Duke has a lot to decipher before Saturday

Duke Williamson Basketball-1

A trainer holds Duke's Zion Williamson's shoes after Williamson left the game due to an injury during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina in Durham, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. Duke might have to figure out what the Zion Show will look like without its namesake. All because of a freak injury to arguably the most exciting player in college basketball. As his Nike shoe blew out, Williamson sprained his right knee on the first possession of what became top-ranked Duke's 88-72 loss to No. 8 North Carolina. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)


Sports Writer

Thursday, February 21, 2019

DURHAM — The Duke Blue Devils are an unusually top-heavy basketball team, relying on four freshmen whose eyes are set on the NBA.

At the center of that system has been Zion Williamson, who, before a grade 1 right knee sprain suffered on Wednesday, was the Blue Devils’ most efficient player on offense and one of their most impactful players on defense.

(On Thursday, both Williamson and Tre Jones were announced as two of 10 finalists for defensive player of the year.)

Obviously, Duke and Mike Krzyzewski will have to find a way to replace such production starting with their game against Syracuse on Saturday, assuming the transcendent star will miss that game.

“The fact of how we can play, who we’re going to play, what we’re going to do, we have to come up with a game plan based on Zion not playing,” Krzyzewski said after the loss to UNC on Wednesday. “Hopefully he’ll back playing some time in the near future.”

Williamson, Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, Duke’s four most important players who play by far the most minutes, have accounted this season for 77 percent of the team’s 2,233 total points. When those four play together, they have proven to be a national title favorite. But the two times they’ve had to play with something short of that quartet, they’ve lost two home conference games.

Jones’ shoulder injury against Syracuse on Jan. 14 limited him to only six minutes in that game. Without their point guard, the Blue Devils lost to the unranked Orange in overtime, 95-91.

Without Williamson on Wednesday, the Blue Devils’ interior defense collapsed; UNC was 2-of-20 from 3-point range, but shot 36-of-55 from inside the arc.

On the very first full possession for the Tar Heels after Williamson burst through his Nike sneaker and left the game for good, Maye slipped by Marques Bolden and Jack White for an easy layup. The next basket for UNC was a jump hook for Maye over White. Maye made 14 baskets; only one of them came from 3-point range.

Without Williamson, who averages nearly two blocks and 10 rebounds per game and acts as a deterrent inside when Duke plays small, the paint was wide open. UNC finished with 62 of their 88 points in that area.

“(Williamson’s injury) opened up some lanes inside and gave us some opportunities to drive to the basket,” Maye said.

Williamson’s absence also caused an obvious void on offense. Without his efficient 22 points per game average, aided by a 75.3 percentage from 2-point range, Reddish and Barrett combined for 60 of the team’s 72 points on a combined 45 shots. Jones shot the third-highest amount of times, making only one of his 11 attempts.

“It’s much different, as you guys saw today,” Jones said. “It’s our first time playing without Zion this year. We were definitely not used to that, but we’re definitely not going to make that our excuse for the night.”

The decisions between now and 6 p.m. on Saturday against the Orange, who will face Duke twice with a shorthanded team, will be an interesting dilemma for Krzyzewski.

Will Barrett up his usage rate? Will Reddish up his scoring? Will Javin DeLaurier, a reserve wing with understated athleticism, play big minutes? Will Williamson, even if healthy, choose to play?

On Wednesday night, Krzyzewski wasn’t quite ready to consider all that.

“I’d rather not talk about what we’re going to do,” he said. “I’d rather talk about what just happened. Because we’ll try to figure out what we’re going to do, so I don’t have that answer.”