Miles Plumlee. On Sunday, Dawkins and Kelly were replaced by freshman Alex Murphy and junior Mason Plumlee. It is too early to say whether those changes will be permanent, but it does demonstrate that the coaching staff is still experimenting with different combinations.

“I’ve always coached that you’re not given time,” Krzyzewski said. “You earn time. Tonight was given time. When you play games, you figure out who earns it.... Guys will keep getting shots because it’s not like anyone has nailed things down.”

He acknowledges that the rotation will have to be clarified before the team is ready to compete against tougher programs.

“You can’t play 11 guys in a close game,” Krzyzewski said. “That can’t happen.”

The clearest distribution of playing time at this point is in the post. The elder two Plumlees, Kelly,and Josh Hairston are the only candidates for minutes in the frontcourt. Marshall Plumlee will likely spend almost all of the season on the bench as his body fills out for the college game.

“[With] the big guys, we pretty much have it,” Krzyzewski said. “Ryan could start. Those three guys are interchangeable, with Miles being the biggest physical presence. And then Josh—we have confidence in Josh.”

The Plumlees combined for 30 points and 17 rebounds in just 43 minutes of action, but they will have to continue improving their consistency and aggressiveness to solidify their playing time. Kelly, who shined in the Friendship Games, looked much more hesitant against Bellarmine, showing a willingness to beat his defender off the dribble but not an ability to get all the way to the rim with his drives. Hairston, as he did in very limited action his freshman year, showed a solid midrange game and brought energy on the glass. Their roles are relatively defined already, though, when compared to those in the backcourt.

“We don’t have that semblance of order yet on the perimeter,” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know if that means four, five or even six guys, but it would be good if we had a semblance of order there. That’s what we’re going to try to build.”

One thing is certain for Krzyzewski, though—“it starts with Seth.” Curry was the one constant on the floor for the Blue Devils Sunday, amassing 31 minutes of play when the next-highest total was 24. He spent some of his time as the primary ball-handler, but the coaching staff is trying to limit the amount of time that Curry has to play the point. His ability as a shooter and a creator is diminished somewhat when he has to play the point, and letting him see time as an off-guard could add to his productivity.

“That’s one great thing about [Curry]—he can go off the ball,” freshman point guard Quinn Cook said. “A lot of teams pressure point guards, and that kind of wears them out. I can give him a little breather, let him run off some screens and get his shot going.”

As Cook proves that he is fully recovered from a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for a long stretch, he may earn many of the spare point guard minutes. He dished out five assists and recorded two steals while playing full-court defense for almost all of his 11 minutes of action. But for now, the majority of minutes at point will go to sophomore Tyler Thornton, who was second to Curry in minutes played.

“Tyler is just our best defensive player, hands down,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s just an energizer. You saw tonight—when he’s in the ballgame, we have better order.”

Thornton scored just five points on three shots, but rounded out his stat line with three assists and two steals in 24 minutes of play. If Thornton and Cook step up, that will allow Curry to move to his more natural shooting guard position to relieve the talented-but-streaky freshman Rivers.

That leaves the most unsettled playing time situation going into the season—small forward. Murphy started there against Bellarmine but recorded just one rebound, one assist and two turnovers in 13 minutes of play. Andre Dawkins, who started in China, posted an even less inspired performance, missing all three of his 3-point attempts en route to a 1-for-5 shooting performance in 15 minutes.

This 2011-12 squad will be one of the most inexperienced that Krzyzewski has ever coached, and at least for the time being, it is open season for playing time. For now, the time is being given, but it won’t be long before players have to earn their way on to the court. Who earns that time remains an open question.

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