On Tuesday evening in Louisville, Ky., Duke’s starting five featured a preseason All-American, two freshman and two players returning from injury. On the bench sat the team’s 6-foot-5 all-star point guard, a 19-year-old reclassified sophomore with sky-high expectations.
For the fifth time this season and just the seventh time in his collegiate career, Tyrese Proctor came off the bench — three-and-a-half minutes into the contest.
The sophomore ended up playing 35 minutes, more than both freshman guards — Caleb Foster and Jared McCain — who started in his place. He scored more than them too, more than everyone, in fact, with his game-high 24 points. Proctor’s best game of the season came, yes when his team needed it, but not when it was expected.
The Blue Devils haven’t really subscribed to “expectations” this year.
Of Proctor’s 24 points, 11 came in the first half — and only three from beyond the arc. The Sydney native shot 1-for-4 from three in the first 20 minutes, instead finding the net from the midrange or in the paint. In the second half, the shots started to fall, and he supplemented his 2-for-3 two-point mark with a 3-for-6 statline from three. He then missed all three of his second-half free throw attempts, a sharp contrast from his consistency from the line last season. Proctor made 87.1% of his free throws as a freshman, with his only multi-miss game coming at North Carolina, when he went 5-for-7.
Against Louisville, his makes and misses were oddly timed. Two of the three missed second-half treys were on back-to-back possessions and sandwiched a Skyy Clark two-pointer that brought the game within three, the closest it ever got in the final frame. Proctor couldn’t respond.
Two McCain free throws moved it to five, but a Brandon Huntley-Hatfield layup brought it right back to three. Then, Proctor hit, turning the offensive board and feed from Mark Mitchell into three wide-open points from the top of the key. Just more than two minutes later, after Tre White drove to the rim to bring the game within six, there was an immediate response in the form of a drive and layup from the Blue Devil point guard.
“Last game, against Pitt, we kept trading baskets and then we started missing shots and they got the lead,” Proctor said after the game. “Tonight … we really locked in.”
That first made three of the second half on the Mitchell assist stretched the three-point lead into six. It would never dip back into one-possession territory again — Proctor and his teammates made sure of it.
Coming off the bench, and finding success in the sixth-man slot, was new for Proctor. His previous best relief effort — and only into double digits — was 14 points in the rout of Syracuse earlier this month. Then, the reason for his role was clear. It was only his second game back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for nearly a month. The NBA Global Academy product was still getting his feet back under him. In a way, he still is. The potential NBA Draft lottery pick has become a bit of a question mark.
Freshman Sean Stewart is in a similar boat. The four-star recruit arrived at Duke, broke Zion Williamson’s program record for standing vertical jump height and watched his minutes drastically fluctuate. The Windermere, Fla., native’s best performance came against La Salle when, in 17 minutes, he had 16 points and 10 rebounds for his first — and so far only — double-double. The next game, against Southern Indiana, he retreated into relative obscurity, failing to score on his two attempts and only reeling in three boards.
Since then, minutes have been hard to come by for the 6-foot-9 forward. He committed three turnovers in 21 combined minutes across the month of December, seemingly only seeing the floor in spurts.
On Tuesday evening, however, he was the second guy off the bench (only following Proctor).
“Sean, he’s had his best week of practice. Not even close,” said head coach Jon Scheyer. “A lot of times when you come in as a freshman, it's set up where it's supposed to be just instant success … I told the team we're gonna play the guys that defend and rebound.”
Defend and rebound Stewart did, with two stunning blocks in the final nine minutes that slowed down the Cardinals’ offense.
Watching him play, his athleticism is undeniable. But when Stewart checks in, he is still somewhat of an unknown commodity.
Preseason conference favorites. No. 2 in the preseason AP Poll. The second-ranked recruiting class. Four returning starters. The narrative surrounding this Duke team, the internal and external assumption, is that it will win. From the individual accolades and awards to the picture of Phoenix’s State Farm Stadium hanging in the locker room, the expectations are lofty all around. The Blue Devils as a whole haven’t really lived up to them thus far. But Tuesday night, in the KFC Yum! Center, they caught yet another glimpse of what this team could look like, and maybe what it should be.
The individual expectations, Duke has shown, are attainable. The jury’s still out on the collective.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.