Trevon Duval answered Duke’s point guard conundrum at the Champions Classic

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO — Trevon Duval was easily the biggest question mark among Duke’s five-star freshmen entering the 2017-18 season.

Could Duval effectively run an offense? Would Duval’s lack of a consistent jumper hurt a Blue Devil team that badly needed floor spacing? Was Duval’s style of play too wild for Coach K?

Duval passed his first real test with flying colors against Michigan State on Tuesday night as he was all over the floor, getting in passing lanes and soaring for above-the-rim finishes.

It was only a small part of an eye-opening performance for Duval at the Champions Classic as his 17 points, 10 assists, six steals and three rebounds were a huge part of No. 1 Duke’s 88-81 win over the No. 2 Spartans. Playing 37 minutes, and only turning the ball over three times, Duval was the steady presence with the ball that the Blue Devils needed in an early-season game of this magnitude.

In a game featuring the top two teams in the country, Duval was the second best player on the floor. And for a program that has struggled to find a consistent option at point guard the past few seasons, Duval looked like the floor leader that the Blue Devils have sorely lacked.

While much of the national recognition was justifiably geared towards teammate Grayson Allen’s red-hot shooting and Marvin Bagley III’s poked right eye, Duval was a menace on both ends of the floor. Whether it was playing in constant attack mode with the ball in his hands on offense or deflecting a high number of passes at the top of Duke’s surprisingly active 2-3 zone on defense, Duval’s imprint was all over Tuesday’s game.

“It was crazy. It was exciting; really exciting,” Duval said to NBCSports.com. “I was a little bit nervous. But after I started to get rolling a little bit it was just regular basketball.

“I usually get butterflies before every game but I got a little bit more butterflies before this game. But it was more of an anxious type of butterfly. I was ready to go and ready to play and ready to win.”

The metamorphosis of Duval emerging into a potential two-way force is a vital part of Duke’s national championship aspirations. Already the No. 1 team in the nation with a potential ceiling that is unrivaled in college basketball this season, the Blue Devils needed Duval to step up in a big way against Michigan State with Bagley only playing 10 minutes and fellow freshman Gary Trent Jr. struggling with a 3-for-14 shooting night.

It was expected that a player known from his high school mixtapes as “Tricky Tre” could make things happen off the dribble on the offensive end. Duval’s constant activity on defense is something that surprised a lot of people.

“I don’t really know what people really said [about me in the preseason] but I think I play defense a lot better [than people think],” Duval said. “Now that I’m in college I feel as though I gotta cut the head off the opposing team. And that’s the point guard. So, whenever I do that, it makes it harder for the other team to run their stuff.”

Duke’s 2-3 zone has been an interesting subplot at the start of the regular season as head coach Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t relied this much on that type of defensive look in recent years. Duval’s 6-foot-9 wingspan and activity in passing lanes could mean that the Blue Devils rely more on the zone than previously believed. The 2-3 zone definitely helps Duke’s lack of consistent depth off the bench. Duval’s pressure also turned a potentially passive look into a turnover-producing force.  Michigan State had serious trouble working the ball into the middle of Duke’s 2-3 zone as Duval applied a lot of ball pressure.

“2-3 is something that we really didn’t play in the first couple games. But in practice, we really go through it so we can run it against certain teams,” Duval said. “We’re really comfortable with it and we know we have really long arms throughout the whole team. So I feel as though we’re comfortable playing that 2-3.”

For as good as Duval was at the Champions Classic, his jumper is still very much a work-in-progress. Finishing 7-for-20 from the field, and going 0-for-4 from three-point range, Duval has to knock down some looks outside of the paint if he wants to keep opposing defenses honest as the season progresses. But also credit Duval with understanding that Allen had the hot hand and that he could play off of the senior’s dominant performance. Still one of the toughest covers in college hoops off of ball-screen scenarios, Duval found a comfort level attacking the basket with downhill drives once Bagley was out and Allen started to get rolling.

“I tried to find Grayson and Gary and the big guys. Try to get them involved, try to get them going. Definitely Grayson when he started to get hot. Tried to find him as much as possible,” Duval said.

“As soon as Grayson started to get hot I had to tell everybody, ‘Find Grayson, he’s gonna knock it down no matter what.’ Once he gets like that, he’s unstoppable.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Duval’s aggressiveness hunting his own offense changes once Bagley returns to the lineup. It didn’t seem like Duval was fully comfortable in the Duke offense until Bagley went down midway through the first half and Duke had to make adjustments. Bagley is going to command a lot of touches on offense and Duval is still developing a chemistry with the Blue Devils’ late-summer addition.

But Tuesday also gave us a glimpse of what Duval can bring on both ends of the floor when he’s confident and rolling. Duke’s ceiling remains completely terrifying if Duval can continue to play like this. In a star-studded Champions Classic that was filled with freshmen talent, Duval was arguably the best among his classmates when it came to making winning plays.