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Making the case: Which upperclassman should fill out the starting lineup?

Alex O'Connell hopes to continue his hot shooting from outside this season.
Alex O'Connell hopes to continue his hot shooting from outside this season.

Which Blue Devils will take the court in crunch time this season? Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has mentioned that either captain Javin DeLaurier or Marques Bolden will join the four freshmen in the starting lineup in Indianapolis for the Champions Classic Tuesday. Our Winston Lindqwister and Derek Saul make the case for both Bolden and DeLaurier as well as sharpshooter Alex O'Connell and captain Jack White to round out the top five.

Alex O’Connell

No matter how athletic and talented Duke’s quartet of freshmen prove to be, head coach Mike Krzyzewski will need reliable outside shooting to effectively execute his five-out motion offense.

With R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones all relatively unproven from beyond the arc, Krzyzewski would be wise to slot in sharpshooter Alex O’Connell in at the fifth starting position.

Last season, O’Connell led the team in 3-point field goal percentage, as he connected on 48.9 percent of his attempts from deep, and ranked third in the ACC among players that saw action in 15 or more games.

O’Connell provided instant offense off the bench when he was called upon in his freshman season, and energized his teammates with his performance. Duke won 15 of the 16 contests in which he notched 10 or more minutes, with the sole loss coming against North Carolina, a game in which O’Connell knocked down a trio of 3-pointers on five attempts.

“I have a year of experience under my belt,” O’Connell said. “This year I feel a lot more comfortable and confident coming in and being a spark for these new young guys.”

Aside from O’Connell, no other returning Blue Devils can reliably stretch the floor, as the other veterans shot a combined 25 percent from outside in 2017-18. 

Despite his immense offensive talent, there is a reason why the Roswell, Ga., native failed to maintain a consistent role a year ago—O’Connell entirely struggled to stay disciplined on the defensive end. He ranked second-to-last in terms of defensive win shares and steals per 100 possessions among Duke guards.

"For Alex, movement is great, thinking before you move is even better because it makes the movement you’re doing smarter,'' Krzyzewski said. “Not moving is not the right thing, but moving without thinking might even be worse. In other words, there has to be patience and making reads when you do not have the ball is a very tough thing for young players to learn.”

Although O’Connell remains on the fringe of the Blue Devils’ rotation—the four freshmen, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden all appear to be ahead of him—it will be hard for Krzyzewski to ignore the 6-foot-6 guard if his offensive production continues. Besides, what’s more fun to watch than an über-athletic, goofy guard that can shoot?

Marques Bolden

Marques Bolden entered Duke with high expectations—the second-ranked center in the Class of 2016 earned Texas Mr. Basketball honors and was projected by some as a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

However, Bolden’s freshman season proved to be disastrous, and the 6-foot-11 center averaged just 6.5 minutes per game following his return from a leg injury that held him out for the first eight games of the year.

Even though Bolden did not reach his full potential last season, he demonstrated progress in his game. Per 100 possessions, he nearly doubled his rebounds and blocks while cutting his personal fouls in half. Bolden also improved his field goal percentage from a subpar 45.7 percent in 2016-17 to an acceptable 61.5 percent mark last year. 

The junior has shown even further strides in his skills, and Krzyzewski has taken notice, slotting Bolden into a starting role in the team’s exhibition games against Virginia Union and Ferris State.

“Lately, I’ve been showing my energy level, talk and activeness,” Bolden said. “With my size, my strength, I feel like I’m able to guard multiple positions.”

Surprisingly, Bolden enters this year as the most experienced Blue Devil, as his 530 career minutes are the most of anybody on the roster, just ahead of DeLaurier. Nonetheless, White and DeLaurier were named captains for Duke, indicating that Bolden still has work to do on becoming a veteran leader for the team.

The DeSoto, Texas, native will need to be more vocal on the defensive end, where he may have his biggest role on the squad. In 2017-18, Bolden ranked fourth on the team among regulars in defensive rating, trailing only Wendell Carter Jr., DeLaurier, and White.

With a freshmen-heavy Blue Devil team, the soft-spoken Bolden will need to hone his leadership skills.

“It’s definitely different going from just coming to campus and asking all the questions to being the one that people ask the questions,” Bolden said. “It’s definitely an adjustment, but I feel like I’m handling it well, in addition to Javin, Jack, and the other upperclassmen.”

During conference play last year, Bolden demonstrated his offensive gifts that made him a blue chip recruit, as he led the Blue Devils in shooting percentage and offensive rating by a wide margin. As the only true center to receive a significant share of minutes, Bolden has the potential to elevate Duke to another level. 

