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Brian Mull | | November 30, 2016

What have we learned about the injury-riddled Blue Devils?

  Amile Jefferson's experience has proven to be extremely valuable for Duke this season.

Duke freshmen Marques Bolden, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum haven't played a minute this season, and the date of their debut remains unclear, coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday night.

In the preseason, Krzyzewski envisioned spirited practices filled with heated 5-on-5 competition. It was Duke’s deepest - and tallest - roster in several seasons. But assorted leg injuries have sidelined the freshmen. Star guard Grayson Allen isn't practicing due to an injured toe. And a rotation that projected as eight or nine players deep was restricted to six Tuesday night in a 78-69 win over Michigan State.

What we don’t know is how the Blue Devils will look at full strength, how Krzyzewski will distribute the minutes and how long it will take the freshmen to trust their recovery and adjust to college basketball.

Here are five things we have learned about Duke, which is 7-1 and plays Maine on Saturday:

Matt Jones is the Blue Devils' best defender

Regardless of when the roster reaches full strength, it’s difficult to envision guard Matt Jones dropping out of the starting lineup. The 6-5 senior defends the opponent’s best player every game. Against the Spartans, his primary assignment was Miles Bridges, the hyper-athletic small forward. Bridges finished with 11 points (six less than his average) on 4-of-13 shooting and committed three turnovers.

Jones has played in 114 games and been a part of a national championship team, and while his role has grown each season, defense has always been the emphasis. Even on an off-shooting night, like his 1-for-7 effort Tuesday, he has tremendous value. Krzyzewski called his 2-point performance ‘spectacular.’

“Great example for people playing any game is that when you are all about winning, you are really important, and Matt Jones is only about winning,” Krzyzewski said. “He is a beautiful, beautiful kid and a great leader for us.”

Synergy Sports Tech data confirms Jones’ defensive impact. He’s been the primary defender against the ballhandler on 22 pick-and-roll possessions this season. The opponents have scored only nine points, shooting 4 of 17 with five turnovers.

Amile Jefferson is a vital piece

The 6-9 fifth-year senior has four double-doubles in the last five games since a four-rebound, seven-turnover clunker in the loss to Kansas. He’s shooting 64 percent in that span, wheeling around defenders with spin moves, banking soft shots off the window,  and using either hand to finish. He's especially deft with his right hand over his left shoulder.

“There’s a lot of prep work to dealing with those guards at Duke and any time you deal with them,” Michigan St. coach Tom Izzo said. “Then all of the sudden, I think you’ve got to give Jefferson. To me, he has been a key guy for them right now. I think he does a lot of quiet, good things, and I really like him.”

Jefferson, like Jones, has experienced everything at Duke - from a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Mercer to a national championship celebration in Indianapolis.

Krzyzewski said those two have earned their place.

“It is not inherited wealth,” he said.

“We believe in our group,” Jefferson said. “We believe with the group we have that we’re one of the best teams in the country.  And when our guys get healthy, when everybody starts to come around, when Grayson [Allen] gets to 100%, on the tail-end of it, we’ll be a better team.  Those guys are getting close.  Our team is hungry, so no matter who we put out there, we’re a hungry team right now.”

The freshmen should help where Duke needs it most

With Jones and Jefferson as the anchors, Duke is a better defensive team this season than a year ago when it lost 11 games and was 86th in adjusted defensive efficiency per

Jefferson’s mobility and athleticism enables him to switch on screens and defend guards. And he’s an excellent positional defensive rebounder. But, at 6-9 he offers little rim protection. Michigan State scored 38 points in the paint. Kansas shot 66 percent on 2-pointers. Bolden is 6-11 and was a starter in preseason practice before suffering a lower leg injury. Giles is 6-10 and was an elite rebounder in high school. Their presence on the baseline should enhance a defense that’s already 17th in adjusted efficiency.

Frank Jackson is quietly consistent

The freshman guard from Utah has scored in double figures in all eight games. He’s made at least half his 2-pointers in the last seven games and hit 14 3-pointers on the season. He sparked the 11-0 second-half run against Michigan State to break open a tie game and incite the Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd. Jackson is one of six Blue Devils with an offensive rating of 110 or higher, which is why they have the nation’s most efficient attack.

According to Synergy data, roughly two-thirds of his offensive possessions have occurred as a spot-up shooter, pick-and-roll ball-handler or in transition. He’s excelled in all three areas, scoring 84 points on 72 possessions (1.17 ppp).

Allen and Kennard shoot frequently - and Krzyzewski wants more

Duke guards Allen and Luke Kennard combined to launch 39 of Duke's 66 field goals against Michigan St. On the season, Allen has taken 27 percent of the Blue Devils' shots and Kennard has taken 24 percent. At halftime against the Spartans, the veteran Duke coach urged both players to shoot more. 

Kennard is 3-for-20 beyond-the-arc the last three games. But the green light is still glowing.

"I wish (Kennard) would shoot his three more," Krzyzewski said. "I think he and Grayson (Allen) pass up shots right now. We haven’t started shooting yet because we haven’t practiced and we need to in order to have that. But thank goodness they hit them when they count.” 

Duke is shooting 34.9 percent on 3-pointers (155th in nation) this season. 

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