Blue Devils searching for new chemistry

Mike Krzyzewski didn’t really implement major changes in his basketball team’s approach until after it played several games without injured senior forward Ryan Kelly. 

The coach wanted to see what his team looked like with Josh Hairston and then Amile Jefferson starting in Kelly’s spot in the lineup and exactly what his team’s new weaknesses and strengths were. Like any good manager, Krzyzewski needed a certain amount of data before determining the best ways to push forward.

Before Kelly injured his foot in a victory over Clemson a couple of weeks ago, he was a true stretch-four — a 6-foot-10 forward capable of playing on the perimeter, taking his man on the dribble and getting some work done down low. 

Nobody else on No. 5 Duke’s roster has the ability to simulate what Kelly provided, so as Duke went through myriad disjointed looks offensively and breakdowns defensively in losses at North Carolina State and Miami and a victory over Georgia Tech, the Hall of Fame coach was developing a plan. Uncertain how long Kelly will be out, but the Blue Devils are now operating as if he won’t return any time soon, if at all.

“We’re obviously a different team without Ryan and we have to play like we won’t have him,” said Krzyzewski following last Saturday’s 20-point win over Maryland. “I think we will have him at some time, but we have to figure out who we are without him.”

Duke (17-2, 4-2 ACC), which visits Wake Forest (10-9 3-4) on Wednesday night, is no longer a team that will spread everyone out leaving driving lanes for point guard Quinn Cook and a plethora of entry pass lanes and angles for senior big man Mason Plumlee. It has also forced Plumlee further from the basket where he screens more than was originally intended before the season and he’s also become a more active and willing passer. 

In addition, senior guard Seth Curry, who remains hobbled by a shin injury on his right leg, has had a more difficult time getting free on the perimeter. Teams play off of Jefferson or Hairston and shadow Curry some, at least enough to cause him to hesitate to shoot just long enough to disrupt his rhythm. 

Curry has been hot in two of the games Kelly’s missed, but he went scoreless in a 27-point loss at Miami and has handed out only three assists in Kelly’s absence.

Duke’s flow had been missing — until Saturday vs. Maryland.

Aided by having Curry at practice the day after losing at Miami – Curry misses about two of every three Duke practices to rest the shin – Krzyzewski installed some new offensive twists. Among them was a half-court weave that never would have worked with Kelly but led to a few good looks versus the Terrapins, and also some set plays to get certain players good looks. Among them, freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon. 

Sulaimon, who had scored well in just one ACC game prior to Saturday, went off from the perimeter, hitting 6-of-8 3-pointers and finishing with 25 points against the Terrapins (his previous high was 19 points against Florida Gulf Coast).

Knowing the sets for him were coming forced Sulaimon to increase his focus even more. 

“The last two games we haven’t been sharp on the offensive end and we wanted to make our offense sharper and really play together,” Sulaimon said. “With Ryan being out makes us a different team and we’re going to have to score together… The new sets were part of that. I’m learning how to fill that role.”

Krzyzewski said having Curry available last week was vital in building new continuity.

“Our guys are becoming a little more familiar playing with each other…,” the coach said.  “When you are starting to put something new in, if he isn’t practicing, you won’t get the continuity that you would’ve. He’s one of our best players, (and) he did practice Thursday… Because of that, we were almost already prepared for the next game.”

Sulaimon said the new sets “felt right” and that the Devils solidified their new chemistry in Saturday’s game. So moving forward, expect Sulaimon, Jefferson and even Alex Murphy and Hairston off the bench to be in more comfortable situations. 

Their roles have been tweaked again, and especially for Sulaimon and Jefferson. The modifications much more suit their skills, and now they just need take ownership of their new roles.

“They know now that every night they are going to get looks,” Curry said. “So they have to step in and be more aggressive and have confidence they can knock down shots, make the right passes and whatever it takes.”

Krzyzewksi has re-shaped teams in the middle of seasons before, most notably in early February of 2010, and it paid off with a national championship. A national title may or may not be in this team’s immediate future, but nobody within the program is even worried about that right now. It’s about the basics and getting better each day. 

And the ever-changing Blue Devils are doing just that.