NEW YORK—In one game, a big three emerged under the bright lights of the storied Madison Square Garden.
A trio of Blue Devil freshmen, Wendell Moore, Cassius Stanley and Vernon Carey Jr., willed their way with poise, grit and hustle to allow Duke to come away victorious from a hard-nosed battle against Georgetown Friday night. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is no stranger to the 2K Empire Classic, but Krzyzewski has also grown familiar with entrusting his younger players to carry the load in tight situations, coaching the likes of NBA lottery picks Marvin Bagley III, R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson. However, likely just one of the three current standout rookies has a chance of getting drafted as a top-14 pick next year, making the threesome’s breakout performance against the Hoyas that much more impressive.
“These guys have grown up a lot in the past month or so...we were able to see tonight, how they were able to play and dominate and control the game so well,” sophomore point guard Tre Jones said on the freshmen. “Those guys are growing up for sure.”
‘Growing up’ perfectly sums up how the freshmen have evolved from just about a month ago as they played in Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time, to now, hoisting the championship banner for a major college basketball tournament.
During his limited time on the court in Duke’s first exhibition game against Northwest Missouri State, Carey made just one shot to go along with three quick personal fouls and four careless turnovers. In Duke’s 2K Empire Classic tenure, Carey put the team on his back, with two consecutive double-doubles and 51 points over the span of two nights. Against the Hoyas in particular, Carey’s paint presence kept the Blue Devils afloat during the first half, scoring nearly half of his team’s points.
“[Carey is] a really good competitor and he shows poise. He checks a lot of boxes,” Krzyzewski said. “[Bagley] was more of a power forward. [Former Blue Devil Jahlil Okafor] was a center. And [Carey] is a little bit of both. He's a really good player and he's a hell of a teammate.”
A common trend of the 2K Empire classic was Carey’s reliability when Duke’s offense fell flat. Time and time again, Carey’s number was called, and he delivered, making his money on the block with nifty post moves and finesse around the rim.
But not only did Georgetown struggle to contain Carey, the team also found it difficult to keep up with Moore’s pace in the open floor.
Moore, who finished with a career high 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting, came up big for the Blue Devils in a breakout game of sorts. Receiving just his second career start against the Hoyas, Moore did not disappoint, helping create havoc on defense with his long frame and quick feet and also assisting Jones when Georgetown opted for a full-court press.
“Wendell was a star during [the press],” Krzyzewski said. “His moves from half court a couple times, to take it to the basket…they were huge. They were huge for us.”
Moore, unlike Carey and Stanley, did not have a successful night the last time Duke visited Madison Square Garden for the Champions Classic against Kansas. In that matchup, the raw Charlotte, N.C., native scored just two points and finished with four turnovers and zero assists. Seemingly though, Krzyzewski saw something special in practice, and gifted Moore another big opportunity to become a diamond under pressure. Moore’s hustle was unmatched against the Hoyas, and despite his seven turnovers, his ability to bob and weave around Georgetown’s traps proved invaluable, as Duke still prevailed against a well-executed press.
Rounding out the freshman trifecta is none other than Stanley, who led the team in scoring for the second time this season. Stanley hit big shot after big shot, sinking all three of his 3-point attempts to help extend Duke’s lead during the second period. Stanley arguably had the least growing pains of the three, igniting Duke in its huge win against Kansas. However, his game has continued to improve as he becomes more comfortable on the court.
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“[Stanley is] finding more and more confidence. He's already expecting the ball,” Jones said. “He's always wanting to make a play. So when the ball is in his hands or when he is just moving around or things like that, he's able to find a way to impact the game.”
Like Jones and Carey, Stanley has started in every regular season game up to this point, and it’s not hard to see why. Stanley’s eight rebounds and three 3-pointers put his elite wing abilities on full display. As Duke’s usual suspects from deep struggled—Matthew Hurt, Alex O’Connell and Jack White made just one 3-pointer between the three of them—Stanley became the three-and-d prospect the Blue Devils needed to get the job done.
Coming into the 2K Empire Classic, the standout freshman group was considered a quartet, but Hurt struggled in New York. The 6-foot-9 forward did not score in just five minutes of action against the Hoyas, heading to the bench in favor of White and Joey Baker.
"I just think Jack White was playing better," Krzyzewski said about Hurt's lack of playing time.
With the outstanding outing its three freshmen had against Georgetown, Duke looks to be in good hands going forward, even if those hands are a lot less flashy and a lot younger than Blue Devil fans are accustomed to.