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Duke in the NBA: Okafor dominates showdown with Towns; Winslow continues strong start

With the NBA season under way, a handful of former Blue Devils are off to strong starts in the association. The Blue Zone takes a look at how some of Duke's finest have faired in the early going. 

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers

The NBA’s leading rookie of the year has continued on his torrid early season pace, despite his team’s 0-14 record. Okafor has recorded double-digit points in every contest except one and he has tallied a double-double in three out of his last five games. Although he has come back to Earth in terms of rebounding and field goal percentage, his 17.9 points per game still leads all rookies by nearly a full two points.

Of interest for Duke fans should be Okafor’s mini reunion tour. After falling to former teammate Justise Winslow’s Miami Heat Saturday night, Okafor traveled to Minnesota—home to former teammate Tyus Jones—for a showdown with No. 1 overall pick Karl Anthony-Towns. The former Blue Devil showed teams why he may have been deserving of the top selection in the draft as he dominated Towns in the stat-sheet and finished with 25 points on 5-of-10 shooting along with 12 rebounds. 

Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

In a comeback win against Okafor’s 76ers, the versatile forward notched eight of his 11 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Heat to a 96-91 victory after trailing by 11 with just under 9:30 remaining in the game. The Houston native had a nearly unblemished stat line, making all four shots from the field and missing just one free throw on the night.

Also of note, Winslow’s Heat trail the Eastern Confererence-leading Cleveland Cavaliers by just one and a half games. Under the tutelage of all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, there is no reason to think that the former Duke standout will not continue to develop into a solid player on the next level. Winslow is a unique athletic talent and although his numbers might not show it, he has been an integral part of Miami’s success so far. The rookie showed just how athletic he is with a block against the Knicks Monday night: 

Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

Still recovering from a torn ACL, the former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft has played just seven games so far this season. With each passing game, Parker appears to be growing in confidence and regaining the form he had in Durham and then in Milwaukee before his season-ending injury in December 2014.

Shooting an effective 53.7 percent in his last three outings, Parker has scored double-digit points while playing an average of just over 27 minutes per game. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has been cautious with minutes for the 20-year-old, but as Parker’s health rounds back into shape, so should his game. The Chicago native showed signs that he may be back to normal sooner rather than later with his dunk against the Cavaliers: 

Austin Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers

With the return of Chris Paul to the lineup, Rivers has once again found a seat on his father’s bench. In the uber-competitive Western Conference, Los Angeles has lost its last four games and Rivers has failed to provide a real spark.

Still, his stellar performance against Detroit earlier in the season shows the potential he can provide as a reserve for one of the West’s top teams. Rivers played 42 minutes, knocking down 4-of-7 shots from the field including three triples. Although he can be a defensive liability at times with the oft-injured Paul running the point, Rivers needs to be ready to step in at any moment if the Clippers want to stick with the best in the league’s superior conference.

Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers

Since an offseason trade that shipped the athletic big man to the West Coast, the 6-foot-11 power forward has made his mark in the Portland rotation. In their pair of victories against teams from Los Angeles, Plumlee scored 18 and 17 points and was a force in the low block. The former Blue Devil has also been a defensive force so far this season and recorded a season-high six blocks last Wednesday.

The middle Plumlee brother has also appeared to have ridded the free-throw shooting woes that plagued him early on in his Duke career. In his last six games, he has missed on just four of 25 free-throw attempts and continues to show that he can be a starting center at the next level.

Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

Hood has continued to develop as a potent NBA-level scorer in his second season with Utah. A growing member of the Jazz rotation, the 6-foot-8 small forward has struggled with efficiency from the field of late, shooting a mediocre 35.7-percent from the floor last Friday after having shot an even worse 28.6-percent in a loss to the Heat. On an average team in a talented Western Conference, Hood has an opportunity to become a key player for a Utah team that is unlikely to be in championship contention anytime soon. 

Luol Deng, Miami Heat

Alongside Winslow, the former Blue Devil has kept up his strong play, even at age 30. Last Tuesday, Deng registered a pair of season-highs, with 20 points and six rebounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The versatility and consistency that Deng provides has been key for his team so far and has allowed the veteran to cement his role in the starting lineup. With a great deal of youth outside of Wade and Bosh, the Heat will need Deng to remain a steady force on both sides of the ball to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference standings. 

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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