ChronChat: Breaking down Duke men's basketball's biggest storylines as it begins ACC gauntlet

Duke has had an up and down start to the 2020-21 season.
Duke has had an up and down start to the 2020-21 season.

Given that the team avoids another last-minute postponement, Duke will begin the stretch run of its conference schedule Saturday at Florida State. Four of our senior beat writers break down some of the Blue Devils’ biggest storylines right now.

Which player’s performance has stood out to you the most during the early portion of the season?

Evan Kolin: While Jaemyn Brakefield and DJ Steward have both pleasantly surprised me so far this season, Matthew Hurt has stood out the most. Despite pegging him as my preseason team MVP and an All-ACC First Team selection, even I was a bit skeptical of Hurt’s ability to step up as Duke’s go-to offensive option. But so far, he’s lived up to the preseason billing.

Hurt simply looks a lot more confident on the floor than he did a year ago, something he and the coaches emphasized leading into the season. What I’m most impressed by, however, is that he’s scoring and affecting the game in multiple ways—despite shooting 0-of-8 from three over the Blue Devils’ last two contests, Hurt has led the team in scoring each time and even added three assists in the team’s latest win at Notre Dame.

Glen Morgenstern: Brakefield has been the standout player to me so far this season, and it frankly seems nuts that he has played as few minutes as he has.

The Mississippi native has played off of the bench with astonishing efficiency. He is shooting 61.5 percent from beyond the arc (better than Hurt and Steward) and has committed just one turnover in 77 minutes. Brakefield also claims both the highest PER and second-highest true shooting percentage on the team. He could be a stopgap scorer with Johnson out for the next few weeks, and perhaps a lot more.

Derek Saul: For me, the answer has to be Steward. To be honest, the 6-foot-2 shooting guard was not really on my radar heading into the season, and I most certainly did not expect him to compete for serious minutes.

But, boy, was I wrong. Steward has passed the eye test as a dynamic playmaker and scorer and the numbers back it up: he is top-3 on the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, 3-pointers and offensive rating. Steward can do it all, and has quickly emerged as a much-needed spark on offense for the Blue Devils.

Shane Smith: I think either freshman guard makes a great case for this nomination, but with Derek’s nod to Steward, I’ll throw some props to Jeremy Roach. 

Roach’s last two performances against Illinois and Notre Dame have been perfect highlights of the Virginia native’s strong offensive skills. I need to see more from Steward and his ability to run the Duke offense, and Roach is the perfect fit in the meantime to complement Jordan Goldwire defensively. The 6-foot-1 point guard may sometimes find himself as an odd man out in the backcourt, but of recent, he’s deserving of a major role.

What do you think is the single biggest storyline surrounding the Blue Devils as they enter the stretch run of ACC play?

Kolin: I think the biggest storyline is how Jalen Johnson fits into the team’s offense once he returns from injury. With the star freshman sidelined, Duke had its best offensive showing of the season at Notre Dame. Now, before you put words in my mouth, I’m not saying the Blue Devils are better off without Johnson. He’s the team’s most talented player and a likely lottery pick in the 2021 NBA Draft—Duke’s only shot at any sort of title this season includes him on the floor.

However, it’s also safe to say Johnson has looked uncomfortable in the half court on offense, particularly against Michigan State and Illinois. His ability to work out the kinks in that aspect of his game, including making an impact off the ball alongside Jeremy Roach, will go a long way in determining the Blue Devils’ potential this year.

Morgenstern: Johnson sure is headline material, but Wendell Moore Jr.’s struggles seem to be the bigger issue at the moment. The pandemic has given him a case of the yips—Moore has more turnovers this season (10) than field goals (seven). If he can turn it around and break out the way many expected him to, it’s hard to imagine the Blue Devils going anywhere but up.

Saul: The slam dunk answer here is whether or not Moore can break out of his dreadful slump, but I am also curious to see whether or not Matthew Hurt will keep up his ACC Player of the Year-caliber campaign. Hurt has been downright spectacular so far. It’s only been five games though, and if Hurt can’t sustain this level of excellence throughout conference play, Duke can kiss a conference title goodbye.

Smith: While the others certainly bring up compelling on the court storylines, I think the world of college basketball will have its eyes glued to Duke’s program as the sport continues to navigate playing during a pandemic. To many it may seem like Duke men’s basketball is a foregone conclusion to keep rolling, but with the women’s team cancelling the remainder of its season, we have to wonder what precautions Krzyzewski will take as the season progresses.

