From The Stands: Western Washington

Tyler Thornton

The 2012-2013 hoops season tipped off on Saturday afternoon with the Blue Devils pulling away from Western Washington University. Here's our instant reaction and some early (way too early) predictions for the rest of the season.

Duke got production from the proven commodities with Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly each scoring 22 points, and they got an early shot in the arm from their two true freshmen with Rasheed Sulaimon score 20 points and Amile Jefferson adding 13.

Plumlee recored a double-double, and hit 75 percent of his free throw attempts (6-of-8) while Kelly busted out of an early season shooting slump by hitting three of his four attempts from the perimeter. The third senior on the roster, Seth Curry, recored a DNP as he continues to rehabilitate a lower leg injury.

After last year ended with a loss to Lehigh, much of the roster remake centered around adding height and athleticism - especially on the wing. Enter Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson who combined for 19 points, seven rebounds, and three blocks in 38 minutes.

Going forward there's still a number of issues to address (see below), but this team appears to have a higher ceiling than the 2011-2012 group. And, despite the horrendous ending to the season, that team was in the top 10 throughout the season and still won 27 games.

Here's our takeaways from the first exhibition…

1. The newcomers are just what the doctor ordered: A season ago Austin Rivers came to Durham and dominated the ball within the Duke system. He was the only player who could breakdown the opposition and when he got the ball, there was often a feeling of the other four players being stagnant.

This year Duke has Sulaimon, who showed the ability to be an impact player on both ends of the floor against Western Washington. The freshman guard has a much improved handle and was oftentimes the most vocal player on defense. He also disrupted the passing lanes and got to the rim on offense. He also showed a very confident stroke from the perimeter. There will be freshman struggles, but scoring 20 points on nine shots is a terrific debut.

Meanwhile, Jefferson is the kind of blue collar athletic small forward Duke has missed for a few years. On Saturday it seemed as though the Blue Devils had another, taller, skinnier, version of Nate James on the court. Add in Murphy as a complimentary forward who is just as athletic and willing to help inside as the second big when Kelly is on the perimeter, and the wing has two players will improve the defense from the sheer height and length. They'll also help Duke's rebounding game.

When the Blue Devils get the fourth new comer, RS Freshman Marshall Plumlee back in a few weeks, it'll be a quartet of new faces who have completely changed the dynamic of the roster.

2. Unproven PGs are going to have growing pains: Starter Quinn Cook was hit or miss. Junior backup Tyler Thornton provided some moments by playing pesky defense. Neither player, from our point of view, was or is ready for primetime. But the potential is there.

For Cook the issue was ball protection. He turned it over six times in 32 minutes against a Division II team while logging just three assists. It's clear that Cook excels in a fast paced offense that relies on the break. But in order for Duke to be effective this season he's going to need to continue to tighten up his handle and run the offense in the half court. He's also got to be crisper with his passes and motions. At times he's too loose with the way he's approaching the game.

Thornton, on the other hand, is much the same player from a year ago. He will pressure the ball and will make a number of hustle plays on both ends of the floor. Neither he nor Cook have enough offensive firepower to make Duke overly dangerous when they are on the floor together.

3. Defense is better, but by how much?: The biggest point of emphasis for Duke this year will be by how much the defense improves from a season ago when it was the worst it's been in Durham in decades. On day one of the exhibition season the most vocal and throwback style players on the court on Saturday were Jefferson and Sulaimon - which provides a spark of hope for the team to improve.

Regardless, Western Washington his 20-of-37 shots in the second half (54.1 percent), and had a number of easy conversions throughout the night. Much of that had to do with Duke's continued learning curve with help defense and weak side rebounding. When looking at some secondary stats, the Vikings forced 14 steals (compared to Duke forcing just eight), and they out-rebounded the much taller Blue Devils on the offensive glass by an 18-14 margin.

One thing that Duke does have is much improved quickness and athleticism on the perimeter - especially when Cook and Sulaimon are on the court together.

4. Free throw shooting is better: at least that's the big hope. And it starts in the middle with Mason Plumlee hitting six of his eight. That's a huge statistic for a guy who will probably average at around eight attempts throughout the season. In addition to the improvement from Plumlee, Duke saw Cook go 4-of-5; Sulaimon go 6-of-7, and Ryan Kelly go 7-of-7. Off the bench Josh Hairston hit all four of his attempts.

As a team Duke hit 31-of-40 from the line.

TheDevilsDen.com Recommended Stories