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Joe Boozell | NCAA.com | March 5, 2019

How Duke is a different team without Zion Williamson: The film study

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Duke is 2-2 with Zion Williamson out of the lineup, counting the North Carolina game in which he got injured in the first minute.

Reports indicate that he's close to returning, which is great news for the Blue Devils. He's been missed. Duke is a different team when he's in street clothes.

Let's dive into the numbers and film and see how that's the case.

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Cam Reddish, doing more stuff

R.J. Barrett's usage has remained about the same with Williamson out of the lineup, because he's heavily involved in the offense regardless. Reddish is the person who's most affected, and he's been more assertive with Zion on the pine. Reddish is averaging 15.3 shot attempts per game in his last four; he was below 12 on the season before that.

Reddish is often relegated to a spot-up shooting role when he's the third option behind Williamson and Barrett. But as a second fiddle, we get to see more of his shot creating chops. Duke needs more of this when Williamson is on the floor:

It would have been easy for Reddish to settle for a 3 there. He's a great shooter; it's his best offensive skill. But he's a skilled enough ball-handler to bend defenses and penetrate in the right moments. If Reddish is going to start attacking closeouts with this kind of vigor, it will make the Blue Devils even tougher to guard.

Another example:

Of course, Reddish is the third option when Duke is at full strength for a reason. Williamson is one of the most efficient players in college basketball history; you wouldn't want Reddish taking shots from him.

But he should be more than a spot-up shooter. Perhaps asking Reddish to spread his wings in this stint will make the Devils even more dangerous when Williamson returns.

Duke can't really play small

Duke's version of "The Death Lineup" is Williamson, Reddish, Barrett, Tre Jones and either Alex O'Connell or Jack White. It's an impossible group to guard. Duke has four shooters and ball-handlers surrounding Williamson, who can rampage to the rim with more space than he has when sharing the floor with a true center. It works on defense because Williamson can literally guard everyone; he can function as a defensive center and allow everyone else to guard their natural spot.

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So, Williamson is the key to that small lineup working. Swap White in his spot, and you're losing the defensive backbone that makes it possible, even if the offense is still tough to stop. Small lineups will generally function better offensively, but most struggle to survive on defense. The great ones outscore their opponents and don't give it back on the other end.

Take the North Carolina game, for instance. Duke tried to play small at the end to mount a comeback. Easy buckets like this don't happen when a rim protector like Williamson is in the game:

Duke is wise to play Bolden as much as possible with Williamson sidelined. But, as we touched on, it's not as explosive offensively when it does so.

Duke really struggles to defend opposing forwards

When both teams were at full strength, it didn't seem like North Carolina matched up well with Duke. A big reason why was because Williamson, the best defender in America, is perfectly suited to shut down Luke Maye.

Maye exploded with Williamson out of that game, going for 30 points and 15 rebounds. He was too quick for Bolden, and too big for the rest of the Blue Devils. Maye was a menace on the offensive glass, and his face-up game was unstoppable.

Here's a full highlight reel of Maye's monster performance:

At the very least, Williamson would have held Maye in check. He may have shut him down completely. Versatile forwards will be Duke's kryptonite with Williamson out of the lineup, because they don't really have any like-sized players to do the job. White is fine, but his extended shooting slump makes it tough for Coach K to play him heavy minutes.

Virginia Tech big man Kerry Blackshear did similar damage against Duke, scoring 23 points on just 11 shot attempts. Williamson is most known for his help defense, but he's also a one-on-one stopper. Duke is exploitable here when he's out of the lineup.

Way more O'Connell

O'Connell has been in and out of Duke's rotation this year, but he's seeing way more burn lately.

Some numbers in the last four Zion-less games vs. the 25 games before that:

Alex O'Connell
Situation Games MPG PPG
Without Zion 4 25.3 9.5
With Zion 25 11.9 3.9

White or Javin Delaurier would seem like the logical candidates to play more in the wake of Williamson's absence. But White is in a shooting slump, and Delaurier, while an excellent defender, doesn't provide much offense.

O'Connell is a knockdown shooter. He's making more than 40 percent of his 3s in his college career, and can make plays out of the pick-and-roll. O'Connell is slender and can struggle on defense at times. But Duke's biggest weakness is outside shooting, and if Coach K can find O'Connell a convenient hiding spot on defense, he should play more even when Williamson returns.

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If anything, O'Connell will be more effective when Williamson returns because his looks will be cleaner. There are downsides to Williamson's injury, obviously. But it's good that guys like Reddish and O'Connell exploring more parts of their games. It should give them confidence come NCAA tournament time.