Good things really do come in threes.
In the Blue Devils’ ACC opener at Notre Dame Wednesday, that trio came in the form of DJ Steward, Jeremy Roach and Jaemyn Brakefield. The three freshmen combined for 40 points on 15-of-25 shooting from the field and were responsible for all but one of the Blue Devils’ eight made 3-pointers.
“Just showing poise. Just letting the game come to us,” Steward said of their performance. “We’re freshmen so we go out there, we’re excited to play. We just got to stay composed and just be ready to play.”
After a 2-2 start to the season and an injury to its most prolific freshman in Jalen Johnson, Duke was in need of something to build its team around, and this trio may be the answer.
While forward Matthew Hurt led the Blue Devils Wednesday with 18 points, the ACC—and the rest of college basketball for that matter—is too deep for any one player to carry their team for an entire season.
Fortunately for Duke, it doesn't look like Hurt will have to carry the load any longer.
Steward led the freshmen with 16 points and seven rebounds, while Roach and Brakefield followed right behind him with 14 and 10 points, respectively. The double-digit scoring is nice, but their combined 60% clip from the field is most promising.
Roach led the way in efficiency, shooting 5-for-6 from the floor, with Steward sinking 6-of-11 shots and Brakefield hitting 4-of-8.
“All three of them bring their own different skill set, and they have improved since day one, even after Illinois,” Hurt said. “Seeing them grow, seeing them getting better on the court—whether it’s film, whether it’s working with the coaches—it’s just a really great sight to see.”
Steward is the most free-shooting of the bunch, which helps to explain his team-leading three 3-pointers Wednesday. He is more of a new-age guard, and that’s evident when looking at the types of shots he took against Notre Dame—his six field goals came exclusively from 3-pointers and layups. The Chicago native also flashed some off-ball movement that this team blatantly lacked during nonconference play.
Late in the second half, Steward made a nice off-ball cut for a layup, with the passer being none other than Brakefield. The latter used his size to draw attention in the paint, creating the opportunity for Steward to sneak by on an easy backside cut. A walking mismatch thanks to his 6-foot-8 frame and shooting ability—he drained both of his 3-point attempts Wednesday—Brakefield will be all the more important for the Blue Devils in the absence of Johnson.
Roach is the most selective shooter of the bunch, and relies far more on the midrange jumper than his backcourt mate Steward. Pulling up from the elbow is a dying art form in today’s basketball, so having a guy like Roach on the roster allows Duke to play a little different than what most of its opponents will see.
While their defensive performances don’t jump off the TV screen the same way their scoring does, these three also have a chance to be a premier group of defenders.
Steward notched two steals Wednesday while Roach and Brakefield each added one of their own. Duke already has Jordan Goldwire manning the perimeter, and if Mark Williams can stay out of foul trouble, he can be a problem for teams in the paint. The improved play of Steward, Brakefield and Roach would only add to the team’s defensive potential.
The success of this freshman trio answers some of the questions surrounding the team, but it also opens the door for several others.
If Roach and Steward continue to score at this level, what will Goldwire’s playing time look like?
If Brakefield emerges as a star and Johnson comes back soon, will head coach Mike Krzyzewski put all his eggs in the small ball basket and roll out Roach, Steward, Hurt, Brakefield and Johnson as his best five?
Can the trio improve upon their two combined assists Wednesday?
Thus, it’s by no means time to start preparing for a celebration parade in Durham. But for the first time this season, the Blue Devils finally showed something that they can build around.
“This is a big win for [the team]. We’re not any kind of juggernaut,” Krzyzewski said. “We can be a good team, but in order to be a very good team it’s going to take some seasoning, because it’s not like the teams we’ve had over the last number of years.”
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.