To this point in the season, the Blue Devils have been a mixed bag on the court. An early loss to Kansas and a shellacking at the hands of Purdue led to some reasons for pessimism. However, a big home win against a tough Ohio State team showed that Duke under head coach Jon Scheyer still has the ability to compete at the highest level and contend for banners in March.
While the Blue Devils have been up and down, one thing has been consistent: the play of star freshman Kyle Filipowski. I think Filipowski will continue his stellar play throughout the ACC gauntlet and into tournament play, but we will be talking about another stud newcomer, Dereck Lively II, as the key to cutting down the nets. If Lively elevates his play for the remainder of the year, Duke will be a force to be reckoned with.
Entering the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, there were questions about how much Lively was contributing, as his gaudy preseason rankings had Duke fans expecting the next coming of Marvin Bagley III down low. However, Lively does not bring the same skill set to the table, having more of a reputation as a defensive anchor. Make no mistake, though—Lively can put the ball in the basket, and he proved with a career-best 11 points against the Buckeyes. Lively does not need to be the leading scorer every night on a Duke roster loaded with talent, but if he can consistently hang around double digits while maintaining his defensive prowess, watch out.
A good comparison for the impact that Lively can have on the game only makes us think back one season, to the stellar play of Mark Williams. During March Madness, Williams helped propel Duke to the Final Four because of his defensive excellence and ability to finish around the rim. Much like Lively, Williams did not do anything spectacular on offense, as the attention to other guys on the Blue Devil attack opened up opportunities for Williams to run the floor and catch lobs. Lively made a similar impact Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, as he possesses extremely impressive agility for someone his size. His defensive impact was evident, as he recorded two blocks and a steal. Most of his impact comes outside of the box score, as his length forces smaller players to go around him and attempt tougher shots.
Lively still has room to grow, but some of this late development can be attributed to his offseason injury. The center missed nearly a month due to a calf injury, forcing him to forgo invaluable chances to improve his game, especially in a closed-door scrimmage against an extremely talented Houston squad. This absence led Lively to take his lumps early on, most notably in his matchup with Purdue’s Zach Edey. Lively did a better job against Ohio State’s Zed Key, but got into foul trouble a little too early for Scheyer’s liking.
Lively’s breakout brings an entirely new dimension to Duke’s offense. Anchoring one of the best defenses in the country already, Lively figures to only improve on that end. On the other half of the floor, his display of his offensive ability, including a 3-of-3 mark at the charity stripe, can only work to remind Duke fans of last year’s Mark Williams breakout. If things go according to plan, Filipowski and Lively can become a deadly tag-team. Put that duo with the hopeful future emergence of Dariq Whitehead and the veteran leadership of Jeremy Roach, and the Blue Devils will have the opportunity to do some damage in the spring.
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