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The conundrum of Duke men’s basketball’s Jalen Johnson and Matthew Hurt

Jalen Johnson struggled to find a rhythm Saturday against Louisville, totaling nine points and a game-high six turnovers.
Jalen Johnson struggled to find a rhythm Saturday against Louisville, totaling nine points and a game-high six turnovers.

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—When one leak gets plugged, another just seems to pop up. 

That's the theme for this year’s Duke team, and the headliner of it all is the fact that Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson continue to struggle to play together. The two are undoubtedly talented, and yet they’ve been unable to both produce signature performances during the same game. 

“It was very tough. We’ve lost three straight now and the mood in the locker room—we were disappointed, but we had some positives that we can take out of this game and just move forward,” Hurt said following the Blue Devils' loss at Louisville Saturday. “It’s a long season."

Duke fought hard for all 40 minutes of playing time against both Louisville and Pittsburgh, though one can’t help but wonder: What would happen if Johnson and Hurt both performed at their highest level?

Hurt shined against the Cardinals, finishing with 24 points, but Johnson struggled en route to just nine points and a game-high six turnovers. On Tuesday night, the reverse was true. Against Pittsburgh it was Johnson who stole the show with 24 points and 15 rebounds, while Hurt added 13 points on a meager 5-of-13 shooting from the floor.

So why is it that Duke’s best two offensive weapons are never on the same page?

If Hurt were a traditional power forward with an offensive range limited to inside the paint, then it would make sense that Johnson’s driving ability would not mesh well with the Minnesota native. But that simply isn’t the case.

From a schematic perspective, their playing styles should not clash with each other. Hurt’s ability to shoot from the perimeter gives Johnson plenty of space to utilize his driving ability, and when Hurt does want to post up, Johnson’s ability to move off the ball demands enough attention for Hurt to flourish inside. 

“The team’s definitely frustrated, but I think for us, we played one of our best games of the year,” sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. said. “This is the first game where we really competed most of the game.”

The Blue Devils' frustration is understandable—on top of Hurt and Johnson struggling to mesh, each has fouled out in pivotal moments when they were the hot hand.

Johnson’s foul-out in the waning minutes against Pittsburgh was a devastating blow to Duke’s increasing momentum in the contest, and Hurt’s fifth foul against Louisville was enough to get the limited capacity crowd going and give the Cardinals the extra boost they needed to come out on top. 

“To be honest, on the court you really don’t hear [the fans],” Hurt said. “You just try to focus on what the coach is calling, what we’re doing. It’s nice to have fans here in this crazy world in the pandemic.

“I don’t think it played a big difference. I think we just got to learn from it because we’re going to play more games on the road with fans, so we just got to keep executing.”

While the Hurt-Johnson conundrum is the biggest leak that needs fixing, a different issue seems to pop up with each contest, and that is what's most pressing with this year’s Duke squad.

One example is freshman guard Jeremy Roach. After a rocky start to the season, he found himself in a groove heading into Saturday’s matchup with Louisville. But the Virginia native couldn’t buy a bucket against the Cardinals, ending the night with zero points in 26 minutes of playing time. 

While it's likely Roach will be back on track sooner rather than later, it's concerning for the Blue Devils that new problems continue to arise with each game, and it’s something Duke will have to get a handle on before this season spirals out of control.

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