Tasked with leadership and new roles, Proctor, Mitchell, Filipowski eye further successes in their second rivalry series

Tyrese Proctor (right) embraces Kyle Filipowski during Duke's loss to Pittsburgh.
Tyrese Proctor (right) embraces Kyle Filipowski during Duke's loss to Pittsburgh.

By Duke standards, Kyle Filipowski, Mark Mitchell and Tyrese Proctor are practically old and gray.

For the first time in a long time, Duke is stacked with returning talent. Junior Jaylen Blakes and senior Jeremy Roach provide the team stability while graduate Ryan Young contributes the kind of level-headedness and schematic know-how that only comes after playing six years of college basketball. And Mitchell, Proctor, Filipowski — these sophomores are the heart of the team.

Think back to Duke’s Jan. 2 performance against Syracuse. Game five of the Blue Devils’ eight-game win streak saw a team emerging from ashes of doubt and proving itself worthy of the ACC’s highest ranks. That win against the Orange was the first in a four-game series of Duke figuring out how to get past conference foes — including the Georgia Tech squad that had taken the Blue Devils down once before.

Head coach Jon Scheyer put much of that game in the hands of Filipowski, Mitchell, Proctor, Roach and Jared McCain. The five of them took care of the ball with a level of comfort on the court that radiated throughout Cameron Indoor Stadium, reminding faithful onlookers that Duke is talented. But for the first time in a while, that talent is not concentrated primarily in a freshman class.

That’s not to say the Blue Devils don’t have freshman talent. McCain’s 40.2% 3-point shot is no joke. But how high would that number be without the support of his older teammates?

The triumvirate of sophomores has faced challenges this season, but has proved in the early days of ACC play that it is more than capable of taking those challenges head-on.

At the helm

On Jan. 23 at Louisville, Proctor put up 24 points to define his career-high: He shot 9-for-16 from the field, lodging four 3-pointers and sinking two free throws to boot. Stats-wise, 2-for-5 from the stripe wasn’t Proctor’s best work, but his scoring output elsewhere made up for that.

Twenty-four points is seven more than the Sydney native ever scored last season. That improvement serves as something of a perfect metaphor for Proctor in the last few months, as the sophomore has increased notably in strength and comfort on the court. His role as starting point guard was essentially sealed Feb. 4, 2023, when he took over for Roach and orchestrated a feisty offense that enabled Duke to secure its first of two wins that season against the Tar Heels.

In the near-year since that day, Proctor (who was supposed to be a freshman this year before he reclassed) hasn’t changed as much as he has simply developed. His transition to sophomore year has been evident in the way he carries himself behind the ball and communicates with his teammates. Being a point guard is all about leading the charge, and therefore requires an awareness and understanding that naturally strengthens with time. In the 2023-24 season thus far, it has been clear that familiarity truly enhances Proctor’s game.

“We played a whole season together last year and have been in situations where the game was neck-and-neck,” Proctor said after the Syracuse matchup. “I think just having that trust … was a really big thing.”

An injury tried to get in the way of Proctor’s progress. He missed three games — including against then-No. 10 Baylor in New York — and didn’t start for four more. In the four games between his injury in the first Duke-Georgia Tech matchup and his revival in the second, he averaged just 6.5 points. In his first four games back in the throes of it, Proctor’s point average soared to a remarkable 17.5. He was back and quite literally better than ever.

“After everything, all the coaches trusted me, my teammates did too,” he said after the Blue Devils bested the Yellow Jackets at home Jan. 13. 

At the rim

Moving from power forward to center in the wake of Dereck Lively II’s departure for the NBA is no small task, especially for someone who so clearly excelled as a forward and built his reputation on doing so.

But Filipowski has done it, and he has done it well.

It wasn’t the smoothest start to the season for the Westtown, N.Y., native, despite a high scoring average. He did well with scoring but wasn’t as prolific on the boards as the Blue Devil faithful might expect from their Preseason All-American.

