Duke basketball is 11-0 and has the title of No. 1 team in the nation. As the players head home to celebrate the holiday season, The Chronicle is giving a position-by-position analysis of this year's team, starting Friday with the point guards. Today we take a look at the frontcourt.
The Duke corps of forwards features perhaps the most talked-about Blue Devil, Mason Plumlee, who has vaulted himself from a solid post player into one of the nation's premier big men. But Plumlee has not been the only asset in the frontcourt, as Ryan Kelly has been arguably the second-best player for head coach Mike Krzyzewski so far, and role players Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson have added contributions of their own. A strong group could get even stronger in the near future as well, with the return of Plumlee's younger brother Marshall.
It all starts inside with Mason Plumlee, though, who has become the centerpiece of the Duke offense. He has taken a leadership role during his senior year and begun demanding the ball in the paint. His emergence as a mature leader and consistent offensive threat have been crucial to the Blue Devils' development this season. To begin with, Plumlee has proven to be in outstanding physical condition. He has played over 81 percent of Duke's minutes so far this season, leading the team and ranking seventh in the ACC as the only player over 6-foot-7 inside the top ten. Showing improved post moves, increased ability to finish through contact and a greater willingness to attack the rim instead of resorting to hook shots from the block, Plumlee has upped his shooting percentage from 57.2 percent to 64.1 percent. Though he has struggled from the line in the last few games, much has been made of his much-improved performance in free-throw shooting. Coupled with a higher rate of fouls drawn, Plumlee's 69.7 percent shooting from the line has helped him raise his scoring average from 11.1 points per game last season to 19.3 this season, ranking him second in the conference.
His rebounding has also been excellent and much-needed for a group of forwards that lacks other elite rebounders. His 11.3 rebounds per game place him first in the ACC by a wide margin, and his defensive rebounding ability has been especially impressive, as he ranks among the top 25 in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, which measures the number of opponent misses a player pulls down. Add in that his 1.7 blocks per game make him a defensive stalwart as well, and it's easy to see why he has dominated some of the early discussions of national player of the year candidates.
But Kelly follows right behind Plumlee in performance with his well-rounded game. Kelly ranks fourth on the team in scoring, second in rebounding and 3-point shooting and first in blocked shots. His 2.0 blocks per game rank him fourth among his ACC peers, but his most remarkable contribution might be his ability to take care of the ball. Despite being a major part of the Duke offense, Kelly has committed just nine turnovers all season, making him the most careful player in the conference with the fewest turnovers per possession.
Hairston and Jefferson, the frontcourt support crew, appear to be trending in opposite directions. Though Hairston brings energy and toughness to the floor when he plays, he has struggled to a 38 percent showing from the field without contributing much in other categories. He has demonstrated some ability crashing the boards, with 2.4 rebounds per game, but he could continue ceding playing time to Jefferson, who has as many offensive rebounds as Hairston in less playing time, and only five fewer defensive boards. Jefferson also adds more of a scoring component to his game, using his excellent length and superior ball-handling ability to more than double Hairston's scoring average at 3.5 tallies per game.
Marshall Plumlee, who played just two minutes—tallying a rebound and a block while showing significant physicality—against Cornell before re-aggravating the foot injury that had sidelined him to that point, could offer a significant boost to the frontcourt and the team's overall depth if he is able to use the remainder of the holiday break to recover fully. But even without the third Plumlee brother, the two starting Duke forwards offer plenty of firepower on both ends of the floor, while Jefferson offers Krzyzewski a high-upside option off the bench. If there's a weakness in this group, it has been on the glass, but so far the Blue Devils' excellent offense and defense have kept them from being bitten by a rebounding deficiency. And behind Wooden Award candidate Mason Plumlee and a rock-solid Ryan Kelly, Duke may be able to keep it that way for some time to come.
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