Poor shooting could be talented Duke’s glaring weakness

Trevon Duval is among the young Duke stars who must prove they can make outside shots. 

Another year, another deep, talented Duke freshman class. This year’s seven-man group was ranked as the nation’s best — late commit Marvin Bagley III moved the Blue Devils past Kentucky in ESPN’s class rankings — and has two five-stars and two four-stars among its ranks.

That group showed its potential in warm-up routs against Elon and Utah Valley, with the first real test coming Tuesday night against Michigan State in the Champions Classic (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

It’s in Tuesday’s event that we might see the first evidence of the Blue Devils’ one potentially significant concern: shooting.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the career free-throw numbers of this seven-man class on the AAU circuit, where they each built their legends:

Only Trent shot better than 70 percent from the stripe, and, while not in ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ territory, primary big men Bagley and Carter both made less than two-thirds of their free throws. This trend has held through Duke’s first two games of 2017-18, where the Blue Devils are a combined 14-of-28 (50 percent) from the line in the two blowouts.

Now let’s look at how they shot from the field before arriving at the collegiate level:

When you consider that half of Duke’s roster is the freshman class, and that Grayson Allen is the only non-freshman expected to be a prominent part of the backcourt rotation, the above numbers could be an issue. Only one returning player besides Allen attempted a 3-pointer and that’s Javin DeLaurier … who attempted one.

The starting lineup for the first two games of 2017-18 has consisted of Carter, Bagley, Trent, Duval, and Allen. While Trent (7-of-13 from three) and Allen (10-of-15 from three) have been off to hot starts, Bagley, Carter, and Duval are a combined 2-for-9 from beyond the arc.

Bagley and Duval shot enough 3-pointers at a bad enough rate on the AAU circuit that it’s fair to call them non-shooters at this point. Carter was OK from 3, but the sample size is limited. Trent was average. Tucker is the only above-average three-point shooter in the class, and he’s taken one shot in a total of six minutes played through Duke’s first two games. How much will he contribute this year? The numbers above make a reasonable case that this team is going to be light on reliable outside shooters and heavy on frontcourt players.

Duval, Trent and Allen will make up a mega-talented backcourt, but with only two dependable perimeter scoring threats, opponents will be tempted to pack the lane on Duke. The best spacing scenario is Trent and Allen on the wings, with Duval handling the ball up top. Even then, you have two bigs on the block, potentially leaving three defenders to clog the paint while Trent and Allen’s defenders don’t help.

Duval, Bagley, and Carter are all exceptional at scoring in the paint, but struggle from the line. In particular, Duval’s game primarily revolves around getting to the rim, and finishing strong. (Travel to YouTube for multiple examples of Duval’s exploits in that realm). Duval does this well, and is likely to continue doing it well in college. But at some point (perhaps Tuesday night?), will college teams realize he’s a non-shooter and pack the paint on him, forcing him to earn his points from the line?

Though it might sound like blasphemy to some, Duke might need to take a page out of North Carolina’s book and embrace being a non-3-point shooting team in its title quest. North Carolina led the country in made two-point field goals, two-point field goal percentage, and offensive rebound percentage en route to the national title in 2016-17, per College Basketball Reference. The Tar Heels rebounded almost half of their misses, which allowed them to maintain an above-average effective field goal percentage. When your roster is littered with McDonald’s All-Americans, you don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the “pace-and-space” trend like everyone else.

Maybe Mike Krzyzewski is way ahead of us, and maybe he and his staff worked their magic this summer to vastly improve the shooting of their young group. You don’t get to 1,000 wins at a program without recognizing your own team’s flaws.

As if you needed reassuring, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism, Blue Devils fans — this is one spectacularly talented group. Just don’t expect it to look as easy as it has in the first two games — and don’t go looking for a barrage of threes against Michigan State on Tuesday night.

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