Since Duke faced Pittsburgh the first time, however, Filipowski has roared back. At Notre Dame, three days before the Blue Devils beat the Panthers, Filipowski scored seven points (his second-lowest total of the season) and grabbed six rebounds (his third-lowest). Then he scored 26 points in Pittsburgh and a career-best 30 in Durham against the Yellow Jackets while also snatching 13 boards. He has averaged a ridiculous 19.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game since Jan. 9.

“We’re a completely different team from the beginning of the year,” Filipowski said after Duke’s win against Georgia Tech. “I think we’re one of the best teams in the country.”

Basically, he got used to playing center.

At this point, Filipowski is not just back at the powerhouse level he maintained all of his freshman season — he surpassed it. His points-per-game numbers went from 15.1 last season to 17.5 this season. He also has 56 assists and 37 blocks. In his rookie campaign, in contrast, he totaled 56 assists and 26 blocks after all 36 games.

“I’ve been flirting with 30 points for a little bit,” he said after he broke his career-high at home against Georgia Tech. “So I think I finally just said enough’s enough.”

In the middle

Mitchell’s role on Duke’s roster was hazy last season; the Kansas City, Kan., native clearly excelled at defense but was less valuable — at least ostensibly — playing in the shadow of Lively. As a freshman, Mitchell averaged 9.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

In his sophomore season thus far, even with an injury keeping him on the bench for three games, the Sunrise Christian alumnus has upped his season averages to 12.5 points and 6.1 rebounds. His shooting arm, at least inside the arc, has never looked better; he’s knocking down 52.2% from the field and has already made 64 shots from the stripe on 87 attempts. Last year, by the end of the postseason, that number was 71 total from 93 tries. 

On top of bettering his stat line, Mitchell has bettered his name. 

“Mark Mitchell is a winner,” Scheyer said after Duke’s win against Syracuse. “That dude is a winner, competitor, connector.”

The sophomore has started every game he has played in with the sole exception of the first Georgia Tech matchup (and look what happened then). He has led Duke’s scoring in three games, which makes him the third most common points leader on the roster behind Filipowski and McCain.

He is earning, finally, some of the respect that was hard to come by last season in the shadow of his more celebrity teammates. 

“It’s not easy playing here,” Scheyer said after the Syracuse game. “There’s a lot of criticism and all that, but I think Mark has really stayed the course.”

Stepping up

At Louisville, the sophomores fought valiantly to win the game for Duke. In the press conference after the Blue Devils pulled out their road victory, Scheyer talked about them stepping up in place of captain Roach, whose rolled ankle kept him on the bench for most of the second half.

“Going through last season, we were in moments like this last year, and the wheels fell off a little bit,” Scheyer said. “Jeremy has been … that guy to provide poise and confidence.”

“The three of those guys [Mitchell, Proctor and Filipowski] stepped up in a big way,” Scheyer continued. “They’ve done a great job playing through adversity and fighting through.”

Louisville was not the blowout victory many Duke fans hoped it would be, but it was a show of excellence from the Blue Devil sophomores, who combined for 61 of the team’s 83 points. Proctor had four assists and Filipowski had five. Mitchell and Filipowski collected 27 rebounds between them.

On Saturday, a mighty game hangs in the balance. This one matters not just for the rivalry but also for both schools’ records. The triad of sophomore talent might mean everything, especially when the Tar Heels are returning so much veteran excellence of their own.

On Feb. 4 last year, Filipowski scored 14 points, Proctor 11 and Mitchell six. Sure, these rivalry games are wildly unpredictable, but those numbers are miles behind what each of the three sophomores average now. 

If Mitchell, Proctor and Filipowski have all gotten better this year — and everything indicates that they have, indeed, gotten better — those numbers should be higher.

Being old and gray might be a good thing.

Editor’s note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle’s 2023-24 Duke men’s basketball rivalry edition. To read more, click here.


Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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