The Duke Blue Devils are making life without Ryan Kelly look a lot easier than some originally expected after the senior went down due to injury.
The Blue Devils could certainly use Kelly in their lineup, however, their performance without him has been nothing short of impressive.
Sure, Duke has lost a pair of games to the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the Miami(FL) Hurricanes, and there’s no denying those contests would be severely different with Kelly healthy and ready to go. However, considering the void left by a player, averaging 13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and shooting 52.1 percent from three-point, would be nearly impossible to fill for any team, the Blue Devils have done a marvelous job so far.
Kelly has missed the past six games with Duke going 4-2 in that span, with the two losses coming at the hands of the previously mentioned Wolfpack and Hurricanes. N.C. State and Miami(FL) along with Duke are the top three teams in the ACC, with all three having legitimate national championship aspirations. Considering Duke has only lost to championship contenders without its key player, it’s scary to think what the Blue Devils will look like once Kelly returns to the lineup.
When Kelly returns to the lineup, even if he isn’t fully healthy, his presence alone will be a significant addition to the lineup. His rebounding and shot-blocking ability will take pressure off of Mason Plumlee, like it did at the start of the year, and his defense will only help against players like C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson.
The focus will be on Kelly whenever he is able to return, with some suggesting just in time for the ACC Tournament, however, the value gained in his absence cannot be overlooked.
Freshman Amile Jefferson has scored in double-figures four of the six games Kelly has been unable to play. On the season, Jefferson is averaging 4.7 points, and 3.1 rebounds, but has bumped those numbers up to 8.5 points and 5.8 points with Kelly on the sidelines. He’s foul prone, but most rookie big men are, and he also played sparingly before the senior went down. However, Jefferson has stepped up and proven he’s more than capable of delivering solid contributions for the Blue Devils. It’s a weapon Duke wasn’t sure it had six games ago.
Another freshman, Rasheed Sulaimon, has also stepped up in Kelly’s absence. He’s averaging 13.3 points in the six games without his senior teammate as the 6-foot-4 guard visibly grows more comfortable on the court each game.
Then there’s Quinn Cook, who is not only growing more comfortable each game, he’s continuously re-assuring coach Mike Krzyzewki there’s nothing to worry about at the point guard position. In Kelly’s absence, Cook is averaging 11.6 points, 6.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds, all numbers higher than his season averages.
With the way Jefferson, Sulaimon and Cook have all stepped up with Kelly out, one can only imagine how the team will look once the senior returns. Duke is currently on a three-game win streak and the wake-up call sent by the Hurricanes appears to have motivated the Blue Devils to not let up any time soon. They’ve won the past three contests by an average of 14.6 points.
Despite how well the team has stepped up with Kelly gone, perhaps the biggest test will come in Duke’s rematch against the Wolfpack. The Blue Devils host N.C. State on Feb. 7 and will no doubt be looking to avenge their 84-76 loss on Jan. 12 in Raleigh. Duke might have lost, but they looked far from being outmatched even without Kelly.
If the Blue Devils defeat the Wolfpack it’ll go a long way in proving just how strong Duke is this season. Once they get Kelly back, they’re only going to get stronger.