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Passing the key for Duke moving forward

The Blue Devils struggled to find a consistent point guard all season, Beaton writes, and they averaged just 12.4 assists per game as a result.
The Blue Devils struggled to find a consistent point guard all season, Beaton writes, and they averaged just 12.4 assists per game as a result.

Growing up, I was never good at shooting a basketball.

But I must have been good at something—not just anybody could be a menacing point guard for the Rodeph Sholom Lions, my middle school team.

My secret? The pump fake and pass. You think I’m going to send a lob pass to the post? Pump fake and bounce pass. 60 percent of the time, it works every time.

Fast forward six years, as my navy blue No. 23 jersey from eighth grade sits in the drawer of my dorm room, I still know good passing when I see it. I know bad passing too.

And what we may have seen with this year’s Duke men’s basketball team is the worst passing team in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure.

The Blue Devils averaged 12.4 assists per game this season, the third fewest in Krzyzewski’s 32 years at the helm. The only two seasons that were worse? 1981 and 1982, his first two seasons in Durham, with teams that combined to win 27 games, just as many as this year’s squad won.

What makes this season’s passing effort truly remarkable, though, is how bad the ball movement was relative to the success of the offense. Duke scored 77.8 points per game this season, compared to 66.9 and 64.0 in ’81 and ’82, respectively.

This resulted in the Blue Devils tallying .159 assists per point this season, the lowest ratio in the Krzyzewski era. This was just one of eight seasons in his time as head coach that Duke assisted fewer than 50 percent of its field goals.

According to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy, the Blue Devils averaged 116.1 points per 100 possessions, a metric known as offensive efficiency. Duke’s offense was the most efficient in the ACC, with North Carolina coming in second at 114.7.

The Tar Heels led the ACC with 17.3 assists per game, led by arguably the best passing point guard in the nation in Kendall Marshall, who tallied 9.8 assists nightly before injuring his wrist in the NCAA tournament.

Even without him, however, the offense found ways to pass the ball. Stilman White—whose scrawny build makes him look like he’d fit in more playing against the Rodeph Sholom Lions than against the Duke Blue Devils—tallied 13 assists in the two games with Marshall sidelined without turning the ball over once.

Whether it’s a star like Marshall or a heart-warming story like White, true point guards are invaluable, and this year’s Blue Devils suffered without one. Elite passing is a hallmark of Duke basketball, from the naturals like Bobby Hurley and Jay Williams to those who had to adjust to the role like Jon Scheyer.

This year Seth Curry and Austin Rivers led the team with 2.4 and 2.1 assists per game, respectively, hardly impressive statistics considering how much time each spent as the primary ball handler.

Quinn Cook had back-to-back games in which he notched eight and nine dimes but never secured the point guard role. That was largely due to the phenomenal defense of Tyler Thornton, who secured a spot in the lineup and assumed the ball-handling duties.

As outstanding as a defender as Thornton was, however, he did not prove to be a true point guard on the offensive end. Over the team’s last seven games, when he solidified his role on the team with 30.0 minutes per game, he averaged just 2.3 assists despite the increase in minutes and ball control.

It’s far too early to know what next year’s offense will look like, especially with the potential to add Central Michigan transfer Trey Zeigler, who has the ability to run an offense.

Maybe it will open up in Rivers’ absence, or maybe the team will sorely miss his go-to scoring ability. Perhaps Cook will overcome the freshman woes that kept him on the bench for long stretches and solidify himself as the team’s best passer and point guard of the future.

Or maybe they’ll just give me a call. After all, I still have my jersey, and I’ve mastered the pump fake and pass.


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