'The game's slowing down': Whitehead stands out in first start as Duke men's basketball tops Maryland Eastern Shore at home

Dariq Whitehead made his first start for the Blue Devils in Saturday's game against Maryland Eastern Shore.
Dariq Whitehead made his first start for the Blue Devils in Saturday's game against Maryland Eastern Shore.

For the first time in school history, Duke’s starting lineup Saturday evening was composed of five true freshmen. 

In a program so reliant on one-and-dones, this might seem surprising. But even with decades of stellar recruiting classes, the core five has always included at least one veteran. Junior captain Jeremy Roach’s lingering toe injury changed all that against Maryland Eastern Shore. And the freshmen, when put to the test, stepped up.

After playing through pain for three big games, Roach did not suit up for the Blue Devils’ final nonconference contest—an 82-55 victory against the visiting Hawks—leaving a captain-sized hole in the starting lineup. Head coach Jon Scheyer elected five-star freshman Dariq Whitehead to fill the gap, marking the third-ranked recruit’s first start and best performance of his young career.

“That's all I was thinking about,” said Whitehead. “Coach told me this is gonna be the first time in history Duke ever had five freshmen starting. Just to know that we came out here and got a [win] is something that will go down in history.”

In 25 minutes on the court, Whitehead proved his value in the starting lineup. The forward was everywhere. He accounted for 15 points and two assists on 6-of-14 shooting from the field while showcasing his defensive talents, tallying a block and two steals on the other end. He sparked Duke runs time and time again, controlling the pace of the game and showcasing his athleticism. And on a day when the Blue Devils could not seem to maintain possession, Whitehead only turned the ball over once, the lowest mark of any starter.

“Every game I feel like I'm getting more and more comfortable. The game’s slowing down,” said Whitehead. “When I first got out there, everything was so fast, and now I'm starting to see things how I used to before I got injured.”

Whitehead’s journey to the starting lineup has not been quite as straightforward as many would have guessed before preseason workouts began. The Newark, N.J., native suffered a right foot fracture in August that required surgery. He didn’t suit up until Nov. 18, when he scored six points in 16 minutes in Duke’s rout of Delaware. He came off the bench in each game of the Phil Knight Legacy, never logging more than 17 minutes or seven points. But throughout each of the past eight games, he has improved, getting back into game shape and mindset.

“It felt really good,” said Whitehead. “Just to get back in the groove and get my legs back.”

“I still got to get past one last step and that's the mental part,” Whitehead added. “Over-guessing and second-guessing myself.”

For Blue Devil fans, Whitehead’s trajectory should feel oddly familiar—it mirrors AJ Griffin’s last season. Now a key rotation piece for the Atlanta Hawks, Griffin dealt with a nagging knee injury that limited his role early on. While he never missed a game, the projected lottery pick did not start until mid-January, when he replaced Roach in the starting five. Once he had that spot, he would not relinquish it, ending the season with 10.4 points per game and a 44.7% 3-point percentage, a campaign that earned him the 16th overall pick in the NBA Draft.

At this point in the season, Whitehead is in a similar position. The rookie has gotten his feet underneath him, but now it is time to turn up the heat. Coming off the bench while less than 100% is one thing. Starting against tough conference opponents like No. 3 Virginia is an entirely different ball game, if it comes to fruition.

“It’s more so having to change my mindset from coming into games, to starting the game,” Whitehead said when asked about starting. 

Whitehead’s return timeline aligned with perhaps the most chaotic portion of the Blue Devils’ regular-season schedule. In the 22 days since he was declared active against Delaware, Duke has played nine games, severely limiting Whitehead’s, and the rest of the team’s, practice and recovery time. 

“He came back at the hardest segment of our season,” Scheyer said of Whitehead. 

While high-flying and promising, Whitehead’s first start was far from perfect. The 18-year-old went 1-of-5 from long range, bringing his 3-point percentage to 25% for the season. He is still adjusting to game speed and intensity. 

“I thought he could have had a couple more assists today, and we didn’t convert those with him,” said Scheyer. “I want him to just get out in transition more, attack the basket.”

“I think you'll see soon just what a defender he can be,” Scheyer added. 

Blue Devil fans will likely see just that very soon, as Whitehead maintained that he will be fully healthy in time for the team’s next matchup. The imminent reality of full-strength Whitehead and Roach, and in turn the entire Duke squad, drawing nearer generates questions about the Blue Devils’ identity and what the group will look like come postseason. The team will have to work through its personnel decisions quickly, as after its 10-day break it starts the brunt of its conference schedule with a road game against Wake Forest Dec. 20. 

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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