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Duke in the NBA: Kyrie Irving returns for Nets, Jayson Tatum producing at high level

Irving has averaged 22.0 points since returning to the Nets on Jan. 5.
Irving has averaged 22.0 points since returning to the Nets on Jan. 5.

The NBA season is in full swing, and a few storylines involving former Duke men's basketball players have emerged. Join the Blue Zone as we look at Blue Devils in the pros:

The return of Kyrie Irving

After missing the first 35 games of the season due to his vaccination status, Kyrie Irving returned to the court against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 5. The Brooklyn Nets announced that his ability to participate with the team would be part-time, considering New York's COVID-19 mandates, and that he would only be allowed to play in road games. The news of the All-Star point guard’s return was met with a combination of excitement and skepticism. There was, and continues to be, discussion around the Nets' ability to develop chemistry with Irving in and out of the rotation, along with whether or not the 2016 NBA Champion can meaningfully contribute to a contender part-time. However, one aspect was never in doubt: one of the league’s most electrifying superstars was stepping on the court again.

Irving scored 22 points on an efficient 9-of-17 shooting from the field in his season debut against the Pacers. Signs of rust were mostly negligible, as he showcased his ability to hit pull-up jumpers, get to his spots and finish around the rim at an elite level. The former No. 1-overall pick has maintained averages of 22.0 points per game, 5.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds in the five games that he has played in January. The Nets’ only cause for concern is the amount of time that Irving will actually be able to share the court with his two perennial All-Star teammates, Kevin Durant and James Harden, especially with Durant spraining his MCL with no official return timeline. Still, opposing teams will be forced to deal with a fresh Irving who will only grow more comfortable… well, only if the game is not in Brooklyn.

Tatum continues to produce for a .500 team

The Boston Celtics currently hold a record of 23-23, situating them as the ninth-overall seed in the Eastern Conference. On Wednesday night, they lost to a surging Charlotte Hornets team that has won six of their last seven games and is two spots above the Celtics in the standings. With the Bulls remaining atop the conference, the return of Irving for the Nets, the Miami Heat winning six of their last seven games and the sustained dominance of the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo, the path through the East is the most difficult that it has been for some time. Standing at the face of this mountain ready to ascend is Jayson Tatum, who continues to produce for the Celtics at an All-Star level.

Tatum is averaging 25.2 points per game along with career highs in rebounds per game with 8.5 and minutes per game with 36.7. Perhaps his increased playing time, paired with the additional offensive workload he was dealt in Jaylen Brown’s absence has led to him only shooting 41.5% from the field, a career low. This may contribute to the Celtics being ranked 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency, which is surprising for a team with a dynamic duo in Tatum and Brown, along with role players like Marcus Smart and Dennis Schroder. This team has been stuck in the basketball purgatory of making the playoffs but continuously failing to reach the finals. Tatum has continued to showcase his abilities as a scorer, but it does not seem like his team’s season will extend far beyond the play-in games.

Bagley, Jackson finding a rhythm

Marvin Bagley III has not had the beginning to his career that many envisioned. He refused to sign an extension on his rookie contract, and at the beginning of this season, the Sacramento Kings elected to not place him in the rotation. This seemingly resulted in the deterioration of the relationship between the Kings organization and Bagley’s management, an issue that has remained unresolved to this point in the season. Regardless of drama occurring off the court, in the past three games, the former No. 2-overall pick has been solidifying his place in the rotation, as Bagley averaged 19.7 points per game on 63.4% shooting from the field. These recent performances have been far more reminiscent of his time at Duke, when he won the Naismith Award for the best college player in the country.

One year before Bagley played his first and only season at Duke, Frank Jackson was welcomed into Blue Devil nation as the tenth-ranked player in the country per ESPN. He went from being a highly-touted recruit, to getting drafted in 2017, to being waived by the Oklahoma City Thunder at the beginning of the 2020 season. Another chance arose for Jackson when he was signed by the Pistons to a two-way contract for the remainder of the 2020-21 season. He made the most of the opportunity, averaging 9.8 points per game and shooting 40.7% from distance, earning him a two-year contract on Aug. 10, 2021. The point guard has maintained this level of production for the Pistons, and though he is still recovering from an ankle injury he suffered on Dec. 29, 2021, it appears that he has carved out a role for himself on an NBA roster. Going forward, rookie Cade Cunningham will rely on Jackson to share some of the backcourt responsibilities. Jackson’s athleticism and shooting from three has made him an integral member of the Piston’s rotation.

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