The university has made it clear that the health, safety and well-being of its student-athletes is the priority, and that very well could lead to monumental decisions in playing certain games this season. If the men’s team follows suit with the women’s program and does not play certain ACC games because of COVID-19 protocol, how does that affect the Blue Devils’ resume in March and how does it alter the picture of the sport as a whole?

How do you see the team’s rotation adjusting, if at all, over the next few months?

Kolin: Looking at Duke’s minutes distribution right now, there are a couple things that will obviously change. Johnson will average more than 24 minutes a night (a major reason for that current number has been foul trouble, which should improve), and Mark Williams/Patrick Tapé should average more than a combined 12. Those minutes will likely come from DJ Steward and Joey Baker—the former has been impressive but likely won’t finish the season averaging his current 30 minutes per game, and the latter hasn’t proven that he has the ability to consistently contribute in conference play.

Outside of that, the biggest question mark is what will happen with Wendell Moore Jr. Amid Moore’s brutal start, head coach Mike Krzyzewski has limited the sophomore to 16 combined minutes over the last two games. If Moore doesn’t show improvement, could the preseason All-ACC forward really fall out of the rotation entirely? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Morgenstern: I mostly agree with Evan. The last big question mark for me is at point guard. The Jeremy Roach-Jordan Goldwire duo might have made sense early in the season, but it won’t work against tough ACC opponents like Virginia and Florida State. Roach will have to take the wheel sooner rather than later, and Goldwire will see his minutes diminished by late February. 

Saul: I am most interested to see how Coach K’s bigs rotation unfolds. This is where the two biggest surprises in terms of playing time have developed, as Tapé and Williams’ small roles and Jaemyn Brakefield’s emergence were not on many people’s radars in the preseason. Personally, I think relying on a healthy Johnson, Hurt and Brakefield in the frontcourt is Duke’s best path to victory, but I’m sure we will see more of Tapé and Williams than we have so far.

Smith: Krzyzewski should be happy right now as Goldwire, Roach and Steward are all starting to play to their potential, and I believe we’ll see a steady dose of all three on the court in crunch time through ACC play. An interesting aspect to look at will be how Hurt’s minutes fluctuate, as he’s currently averaging 33 minutes per game as a sophomore. The Minnesota native is quickly becoming a player who is hard to leave on the bench for extended minutes, though with the Blue Devils starting to face bigger teams in conference play, Williams should see a big spike in playing time as a defensive juggernaut.

How would you adjust your preseason predictions based on what you’ve seen so far?

Kolin: Well, I was wrong in picking Duke to sweep through its two nonconference battles with Michigan State and Illinois. But outside of that, I probably wouldn’t change much. Hurt has proven to be the team’s MVP in the early going, and I don’t envision that changing. And while Williams hasn’t made much of an impact so far, I still expect him to be a core member of the Blue Devils’ go-to lineup by the heart of conference play. Perhaps I’d add one or two more conference losses, but I still see this team being a contender in the ACC.

Morgenstern: Unfortunately, none of us predicted that Duke would lose to both Michigan State and Illinois. Even worse, I predicted Wendell Moore Jr. would be the team MVP. Yikes. Nevertheless, I’m holding firm on Williams worming his way into the starting lineup come March Madness. Plus, Jaemyn Brakefield really has been the most underrated player on the roster. Duke will be a top-3 team in the ACC.

Saul: Even though Duke’s nonconference slate did not go to plan (my pick for Michigan State as the team’s best win is rough), I still very much stick by my decision to go out on a limb and pick the Blue Devils to win the ACC. This is the worst year for the conference in recent memory, and I still believe Duke has what it takes to win an ACC crown. As for my expectations for individual players, I think it is too early to tell. Yes, Hurt has been the team’s MVP so far, but I think Jalen Johnson will prove himself to be the most important guy come March. And we have yet to see the best of Jeremy Roach.

Smith: I’m feeling pretty good about most of my preseason predictions, though admittedly I did not see Hurt stepping up as much as he has thus far. I saw Johnson as a surefire pick for Duke’s MVP this year—while he isn’t the All-ACC player I assumed he would be, make no mistake, he will be the difference maker for the Blue Devils if they want to call this a successful season.


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