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Finally healthy, Duke men's basketball's Marques Bolden starting to shine on the hardwood

<p>Marques Bolden finished with eight points and seven boards Monday.</p>

Marques Bolden finished with eight points and seven boards Monday.

SOUTH BEND, Ind.— Following underwhelming freshman and sophomore campaigns for the former five-star recruit, it finally seems like Marques Bolden’s year. 

Coming into the 2018-19 season, the center earned the fifth starting spot alongside Duke’s four heralded freshmen, and Bolden produced early—in the first five games of his junior year, Bolden averaged 2.6 blocks per game and shot at a 66.7 percent clip from the field, at last looking like the talented big man he was touted to be.

And then, somewhat inexplicably, Bolden’s production entirely fell off. The Desoto, Texas, native had a December he did not want to remember, and his slump led Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski to send Bolden to the bench in favor of fellow junior Javin DeLaurier.

Nearly a month after initially losing his starting spot, Bolden had a monster 12-point, 11-rebound performance against Syracuse, and re-earned his place in the starting lineup against Virginia Jan. 19. Since that contest against the Orange, Bolden continued the breakout he started at the onset of the season, and is averaging 6.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in his last five games, including a solid eight-point, seven-rebound effort in Duke’s 83-61 victory against Notre Dame Monday night.

“[I’m] just playing my game. I have teammates that are confident in me.” Bolden said. “I have coaches that are confident in me, so that’s really all I need right there for me to just go out and perform.”

Although foul trouble early in the second half against the Fighting Irish prevented Bolden from racking up his third career double-double, he submitted one of his most complete performances of the season, and impressed from the start of the night. On the Blue Devils’ first possession, Bolden pulled down a Tre Jones miss, and the offensive rebound resulted in a Jones 3-pointer, giving Duke a lead it didn't relinquish.

A key difference for Bolden comes with his clean bill of health. At the beginning of his freshman season, the DeSoto High School product was sidelined with a leg injury, delaying his collegiate debut until December. Last winter, Bolden missed a seven-game chunk in January due to injury as well. 

While Bolden has not missed any game action in 2018-19, he was not entirely healthy for much of December and January, battling foot issues. Feeling fully in form and playing solid basketball are no coincidence, and an able Bolden is key for the Blue Devils.

“He’s been able to work where he hasn’t had the foot problems," Krzyzewski said. "There’s the expression, ‘trust your work,’ and if you haven’t been able to work, then you don’t have anything to trust.

“He’s worked, so he trusts his work, he’s been much more vocal. What we did defensively in three of our last four games, we switch one through five where he’s on a guard and that worked real well for him because he can defend that when he’s healthy like that. He’s playing really well.”

The improved athleticism from Bolden is clear compared to his first two seasons—he is no longer a center anchored to the paint. Rather, he is somebody who is comfortable with any role defensively.

Although Zion Williamson and Jones garner more attention for their defensive abilities, Bolden is perhaps the most important component of Duke’s defense. The 6-foot-11 big leads the Blue Devils in blocks and defensive box plus/minus. 

“He just looks really active out there. He’s just really working out how to use his length and athleticism to block shots and come over,” Duke captain Jack White said. “You saw tonight, he just affects so many plays in different ways and he’s all over the court rebounding and running the floor.”

After some turmoil, it seems as though Krzyzewski has found his fifth starter for good. As long as he avoids the lower-body injuries that have nagged him for the last three years, Bolden should continue his breakout campaign and provide a menacing defensive presence for the Blue Devils.

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