PORTLAND, Ore.—Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: How far Duke will go depends on how far its freshmen will take it.
It should come as no surprise that a program that has produced eight one-and-done top-three draft selections in the past 14 years is going to be defined by its freshmen. That was the case for the eighth-ranked Blue Devils in their 71-64 win over Xavier in Friday's Phil Knight Legacy semifinal. Duke not only started four freshmen for the fourth time this year, but two of them were among its top three leading scorers and three of them led the team in plus-minus.
Despite being Duke’s third-highest-ranked recruit entering this season, Kyle Filipowski has been far and away the best Blue Devil in his class. At first, that was entirely due to him simply being healthy; Dereck Lively II and Dariq Whitehead have both missed games and had minutes restrictions due to preseason injuries, and Filipowski only shot 37.0% overall in his first 2.5 games.
But Filipowski has made considerable strides after that poor opening stretch. Since halftime against Kansas, he has shot 44.4% from the field and 35.0% from three on extremely high usage while drawing a ton of fouls. His decision-making off the catch has considerably improved and he is no longer pausing between receiving the ball and attacking. Now he is able to take catch-and-shoot jumpers in rhythm and drive to the cup before rotating defenders are able to get in his way.
Filipowski still struggles when tasked with creation, and nearly turned the ball over when asked to do that to open against the Musketeers. But as his scoring the Blue Devils’ first seven points showed, he is adding both rim pressure and spacing to the offense, on top of defenders having less ability to help off of him.
“That's my brother, that's my family right there. I know he got my back and I got his back every step of the way,” Lively said of Filipowski.
As valuable as Filipowski has become, Lively ramping up to full-time minutes has been as important for Duke’s defense. The 7-foot-1 center has posted the third-best on-off defensive rating of any Blue Devil over the past five games, and opposing teams are shooting 8.4% worse at the rim when he is on the court—a more significant impact than nearly 80% of players in Division I, per CBB Analytics. He does have to cut down on his fouling, considering he is averaging six fouls per 40 minutes. But his combination of size, rim protection and ability to defend in space is nearly unmatched and has prevented opponents from forcing Duke’s defense into rotation.
Against Lively, Jack Nunge—Xavier’s leading scorer on the season—shot 0-of-8.
“Dereck's response on defense … that's a big-time thing,” said Blue Devil head coach Jon Scheyer. “Without [Lively and backup center Ryan Young] guarding him, it would have been a long night for us.”
On the other end, Lively is obviously limited—he is taking just more than two shots per game—but his presence as a lob threat forces his defender to stick to him. That aids both Duke's high pick-and-rolls and drivers like Filipowski and forward Mark Mitchell getting downhill without having to work through help defenders. And the proof is in the pudding: The Blue Devils take 4.5 more shots in the paint per 40 minutes and hit them at a rate 5.9 percentage points higher when he is on the court, per CBB Analytics.
Then there is Duke’s highest-ranked recruit among all the freshmen: Whitehead. Coming into Friday, he had shot just 6-of-24 across his first three games. But when the Musketeers turned the game competitive, Whitehead pulled the Blue Devil offense out of the mud, hitting a pair of long pull-up jumpers despite having a defender right in his face.
Whitehead living up to his billing is crucial for Duke. The team has dearly missed having a premier shot-creator, and that is in no small part due to the inconsistent performances of freshmen Mitchell and Tyrese Proctor. The former has shot just 3-of-11 against Power 5 opponents, and the latter has gone 2-of-18 over the past three games and is averaging close to the same amount of turnovers, fouls and made shots. Mitchell exploded for nine points in a three-minute span against Xavier to give the Blue Devils their largest lead of the night. But if he is going to be a consistent threat despite a slow jumper (which limits his 3-point volume), he has to improve his finishing—his 34.8% shooting mark on layups puts him in just the eighth percentile nationally, per Synergy.
Unless Jeremy Roach suddenly becomes a shot-creator, Duke cannot afford to have neither Mitchell nor Proctor be consistent scoring threats. In a game it won against the Musketeers by only seven, the lack of finishing made things closer than they should have been.
“[Roach] controlled the whole game, created for others. He had five assists—I actually thought he could have had eight, nine assists; we missed a couple bunnies that he dumped off,” said Scheyer.
There was some hope that the veteran talent that Duke boasted would allow it to weather the innate volatility of having such a bevy of freshmen. But Roach, even as a preseason All-ACC First Team honoree, needs finishers to play-make for. Jacob Grandison needs shot-creators to create open space for his shooting. Young needs the defense spaced to be able to work in the post.
If Filipowski, Lively and Whitehead continue their growth, and Mitchell polishes off his game, Duke could be once again playing in Houston in April.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.