Marvin Bagley III is a truly special talent—on offense. 

But as it has shown recently, Duke is better served without him on defense. 

In their last three games, the Blue Devils have been locked in on defense in a way few thought would be possible. Certainly, its offense has taken a hit, but overall, Duke has netted nearly four points per game better without him in conference play. After downing Virginia Tech and Clemson, the Blue Devils have held two straight conference opponents to fewer than 60 points for the first time since 2015. 

It might have something to do with the trapping 2-3 zone that head coach Mike Krzyzewski implemented against the Hokies and the Tigers. But a change in defense alone would not make that drastic of a difference. 

Bagley is worse than frontcourt mates Wendell Carter Jr. and Javin DeLaurier in defensive rating, and he has looked overmatched defensively for much of the year. Although he is a transcendent offensive talent, he hasn’t been able to protect the rim for much of the season. He has a putrid 3.2 percent block rate—that’s five times worse than the national leader. 

And though Bagley has strong post moves on offense, he hasn’t been able to translate that to the defensive end of the floor. He has struggled in particular when he plays against someone his own size—take Wake Forest’s Doral Moore, for example.  

The 7-foot-1 Demon Deacon center embarrassed Bagley, throwing down dunk after dunk and scoring 14 points in the first half. Krzyzewski says the only way Duke could guard him was fouling him, a strategy that eventually worked, but not without a cost—Bagley got into foul trouble and DeLaurier fouled out after just 12 minutes. 

The same was true against St. John’s, when 6-foot-11 forward Tariq Owens forced his way into the post for 17 points. Bagley is quick and nimble, but lacks the physicality necessary to be an effective post defender at this point. 

A combination of DeLaurier and Bolden has worked surprisingly well at matching up with the strength of conference opponents. Now, that pairing cannot replace Bagley’s offensive production, but the offense is still running at a satisfactory level with Grayson Allen emerging as the go-to option. 

Bagley’s absence has hurt Duke’s scoring totals, but the defense has more than made up for it. The offense isn’t fundamentally worse—it just looks different. With Allen running the show, the captain has been able to drive and kick much more—freeing up his own shot. 

Allen is doing what he does best—shooting from deep. Even so, the offense has dropped roughly 10 points per game without Bagley, but the defense has been nearly 14 points better per game. 

It’s a tradeoff that Duke fans should welcome for now. Bagley being back would be ideal, but right now, the team is playing as well as it has all season. 

The Blue Devils’ offense has never been a problem. Plain and simple: their defense lost them every single game they have dropped so far, even against Virginia.

Perhaps playing without Bagley will give Allen and the rest of the team a boost, so if he comes back, Duke will be more confident in its ability to defend in its new scheme. If it can win without Bagley, it can beat any team in the country. 

But only if his defense keeps pace with that of his teammates.