For years, the motion offense was a staple of Duke basketball. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski typically built his team around a primary big man—think Brian Zoubek or Shelden Williams—with shooters aplenty on the outside.
But with the advent of the one-and-done era, the traditional Blue Devil style faded. Talented wings such as Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Justise Winslow and Jabari Parker along with a constantly changing core are two of the biggest reasons why Duke has gotten away from an offensive gameplan that made it one of the most feared units in the country.
That's why an announcement during Coach K's opening press conference a few weeks back turned some heads.
"We’re going to play the five-out," Krzyzewski said.
Five-out motion, an NBA staple, will theoretically take the Blue Devils back toward the program's offensive roots. But with the evolution of basketball strategy and fewer true big men than ever, the old-fashioned, four-around-one motion of years past is no longer possible.
Thanks to Mike D'Antoni, current head coach of the Houston Rockets and a former USA Basketball colleague of Krzyzewski, though, Duke is hoping it has found its offense of the future.
"D’Antoni started it with Phoenix where he had the guys run to the corner," Krzyzewski explained at ACC media day. "On a court, the bottom eight feet, from the baseline to about halfway to the foul line, is hardly ever used except for a post man in the way the game runs. People used to stop at the wings. When D’Antoni had his guys go to the corner, now he had the defense play more space on the court and it gave more room for the pick-and-roll with [Steve] Nash and [Amar'e] Stoudemire."
The Rockets nearly upset the Golden State Warriors to reach the NBA Finals last season because of their explosive, potent attack led by MVP James Harden.
But Harden didn't do it alone. He often teamed up with center Clint Capela, Houston's 2014 first-round pick from Switzerland, to run a pick-and-roll-based attack, similar to that of D'Antoni's Suns back in the day. Add in the equally-lethal combo of nine-time All-Star Chris Paul and veteran P.J. Tucker, and the Rockets made for the second-best offense in the league.
Call Krzyzewski a copycat if you want, but the Hall of Fame coach has continued to adapt. And if the five-out can take root in Durham, it might be his most critical adjustment in the last few seasons.
"The five-out incorporates what they call a 'read' or 'dunk' spot, which is on the baseline outside the lane," Krzyzewski said. "The premise there is, the center normally has to play post defense or protect the basket. In five-out, he is now a help-and-recover [guy] because with penetration, he is not touching his man, so he has to make moves.
"If he makes a move [toward the ball], you have a lob. If he makes a move just to come and the guy shoots, you may have a free rebounder. So it’s called a 'read' space on a pass, dunk or rebound, but it forces the middle guy to be in a help-and-recover position."
"Positionless basketball" has become a more and more common refrain among the Blue Devils recently. Five-out, however, is not so much "positionless" as it is evolutionary. The offense requires high-level athleticism at all five spots, starting with the ever-crucial "read" man. For Duke, that will likely be either Marques Bolden or Javin DeLaurier when it tips off against Kentucky at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
Bolden, at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, is not the typical fit for the role, yet he's shown signs of growth that could enable him to succeed in the modern-day offense.
DeLaurier seems to be the more natural player for a pro-style attack. The Shipman, Va., native is an inch shorter and 16 pounds lighter than Bolden, and he's taking 3-pointers—a facet to his game that was not there even at the end of last season.
Perhaps, the Blue Devils could even choose to go small at times and let freshman Zion Williamson take over the "dunk" spot—very fitting for the high-flying rookie—with either Joey Baker or Alex O'Connell playing on the outside along with freshmen Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.
Regardless of personnel, there will certainly be an adjustment period during the season's first few months as Duke tries to figure out how it can best take advantage of the five-out system.
"Five-out is less posting and a lot more making reads and finding open space," DeLaurier said. "It’s been great for me because guys are forgetting about me down on the baseline when you’re worried about Zion, R.J., Cam, Tre in dribble penetration.... It’s something that’s well-suited for our team."
"You just get to play and not worry about a lot of plays or a lot of system stuff," Barrett added. "You get in there and Coach K gives you the freedom to do what you do and just play."
At times in recent years, that same freedom has been the Blue Devils' downfall. Guys like Tatum, Marvin Bagley III and Austin Rivers have led to isolation-heavy offenses that have prevented young teams from growing into a unit.
This group has a different vibe. Duke's latest recruiting class came together before it even arrived in Durham, much a credit to Jones, who was the first player to commit to Krzyzewski back in August 2017.
Jones will now take control of the five-out motion, leading his classmates once again.
"One of the things that five-out motion does is that it teaches you to make reads," Krzyzewski said. "I try to show, every day, three to five cuts that they’ve made because they made a read to celebrate reads, celebrate reading. It shows that you’re smart, and people like to be smart. But again, it takes time. We’re going to stick with it. I do think they have the potential to do it and Tre can help them."
If the Blue Devils aren't the same kind of dominant offense they've been—ranking among the top 10 in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency each of the last 10 seasons—from the get-go, they will have an excuse. Five-out is a complex, new wrinkle that theoretically will take time to develop.
But if there was ever a group to take on this mission, Krzyzewski believes it's this one. Duke has been efficient offensively in its two exhibition games, scoring on nearly 60 percent of its attempts from the field, while averaging 119 points per game.
The Blue Devils probably won't be the Warriors or Boston Celtics anytime soon. It's a step, though, that should take Duke into a new generation.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
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."