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Duke in the NBA: Irving returns; Parker dunks on Okafor

With the NBA season kicking into full gear following an exciting slate of Christmas action, the Blue Zone takes a look at the play of former Blue Devils after almost a third of the season.

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Following a SportsCenter commercial in which Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski pegs him as an X-factor following his return from a kneecap injury that has kept him off the court since last season’s NBA Finals, Irving made his debut Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In 17 minutes of action, the guard notched 12 points and four assists and hit both of his attempts from behind the arc. Irving's minutes were carefully managed once again on Christmas Day against the Golden State Warriors. In a rematch of the Finals, Irving put up 13 points on just 4-of-15 shooting and missed all six of his 3-pointers. Although it wasn’t a statline for the ages, it was an encouraging sign in the return of one of the best point guards in the league.

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers

Despite a horrendous start to the season with a 1-30 record, the 76ers are still able to find comfort in the promising play of their 20-year old star big man. In the last five games, Okafor has averaged 16.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting just under 80 percent from the charity stripe, continuing to show that his free-throw struggles in his sole season with the Blue Devils have not followed him to the pros. Although his struggles on the defensive side of the ball and difficulty putting together victories for the 76ers may cost him the Rookie of the Year award, the former Duke star has shown the talent needed to play at a high level for many years to come.   

Justise Winslow, Miami Heat

Winslow's production has slowed a bit after a fast start to his NBA career. Although his effort and intensity at the defensive end continues to standout, the former Blue Devil has been inconsistent shooting from the perimeter and must continue to attack the basket on the offensive side of the ball. Despite being outplayed by fellow rookie Stanley Johnson in Tuesday's loss to the Pistons, Winslow had the chance to display his tremendous athleticism with a finish in transition.

The former Blue Devil also stepped his game up on Christmas and finished with nine points and six rebounds in a win against the Pelicans.

Tyus Jones, Minnesota Timberwolves

After not seeing NBA action for more than a month, Jones recorded six points and two assists in 20 minutes Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs after being promoted from the Idaho Stampede, Minnesota’s D-League affiliate. During his time in the D-League, Jones averaged 24.7 points, 5.0 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.5 steals while shooting 48.7 percent from the field, including 42.6 percent from 3-point range. Although it might be a while till Jones plays a prominent role for the Timberwolves, playing time on the NBA level is just what the former Blue Devil needs to kickstart his growth and development.

Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

Parker has come on for the Bucks in the last week or two after struggling early in his return from ACL surgery. The 6-foot-8 forward has averaged 13 points a game while shooting 52 percent from the field in his last five contests. The second-year pro had one of his best games of the season Wednesday against Okafor's 76ers when he recorded 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor. Parker even showed his ability to elevate when he finished with his drive to the basket with authority over his fellow Duke alum.  

Even with competition for minutes in the frontcourt from Giannis Antetokounmpo and former Tar Heel John Henson, Parker is making strides and beginning to showcase the talents that made him the franchise talent the Bucks were looking for when they drafted him second overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers

The middle child of the Plumlee brothers has finally found himself a starting role in the league this season and has taken advantage. The former Blue Devil has almost averaged a double-double in his past five games, with 9.6 points and 9.8 rebound per game, and has served as the perfect center for a Trail Blazer team built around guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Plumlee continues to bring energy and hustle on both ends of the floor that have allowed him to play a career-high 27.4 minutes per game so far this season.

Luol Deng, Miami Heat

11 years removed from his time as a Blue Devil, Deng is still starting games in the NBA. Playing ahead of Winslow, Deng continues to hold a vital role for the Miami Heat. Although he is no longer putting up the numbers he did earlier in his career in Chicago, Deng's 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds a game is nothing to sneeze at.

The Sudanese forward has also shown again this season how valuable he is on defense and why he has long been known as one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. Deng recorded five steals in the team's loss Tuesday to the Pistons and the forward has taken some of the toughest assignments for the team night in and night out. With his basketball intellect and ability to impact the game in multiple ways, Deng has served as the perfect role model for Winslow this season.

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