Ryan Kelly’s injury changes Duke’s basketball team and it changes it a lot. So much of what Duke does with Kelly simply can’t be simulated without him.
Serving as the Blue Devils “stretch-four” forward Kelly’s ability to pull bigger slower defenders away from the basket and free up the post for Mason Plumlee and drivers, as well as his ability to shoot three pointers makes him a particularly dangerous offensive weapon.
In the loss to NC State, just like last year when Kelly went out you could see Duke struggle at times on offense without Kelly pulling defenders away from the lane. Seth Curry had to work hard all game and fight to get open and for a guy who isn’t 100 percent that is tough.
It is Defensively though where Kelly has been one of Duke’s best assets. He has active hands and has worked hard to improve his defense in transition and in the half court. He actually was leading Duke in blocks prior to his injury and was fourth in steals. His long arms and active hands make him a solid defender and a tough matchup for smaller forwards. Again Duke has no real substitute for that.
The closest offensively to Kelly’s skill set appears to be Alex Murphy but in the Blue Devils first game since the injury, Murphy played only three minutes making him seem less likely to be a challenger for the vacancy. Amile Jefferson played his best game of his career but defensively he isn’t wise enough to stay out of foul trouble or to put himself in a position to not get called for fouls.
Unfortunately for Jefferson, younger players who start fouling or getting called for fouls with any frequency develop a reputation among certain officials who start targeting those players. Just ask NC State’s Richard Howell who has been a foul magnet over much of his career. Kelly has been pretty good at avoiding foul trouble and getting in great position to draw charges. Again Duke has no real substitute there either.
Josh Hairston is not a viable long-term solution for Kelly either, despite playing one of his better games against NC State. He simply doesn’t do enough on either end of the floor to be a real solution to the delima. So what is the real solution? Duke still has a very talented lineup and they still should be able to win a lot of games if not compete for a championship without Kelly.
My thought would be to pick up the pace. Duke has a very capable point guard in Quinn Cook who has excellent open court vision. They have a big man in Mason Plumlee who runs the floor as well as any 6-foot-10 player in the country and he can finish around the basket. They have one of the better shooters in Seth Curry, if he is healthy enough to play, and an explosive player in Rasheed Sulaimon who early in the season was drawing comparisons to Nolan Smith.
With those guys on the court it might not be such a bad idea. Duke’s not as tall without Kelly, not as good a shooting team and with smaller guards, half-court sets against tall and long teams could end up being problematic. Running more might solve that. You would have to make a serious commitment to hit the boards hard though and that has been an area of concern for Duke most of the year.
Hairston could certainly work well in that regard and Mason Plumlee is Duke’s best rebounder, but you’d have to get some help from the guards. You could also likely muster something out of Jefferson in terms of rebounding as well. Then the key would be quick outlets to the guards and pushing the tempo. When you have guys that run the court so well, there could be opportunities of avoiding the bottleneck of half-court sets.
Pushing the tempo could help get Sulaimon get some easy baskets in transition and that could help spur his confidence that has been waivering a bit of late. Plumlee can certainly finish and Jefferson has shown the ability to run and is crafty around the basket. That leaves a trailer like Curry who could get some open shots in the transition and of course Cook who can finish or shoot.
Now the obvious problems with this is that Duke is limited in personnel due to injury and fatigue could become a problem, especially for the guards. Tyler Thornton isn’t quite equipped to push the tempo like Cook so this might not be something they can do all game or even every game.
This would require more minutes out of Murphy and Marshall Plumlee and I just don’t know if Mike Krzyzewski is comfortable enough to have both of those guys on the floor for more than just a couple minutes a game.
But at this point if Duke is going to have to learn to play without Kelly for potentially the rest of the season they might as well look at ways at excentuating the positives of the lineup that they do have and what they have may mean they could find some success pushing the tempo.
I’m not saying an all out run and gun offense will be the solution to all their problems but it might help out and give them a chance to get some easy points which seems less likely in half court sets.
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