Without a doubt, Zion Williamson has been the star of this Duke team. The freshman has taken over SportsCenter, YouTube and social media with his high-flying jams, and most draft experts have already put Williamson at the top of their boards—with good reason.
But for anyone who's watched the Blue Devils play this season, it's quite evident that Williamson is not Duke's most important player. Nor is it R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish, the Blue Devils' other top-three recruits.
That title belongs to Tre Jones, the point guard who has so effectively been the straw to stir the drink on both ends of the floor. So, when Jones suffered an AC joint separation in his right shoulder during Monday night's loss to Syracuse that will keep him "out indefinitely," there was plenty of consternation as to how Duke would compensate for his loss.
Jones brings more than just a fire to this team. The Apple Valley, Minn., native is far and away the Blue Devils' best man-to-man defender and his pressure on the ball has created plenty of easy transition opportunities for the Duke offense, as well as making the Blue Devils one of the five best defenses in the nation per KenPom.com.
He's also added offense to this team from the point guard spot. Jones is third in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, helping others get theirs, but without 13 points of his own against Texas Tech, Duke very well may have lost that clash at Madison Square Garden.
Jones' absence—for however long he's sidelined—will clearly have a major impact on the Blue Devils. The question now is how they manage with him out.
Barrett on the ball
In all likelihood, Barrett takes over as the team's primary point guard, and as we've seen plenty of the Canadian successfully running Duke's offense in transition.
The problem comes when the Blue Devils aren't on the break. Even with Jones in the fold, Duke's half-court attack has been stagnant at times.
Against Virginia this weekend, that won't get any easier. Duke will need plenty of offense to keep up with the Cavaliers' fourth-ranked offense according to adjusted efficiency, but the Blue Devils will have to try to find points against Virginia's second-ranked defense.
Where Tony Bennett's team is most effective is taking good shots and not allowing opponents to get out on the break. That will already put Duke at a disadvantage.
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Although Barrett can manage in the half-court, he's not a true point guard. That will make the freshman more prone to mistakes, which the Cavaliers capitalize on as well as anyone. And to be sure, the McGill defense that the Blue Devils saw this summer is nothing like Virginia's.
Also, there was a suggestion from ESPN's Seth Greenberg earlier this week that Duke will look to sophomores Jordan Goldwire and Alex O'Connell to initiate its offense and let Barrett stay off the ball.
Goldwire, although being more of a true point guard than anyone else on the Blue Devils' roster, struggles to shoot and doesn't add much on the offensive end. O'Connell also has not shown much in terms of ball-handling skills, and he's most effective off the ball as a dangerous shooting option for a team that already lacks in that area.
Plus, O'Connell's critical late turnover against Syracuse didn't do anything to help suggest he'd be effective running the offense.
Lights, Cam, Action
Without Jones, Duke is going to need to find offense other ways. Barrett and Williamson are most effective driving to the basket, meaning teams like the Cavaliers will collapse on the paint to prevent easy points.
The Blue Devils simply have to get better shooting from guys like Reddish and Jack White. White, who went 0-for-10 against the Orange, likely won't struggle in a similar manner every night.
But no player on this Duke team is as dangerous as Reddish from the outside.
Reddish has also shown he can be effective with Barrett when the two team up in transition.
The other important thing is that Reddish can initiate the Blue Devil attack. The Norristown, Pa., native played some point during his time at the Westtown School, but as previously mentioned, he's also Duke's most potent off-ball option.
So the question becomes how the Blue Devils and Coach K handle this balance.
In this set, Reddish winds up pulling up from the free-throw line. But it gives an idea of his options—he could've dumped the ball down low to DeLaurier on the pick-and-roll, or even kicked to Barrett on the wing.
No player is going to be as good with the ball in his hands as Jones, yet Duke is going to have to get by somehow.
Perhaps, Jones' absence is going to be most felt on the defensive end.
Jones has typically had the responsibility of covering an opponent's primary ball-handler. Against Syracuse, that worked out pretty well for the Blue Devils—Jones had four steals in the opening minutes before his injury and Duke jumped out to an 11-0 advantage.
After he went out, the Orange racked up the points en route to 95 on the night, the most the Blue Devils have surrendered in any game this season by far.
Syracuse leaned heavily on a pick-and-roll attack. Without Jones, Duke didn't handle it well.
When Barrett goes under the screen for Orange combo guard Tyus Battle, the Blue Devils immediately have to go into scramble mode. DeLaurier takes the switch on battle, Syracuse's Oshae Brissett pops out and Williamson is late to his man, giving the Orange an easy triple.
Jones typically makes his best attempt to get over any ball screen on his man. Sometimes, his defense has been so effective, opponents have chosen to put a different player at the point.
In this next set, Barrett goes under the screen, leaving Marques Bolden on Frank Howard.
Although Barrett does his best to recover, he's far too late. This leads to Syracuse big man Pascal Chukwu being wide open under the basket for a second too long, and White chooses to leave his man in the corner to help with Chukwu while Bolden and Barrett are doubling the ball.
Howard passes to Elijah Hughes in the corner, left wide open without White, and not even a late closeout can prevent the easy triple.
The point is, there won't be an easy solution on either end of the floor without Jones. His injury is the most significant to any Duke team since 2011, when Kyrie Irving missed nearly the entire season. But even then, the Blue Devils had Nolan Smith to take over at the point.
How this Duke team handles whatever time it will have to play without Jones will potentially have a major say on how the 2018-19 campaign pans out.