CHESTNUT HILL, Mass.—Most Blue Devil games, you can expect a solid outing from either Joey Baker or Alex O’Connell. But you can’t expect both.
Saturday night, O’Connell played a pivotal role in Duke’s 97-88 victory against Syracuse, tallying 11 points, two steals and a block in 15 minutes of action, while Baker got to return to Durham with a clean uniform, not seeing any action against the Orange.
Tuesday night, their roles flipped. Baker’s eight second-half points were the difference in the Blue Devils’ ugly 63-55 win against Boston College, while O’Connell scored no points in an uneventful eight minutes on the Conte Forum floor.
This drastic shift is nothing new for Duke, but rather further proof of the either-or situation that’s surrounded the two wings all season. O’Connell has nine games with eight or more points this year. Baker has seven such outings. Just two of those games overlapped, both of which were blowouts, as both Baker and O’Connell got it going against Wofford Dec. 19 and Miami Jan. 21.
Inconsistent playing time and offensive usage can frustrate any player, especially those who rely on getting hot from beyond the arc to succeed, a billing both Baker and O’Connell fit. Though the two both seem to understand their fluctuating playing time, the drastic changes can wear on them.
“Obviously, as a competitor, I want to be out there, but we have a great staff and the team is amazing, so I just try to stay ready and keep working,” Baker said about stepping up against Boston College after not playing against Syracuse. “I know I’ll be able to help the team, so that’s what I kept in my head and stayed ready when my name was called tonight.”
O’Connell was more adamant in the toll that playing inconsistent minutes can take.
“The last few games I wouldn’t say have been rough, I just haven’t been in as much as any college player would like to,” O’Connell said following the Syracuse game Saturday. “Tonight, I was taking advantage of the minutes I was given and I feel like I did that to a pretty good extent. I was just trying to attack the zone, get my guys open shots, or shoot the ball on my own.”
So, why is it that Baker and O’Connell seemingly can’t thrive in the same contest? The answer lies primarily in defense and rebounding.
Each of the Blue Devils known for their knack to knock down 3-pointers often struggle to hang on the opposite end of the floor. O’Connell is a superior athlete, but he is limited by his strength and susceptibility to being beat off the dribble. Baker’s fundamentals are more sound, but his foot speed can make him a liability.
Despite his reputation as a subpar defender, Baker cites defense as his primary focus. In addition to his eight-point surge in the second half, the Fayetteville, N.C., native came up with a pivotal turnover with five minutes left in the contest, intercepting a Derryck Thornton pass.
“I just try to come in and do my thing on defense, provide energy,” Baker said Tuesday. “If the offense comes, then the offense comes. It’s really just about making the right play. If that happens to lead to offense for myself, then so be it.”
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Their similar playing styles are not the only way that Baker and O’Connell are alike—their season stats are eerily similar. In 271 minutes, Baker has 126 points on 101 field goal attempts. In 277 minutes, O’Connell has 113 points on 111 field goal attempts. The advanced metrics also confirm their striking similarities, as the two rank eighth and ninth in box plus/minus among the ten Blue Devils that are in the rotation (Baker’s superior shooting efficiency is matched by O’Connell’s superior rebounding and defensive rating).
There’s no clear pattern for which night one will go off, so predicting which contest will be a Baker or O’Connell game is difficult. O’Connell should be the more reliable option thanks to his quickness, elite hops and smooth jumper, but the junior guard has not lived up to his potential this season. His 3-point shooting has wildly regressed, as O’Connell has made just 24.1 percent of his attempts beyond the arc this year.
O’Connell’s upside can be mesmerizing—he’s been my pick for breakout player the last two seasons—but the stability of Baker is what the Blue Devils need right now. Cassius Stanley is an elite slasher, minimizing the team’s need for O’Connell’s athleticism. Baker is someone Duke can rely on to knock down shots on the perimeter and not get blown past on drives, making him the better bench option for the Blue Devils. Just don’t hold this against me in a week, when O’Connell will invariably and inexplicably thrive while Baker watches from the bench.