New York, NY – The defending national champion Duke Blue Devils came to Madison Square Garden on Friday for the opening round of the 2K Classic on the heels of a 74-63 loss to Kentucky and in search of a new identity without departed stars Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones, all first round picks in the 2015 NBA draft.
One of the primary players expected to pick up some of the slack for Duke is Grayson Allen, a 6-5 sophomore two-guard with long arms and a pro body. Not only did Allen look the part of a pro as Duke faced off against VCU, he showed off a pro game scoring 30 points and leading the Blue Devils to a 79-71 comeback win.
Relegated to the bench after starting Duke’s first three games of the season, Allen responded by playing both a highly efficient and highly entertaining game needing only 15 shots to score his 30 points. He checked off the “consistency” box as well scoring 15 points in each half as he rarely went more than a couple of minutes without affecting the game with his scoring and all-around ability.
Allen wants most to attack the rim and can do it going left and right. He can put his defender in spin cycle beating him to the basket and uses his above average athleticism to contort his body both in hopes of drawing a foul and also after accepting contact while finishing.
That driving ability forces defenders to give Allen space upon catching the ball behind the arc. With range behind the arc as part of his skill set, Allen took advantage of space by converting 4- of-8 three point shot against the VCU defense. His three-pointer with four seconds left in the first half brought Duke to within one at 39-38 at halftime.
But shooting from distance and taking the ball hard to the basket are not the only parts of Allen’s game. He also possesses a strong middle game and showed it off in both halves. He pulled up off the bounce going right at an elbow to score in the first half and curled off a screen in the second half for a catch-and-shoot jumper that found net in the second half.
“Allen is a heck of a player,” said VCU Coach Will Wade. “He has a great way of initiating contact and has a great body.” Allen stepped to the free throw line nine times and made eight free throws.
“We didn’t play well against Kentucky; Grayson didn’t play well against Kentucky,” said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski in part explaining why he made the change in his starting line-up by inserting freshman Derryck Thornton for Allen.
“It was nothing different for me coming off the bench,” said Allen, who served as a rotational player for Duke last season and contributed big-time in the championship game victory over Wisconsin by scoring 16 points in 21 minutes of play. “It’s all about moving on. It was a tough film session, but we made improvements and moved on.”
Krzyzewski commented that Allen was content with merely getting his shot off against Kentucky as opposed to finding a way to score against the Wildcats. He said Allen was driving to score against VCU.
Thornton, the freshman guard who reclassified as a high school senior from the class of 2016 to 2015 in order to enroll in Duke this fall, had the best game in his short Blue Devils career. Taking only 11 shots to score 19 points, he made 2-of-3 shots from distance and also found time to lead Duke with four assists.
“This was not a walk-it-up type of game,” said Krzyzewski, referencing the VCU program reputation for an attacking style of defense. “Derryck did a sensational job of taking care of the ball. What he brings to the team is a personality. He’s earning the confidence of his teammates. I was very impressed with him tonight, as I was with him against Kentucky.”
Thornton shares some of the same shooting and driving skills as Allen. Both players can knock down shots from behind the arc and both can drive it to the rim. Whereas Allen is more of a physical driver, Thornton relies on a lightning quick first step to beat defenders and get to the rim before defensive help arrives.
As heralded a player as Thornton was upon his arrival in Durham, fellow freshman Brandon Ingram came to Duke with even more acclaim. With a long, lean and projectable body similar to Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s easy to see why the 6-9 Ingram was on the radar of all of the top collegiate programs in the country before committing to Duke.
Ingram showed flashes of his skill set against VCU, but the game proved a little quick for him at times and the Rams did a nice job exposing some still-developing areas of his game. With a high waist and along arms, Ingram dribbles high and his dribble was attacked by the shorter, quicker VCU guards. Ingram executed a nice touch pass to the rim for a lay-in by teammate Marshall Plumlee for one of his two assists, but his overall passing skills were uneven.
Ingram has the green light to shoot from behind the arc, but his shot was flat against VCU and all three attempts were off line. VCU fouled Ingram late in the game as part of its attempt to cut into the Duke lead. The freshman struggled from the line before ending his night with two made free throws with 22 seconds left in the game to finish the game making 4-of-11 attempts.
VCU is hoping to carve out a new identity of its own with Wade taking over the coaching reins from the highly successful Shaka Smart. The Rams traded punches with Duke for all of the first half and most of the second half before things got away from them in the closing minutes of the game.
“I thought we played really, really hard, and well, for the most part,” said the upbeat Wade. “There was a stretch in the second half where things got away from us, but I can’t fault our effort. We just need to clean up some of our execution.”
The Rams were led by 6-4 senior two-guard Melvin Johnson who entered the game with a team leading 18.5 ppg average and netted 20 against Duke. Johnson shot the ball with deep range converting four of his six shots from behind the arc, two of which came from behind the NBA three-point circle.
With Duke paying more attention to Johnson as the game went along, his teammates struggled to pick up the shooting slack from behind the arc and Johnson’s four made three-pointers represented the Rams’ only makes from distance.
VCU figures to match up well at the center position with any Atlantic Ten team it faces once conference season rolls around. Senior Mo Alie-Cox and junior Admad Hamdy Mohamed man the five spot for the Rams and both had their way at times with the Duke front line players. Cox scored 15 points before fouling out and Hamdy Mohamed, a transfer from Lee College, chipped in with ten.
“I thought out bigs played well,” said Wade. “Mohamed can finish around the rim and he’s gotten better every month he’s been here.”
The loss dropped VCU into the consolation game on Sunday against Wisconsin. As coach at Chattanooga last season, Wade took his team to Wisconsin and returned home smarting from an 89-45 loss.
“I remember (Nigel) Hayes was just tremendous that game,” said Wade of the Wisconsin forward who recorded a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds. “He really took it to us.” It will be a different Badgers team VCU will see on Sunday afternoon, but Hayes will still be in a Wisconsin uniform for a game scheduled to tip off at 3:30.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can subscribe to our RSS feed from the upper right corner of our home page, follow us on Facebook, or on twitter.
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