You always have to take a grain of salt when it comes to a scrimmage, but it appears as if head coach Mike Krzyzewski has found a starting unit he's comfortable with—Tyus Jones, Matt Jones, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson and Jahlil Okafor.
That unit is noticeably missing the lone senior on the team, captain Quinn Cook, and perhaps the team's most dynamic perimeter offensive player, Rasheed Sulaimon. But Coach K has a reason for starting three freshman and a sophomore who logged just 7.3 minutes per game last season: they work best with Okafor.
The crown jewel of the freshman class put on a special kind of show. Okafor effortlessly scored 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked a shot. He stretched his range outside of the paint, crashed the boards, and just generally made it seem as if there is no player in the nation that will be capable of slowing him down. When there is a player capable of that level of dominance against a true 7-footer who knows his every single move like Marshall Plumlee, you pretty much have to mold the rest of your lineup around him.
So how do Tyus Jones and Winslow fit with Okafor?
“They came in together and they’ve been playing really well," Jefferson said. [The freshmen] are ahead of the curve.”
That was fairly obvious to everyone in attendance Saturday night. Throughout the 24-minute scrimmage, Jones logged seven points with six assists and Winslow had 12 points with six boards. The three freshmen have experience playing with one another, and it shows on the court. Jones and Okafor seem to always know where one another are on the floor, and Winslow's physicality and timely cuts make him a natural fit next to a savvy passer and imposing interior presence.
Now for Jefferson and Matt Jones.
“I think there’s good chemistry on our team," Krzyzewski said. "Amile really helps in that regard because he kind of connects dots a little bit. And Matt Jones does a good job of that because he doesn’t need the ball long. When somebody doesn’t need the ball long and they’re efficient and they play hard, that helps, because Jah needs to get the ball and Tyus is dribbling the ball so there’s not that much time to have the ball.”
Jefferson, the veteran of the presumed starting lineup, is the glue that keeps this group together. He was relatively quiet in the scrimmage—he scored 10 points and grabbed five rebounds—but was loud in his leadership. Jefferson was the most vocal player on the court at all times, keeping that young, inexperienced lineup firing on all cylinders as they dismantled the second unit 34-17 in the 12-minute game. Jefferson isn't a guy who needs touches to be effective on offense, but rather makes the most of the opportunities he's afforded—crashing the glass and creating turnovers to find his offense.
Jones is the wildcard of the starting unit. Always a solid defender thanks to his elite high school coaching, Jones struggled mightily at times last year—especially shooting the basketball. But at Countdown to Craziness Jones showed a newfound confidence that has propelled him into the starting unit.
“He’s a sophomore," Krzyzewski said when asked to explain Jones' confidence boost. "I think maybe knowing himself better.... A lot of guys in college they have to find out who they are and be comfortable with who they are. And I think he’s real comfortable with who he is.”
Who he is now may be the perfect compliment to Okafor's dominant interior presence. If Jones can find the 3-point shot that made him a top recruit out of high school—and there's reason to believe he can after hitting 2-of-3 triples Saturday—he'll be able to capitalize on the frequent open looks he'll be getting with Okafor and Tyus Jones demanding so much attention.
There is no doubt that the second unit will play a vital role for this team, and the chemistry that makes the first unit so potent is pervasive throughout this club, but the starters are in place for a reason. They act as perfect compliments to one another, and when they gel, they'll make Duke a potentially lethal team.
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