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Duke vs. UNC preview: Bench

Graduate transfer Theo John has been a staple of Duke's bench rotation.
Graduate transfer Theo John has been a staple of Duke's bench rotation.

With the first of this year's Tobacco Road matchups between Duke and North Carolina drawing near, the Blue Zone is here to preview each positional battle ahead of Saturday night's tipoff. Previously, we took a look at the backcourt, frontcourt and wings. Finally, we preview the bench of both teams:

Oftentimes, the best teams are only as good as their sixth men.

In recent years, Duke has struggled with squad depth and what happens if a starter exits with an injury or too many early fouls. Fortunately for head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a past weakness is a present strength, and the Blue Devils, for the first time in a few seasons, possess notable quality on the bench. Theo John, Joey Baker, Bates Jones and Jaylen Blakes are all capable players and apt stand-ins for their more marquee teammates, and may just be the difference in a fixture that, irrespective of individual team standings, is typically notoriously tight.

John, a graduate transfer from Marquette, has already been frequently called upon by Krzyzewski for his dominating paint presence and immense physicality. The Minneapolis native possesses a 6-foot-9 frame and 242 pound build, making him a threat on the rebound, putback and, as we saw in the Blue Devils’ wins at Louisville and at home against Clemson, leaping alley-oop dunks. John has frequently been the first substitution Duke makes in a game, usually as a big-man replacement for Paolo Banchero or Mark Williams, and has so far played admirably; he put up season-highs of 10 points against N.C. State and 9 rebounds at Notre Dame. These are by no means earth-shattering statistics, but he can put in a shift if it’s needed. The job of a sixth or seventh man is usually to keep the game stable, and John has definitely done that, with the added bonus of occasional double-digit points and a commanding paint presence.

Alongside John in the substitution pecking order is Baker, a wing-stalking 6-foot-6 guard with a 39.3% mark from downtown. The senior captain, especially in recent games, has been an ace-up-the-sleeve of sorts for Krzyzewski, notching 11 points against both Syracuse and Clemson while shooting a combined 6-of-10 from beyond the arc. Baker is among Duke’s most effective perimeter threats and may prove a useful outside outlet for a team that, with the talented big men it has, often likes to score close.

Lastly are Jones and Blakes, a pair whose game-time has been admittedly limited compared to that of John and Baker. Jones, a graduate transfer from Davidson, has mainly operated as a periodic stand-in for Banchero or Williams, much like John, but has more of a tendency to occasionally drift wide and open up a channel for a shot from deep. Blakes has often been a late-game rest player for Trevor Keels or Jeremy Roach, assuming point guard duties for the last few minutes of games in which a Duke win was already assured. Expect John and Baker to be more regularly featured against North Carolina, with occasional appearances from Jones and time for Blakes only if the result has been wrapped up with time to spare.

On head coach Hubert Davis and the Tar Heels’ end sit Dawson Garcia, Puff Johnson, Kerwin Walton and Justin McKoy.

Garcia, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, is actually fifth for North Carolina in scoring this season with his 9.0 points per game but has found a starting berth hard to come by in recent weeks. He starred early in the season with 14 points against Michigan and 26 points against an elite Purdue team that previously sat atop the AP Poll, but hasn’t played since a Jan. 22 win against Wake Forest in which he registered seven points. Reports of family illness have seen Garcia absent without a timetable for return and it’s unsure whether he will be available against Duke Saturday. If he is, however, he brings size and the potential for high scoring to the Tar Heels, using his 6-foot-11 frame to dominate the space under the bucket and control the offensive and defensive glass. Should he return and play, he could be a pest for the Blue Devils in the paint as his size will work to counter the size advantage Williams and Banchero usually possess in that area.

Walton was coincidentally a high school AAU teammate of Garcia's and has joined him at North Carolina, though game time and consistent scoring have been harder to come by for the sophomore guard. In the 2020-21 season, his most notable assets were his assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6) and his accuracy from the line, where he posted an impressive 84% mark. Walton, surely hoping to replicate his 4-of-6 mark from downtown versus College of Charleston against the Blue Devils, will be most dangerous if he’s given room to shoot and opportunities from the stripe–an area Duke has struggled in massively.

The last two bench players that could likely feature for Davis’ side are Johnson and McKoy, who have played more bit-part roles than Garcia and Walton but have still been notable parts of the Tar Heel rotation. Johnson has averaged 1.7 points per game on 41.7% shooting in seven games played, but put up an encouraging eight points and six rebounds in North Carolina’s recent 100-80 win against N.C. State. McKoy has played in nearly three times as many games as Johnson on an average of 1.3 points per game, usually coming in as a forward substitute for Brady Manek or Armando Bacot. Neither Johnson nor McKoy will likely see extensive time against Duke and will be used mostly as a brief fatigue stand-in or in the closing minutes of a lopsided contest.

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.

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