Javin DeLaurier

With a team undoubtedly headlined by its freshman class, it’s easy to forget about the upperclassmen. And although DeLaurier may not have the flashy highlights or monster numbers as the rest of his teammates, he will undoubtedly prove his worth as the glue that holds  Krzyzewski's squad together.

Last year’s numbers don’t do DeLaurier justice. On the surface, his 3.4 points per game and 4.0 rebounds per game seem unremarkable for someone looking to slot into a team brimming with NBA-level talent. However, of the returners from last season, DeLaurier led in rebounds and finished just shy of Bolden in points. Furthermore, the Shipman, Va., native saw the most floor time of any upperclassman last season, leading with 419 minutes on the hardwood with the next highest being Bolden and O’Connell with 373.

However, what’s most exciting about DeLaurier isn’t just what he brings from last year, but also how much he has developed as a player.

The Achilles' heel to DeLaurier’s game last season was his shooting ability. Because the junior forward could seemingly only score from the paint, smart defenders would routinely peel off DeLaurier when he was at the perimeter and instead double-team one of Duke’s more dangerous weapons. From the outset of this season, the Blue Devil captain has made it a point to make sure no defender backs off him again.

“I came in over the summer and I was watching film or replays of old games where I’d just get angry with how teams would disregard me on the perimeter and essentially just play 5-on-4, and I just thought that was so disrespectful,” DeLaurier said. “So I got back in the gym and I got my confidence back with my shot just by a lot of repetitions. This year, I would just come in and not even hesitate and knock it down”

In Duke’s Countdown to Craziness scrimmage, DeLaurier drained two of four shots from long range—already doubling the number of three-pointers made last season. Although it’s unlikely that the junior Blue Devil will be billed as a major outside threat, the development of DeLaurier’s shot will help spread the floor and keep lanes open for Duke’s many slashers in the frontcourt.

Numbers aside, the greatest asset DeLaurier brings to the Blue Devils is leadership and communication. As one of the few upperclassmen on the team, DeLaurier has seen it all, from hostile arenas to down-to-the-wire finishes. As a high-energy player and vocal leader, the junior will be crucial in keeping the Duke freshmen level-headed and motivated in the toughest of environments.

“I think [Javin] does it better than anybody on our team,” Krzyzewski said of DeLaurier’s communication and leadership. “His voice is a good, strong voice, and he’s become smart.”

Jack White

White is a bit of an oddity as a fifth-man option for the Blue Devils. Slotting him into the lineup would make Cam Reddish the tallest starter, forcing Duke to have a somewhat undersized presence at the five. Against lengthy teams like Syracuse, this sort of lineup could spell disaster. However, there are still merits to starting the Australian, especially against smaller teams.

At 6-foot-7 and 222 pounds, White makes up for his lack of height with a surprising amount of width, allowing for him to match up in defending traditional wings. In fact, the junior forward’s greatest strength is his sound defensive instincts, earning a solid 6.2 defensive box plus-minus last season. For a team that could run as many as four freshmen at a time on the court, a veteran defensive presence will crucial in counteracting some of the likely rookie mistakes.

On the offensive end, setting White as the fifth man is a bit of a gamble, as he does not have the stats to suggest he’ll have a huge amount of production. Last season, he struggled from the perimeter, making less than 20 percent of his threes. However, Krzyzewski has repeatedly billed White as a threat from downtown. For a team with question marks surrounding three of its starters’ outside shots, steady shooting from the Blue Devil junior would greatly enhance Duke’s offensive potential.

“I’ve improved on a lot of things this year and my role has been expanded,” White said after Countdown to Craziness, where he posted four rebounds but only attempted one field goal. “Rebounds obviously showed tonight. Just defending, being a leader, and being able to make open shots. I didn’t get any tonight, but during the year, making open threes will be essential, especially around guys who are so talented at getting to the bucket.”

One aspect of White’s game that has been consistent throughout his Duke career is crashing the glass. Just a week ago against Ferris State, White notched six rebounds over 20 minutes of play, using his wider frame to wrestle loose balls away from opponents. Although Williamson and Barrett have plenty of verticality in their game, the extra ability at the glass will help keep the Blue Devil offense flowing and provide more second and third opportunities.

Although White is undoubtedly a vocal leader on his team, in order to secure a starting slot, the junior captain will need to develop confidence and consistency in his shot. If he can grow into the shooter that Krzyzewski sees in him, White will make for a great option in leading Duke’s younger starters.

“I thought he played really well,” Krzyzewski said of White’s performance in the preseason Blue/White scrimmage. “He was on the boards, he played defense, and if he’s playing with those guys like Cam, Zion and R.J., he’s going to get open shots, and he can hit an open shot."

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.


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