An anonymous Canadian poet once wrote, “Art takes time—Monet grew his gardens before he painted them.” Duke is still growing its garden.
The Blue Devils entered the season with a preseason No. 9 ranking and the No. 6 recruiting class, and much of the conversation around the team has revolved around bringing home a championship in head coach Mike Mrzyzewski’s final year with the program. Needless to say, expectations are high, and rightfully so, as they’ve gone 2-0 on the back of incredible talent and skill.
However, through the first two games of the season, first against Kentucky and now against Army, Duke hasn’t magically clicked into that team that everyone has expected it to be. At least not yet.
While it’s hard, and maybe inadvisable, to draw extensive conclusions from just two games, the Blue Devils clearly have a ways to go before they approach their full potential. Against Kentucky, in their first game and against a talented team no less, the Blue Devils’ rust was easier to ignore. However, even as Duke bested the Black Knights 82-56 in its home opener, it struggled to act as a cohesive unit and will thus have to wait before it can begin painting its garden.
“It wasn't at the level that I would like, and Army had a lot to do with that,” Krzyzewski said of the win in the postgame press conference.
At every turn, the Black Knights put pressure—to a somewhat unanticipated level—on Duke and brought energy that the Blue Devils were challenged to match. While Duke had a significant talent and size advantage, that wasn’t very obvious until late in the game. Instead of dominating as expected, the Blue Devils made mistakes and struggled to contain Army, most glaringly in a 9-0 Army run to nearly tie up the score early in the first half.
“We have a lot of potential defensively,” senior captain Joey Baker said. “There's still some things we're working on and we need to keep getting better at, and that's part of the process throughout the season, trying to keep improving.”
One of the areas that needs the most improvement in that regard has been rebounding. Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe had his way on the glass Tuesday, and, while Duke ultimately won the rebounding battle with 42 total to Army’s 34, Friday displayed similar woes. There were plenty of rebounds given up that a team with as talented of an interior as Duke shouldn’t have given up, and sophomore center Mark Williams only tallied four total, alongside six points.
Three-point shooting is also not going according to plan. Trevor Keels, though undoubtedly having a great collegiate debut, hasn’t yet tapped into his shooting ability while succeeding in other areas of the court. Senior captain Joey Baker, whose primary role is to be a shooter off the bench, made two but missed some wide open opportunities. The team as a whole shot a baffling 1-of-13 from three against Kentucky and, while improved for sure, just 9-of-29 Friday.
These issues speak to the overall lack of polish that has nagged at the Blue Devils through these first two games. There are times—and these occur more frequently than Duke faithful would like—where the team looks sloppy and inconsistent.
“We could have definitely played better. We could have started much better, and I think we weren't applying as much pressure as we should have been on defense and offense,“ star freshman Paolo Banchero said. “We weren't moving the ball as much as we could have. But it's a learning experience. And we will learn from it. We responded, and we tightened up later in the game and got the win. And we're gonna move on.”
And that’s the attitude Duke should take, because for every moment that the Blue Devils looked subpar, there were plenty other moments where they seemed unstoppable. From plays like freshman Jaylen Blakes’ fastbreak dunk off a near full-court pass from Baker, to times when the Blue Devils moved the ball until they shook off Army defenders, Duke sufficiently demonstrated that its potential is so much higher than what it has shown so far.
The fact of the matter is that, while it’s easy to zero in on all the things that went wrong Friday, that attitude neglects all that’s good and all that can change.
It’s been established that the Blue Devils have talent in spades, but even better, even as the team traverses the bumps in the road of the early season, all that talent complements each other. You could see that against Army, as players connected for alley-oop dunks, opened up shooting lanes for each other and communicated to shut down Black Knight pressure. There’s balance to the team, with players making an impact both on and off the ball.
Moreover, Duke’s stars have stepped up. Junior Wendell Moore Jr. has been an absolute revelation, posting a triple-double and being the all-around player and leader that Duke fans could have only dreamt of in his first seasons with the team. Meanwhile Banchero has yet to turn in a true full-capacity performance, and he still finished second on the team in points with 18—just behind Moore’s 19—and led the team in rebounds with 12. All this doesn’t even account for Keels or the quiet value sophomore Jeremy Roach added.
What lies ahead for Duke, then, is adjusting to maximize the things it is doing well, like scoring in the paint, while filling in the gaps of the things it is missing. That could mean playing around with lineups to spark a somewhat stagnant offense, or taking a look at diet plans to combat the cramping issue that nipped at Moore Friday and sent both him and Banchero to the locker room for a mid-game IV drip Tuesday.
No matter what, the Blue Devils still have some growing to do before they can paint their garden. But once they do, there is no doubt it will be a garden worthy of being painted; Duke faithful just have to be patient.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.