NEW YORK — Luke Kennard is a realist.
He was a McDonald’s All-American. He’s the second all-time leading high school scorer in the state of Ohio, finishing his career with more points than LeBron James, and had his pick of just about any school in the country when he decided that he would play his college basketball at Duke.
And he knew that, at Duke, at a program that has spent recent history building around the likes of Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram, he was destined to be the unheralded prospect. He knew that when Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Grayson Allen all committed to being his teammates during his sophomore season, that he would be relegated to a role.
Here we are a month into the season, Duke is through every test they’re going to get in non-conference play, and not only is Kennard Duke’s leading scorer, if the season ended today, he’d be a first-team All-American with a very legitimate case to be the National Player of the Year. Per Draft Express, he’s the only player in college basketball averaging more than 20 points and 3.5 assists per 40 minutes and less than 2.0 turnovers per 40 minutes while shooting better than 60 percent on twos and 35 percent from three.
If I had told you that in October, you would have called me an idiot.
And you wouldn’t be the only one that was skeptical.
“I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Kennard said after putting up 29 points on 16 shots as the No. 5 Blue Devils handled No. 21 Florida in the Jimmy V Classic, 84-74. It was Kennard’s second-highest scoring output of the season and, arguably, his second-best performance in Madison Square Garden this year.
“He’s come through for us,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Beautifully.”
It’s good to be Coach K these days.
We’re a month into the season and Duke has yet to play a game where half of the four potential lottery picks on the roster have been healthy enough to look like, you know, potential lottery picks. Harry Giles is still more than a week away from actually playing in a game for the Blue Devils; Coach K said that he hopes to have him back for Duke’s two games in the week before Christmas. Marques Bolden has played just 14 minutes in two games since returning from a lower leg injury. Jayson Tatum played his second game with the Blue Devils on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t until the second half against Florida, when Tatum scored 14 of his 22 points, that he got into enough of a rhythm to take over a game the way we know he can.
And Allen, the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year? He’d played in seven of Duke’s eight games, but a toe injury has sapped him of the burst that makes him such a difficult matchup.
But that hasn’t slowed the Blue Devils down. They’re 9-1 on the season, ranked in the top five of every poll and a Frank Mason III buzzer-beater away from surviving an injury-laden first month without a blemish.
It’s a credit to the amount of talent that Duke has stockpiled on their roster.
Because Kennard isn’t the only unheralded star on this Duke team. Amile Jefferson, a fifth-year senior that is only on the roster this season because Duke opted not to bring him back late last year after he suffered a broken foot, has picked up where he left off. Entering Tuesday night, Jefferson was averaging 14.7 points, 9.8 boards and 2.0 blocks. On Tuesday night, he played arguably his most impressive game as a Blue Devil, finishing with 24 points, 15 boards and four blocks.
He, too, is playing at an all-american level this season, and man, what a luxury that is to have. There isn’t another team in the country that could handle that kind of devastating injury luck without missing a beat.
“We have so many weapons in offense,” Tatum said after his breakout performance, which couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only was this Tatum’s first nationally-televised came with the Blue Devils, but he put on a show in Madison Square Garden with what seemed like half of the NBA in attendance. “On any given night two or three guys can go off. Other guys that can score might have more rebounds or assists. [Grayson’s] shots weren’t falling but he had eight assists.”
“There is absolutely no jealousy on the team with who is scoring,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of guys willing to share the ball and it’s fun to play with.”
And that may be the best news for Duke for two reasons.
On the one hand, roles are going to change now that the Blue Devils are getting healthy. The minutes-crunch will likely be felt more in the front court, where Giles and Bolden are going to have to force Coach K to take Jefferson off of the floor. Minutes and touches will be at even more of a premium if Duke continues to roll out small-ball lineups that feature Tatum at the four. Chase Jeter, who only got on the floor for one minute on Tuesday, is going to get buried on the bench again, and it wasn’t exactly promising that, in a game where Giles only participated in warm-ups, Bolden got off the pine for just two minutes.
The back court rotation will take a hit as well. Duke’s best lineup come ACC play could very well end up featuring Allen, Kennard and Tatum on the perimeter with Jefferson and Giles up front, meaning that Frank Jackson – who only played 20 minutes against Florida – and Matt Jones will likely end up seeing much less of the floor than they are right now.
But it’s also a sign that the concerns over Duke’s point guard play may have been overblown.
Entering the season, that was the biggest concern with this group. Jackson is the only point guard on the roster, but even he’s more of a scorer than he is a facilitator. That lack of a point guard hasn’t hurt Duke yet, however, and the reason for it is, as Kennard said, “There is absolutely no jealousy on the team.”
That lack of jealousy comes through in the way that Duke plays. Not only do they whip the ball around the perimeter, the Blue Devils are always going to have four-if-not-five players on the floor that can handle the ball in transition or against a press. Their best guards may not be Tyus Jones or Lonzo Ball, but they are kids that are willing and able to create off the bounce and understand how to operate in ball-screen actions. Beyond that, Duke runs crisp offense, which is as essential to efficient offenses as anything, and will always have three guys on the court that can create offense for themselves in a 1-on-1 situation.
That’s even more relevant to point out after playing Florida, who, on paper, is precisely the kind of team that should give the point guard-less Blue Devils trouble. Florida presses, entering Tuesday night 12th in defensive turnover percentage, and yet the Blue Devils committed just 13 turnovers in 71 possessions, a really good number considering the opponent and the matchup.
“Whoever gets the rebound, perimeter guys and Amile, they told us we can bring it up,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of playmakers, guys that can handle the ball coach wants us to push it. We’re a really good transition team if we get stops on defense.”
“Not having a true PG benefits us in a way.”
That’s not too bad for a team that’s still trying to work out their early-season kinks.
“It’s almost like we’re in October mode now when everyone else is in December mode,” Coach K said.
“But I think we can catch-up.”