DURHAM -- Imagine you’re suddenly compelled to remodel your home. Not because you want to, but because you’re arbitrarily required to.
Imagine as well that the remodeling has to occur while your home is in motion; that the renovation must be accomplished without resort to any additional materials to complete the task, and in fact will require storage of certain valuables which may not be returned.
Meanwhile, millions of people will watch and evaluate your progress.
This may sound like a preposterously daunting task, but in essence is what a basketball team goes through when it loses a key player during the season.
The games go on. Opponents exploit your newfound weakness, even as you adapt to altered circumstances and try to compensate.
“People don’t realize that, when things change like that, your team changes,” said Duke associate head coach Chris Collins.
That’s the situation confronting the 2013 Blue Devils as they learn to play without senior forward Ryan Kelly, lost to a foot injury during a 68-40 victory over Clemson on January 8. He hasn’t played since; the team hopes for his return before March rolls around.
“We’re a new team, whether you want to write about it or not,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the media in mid-January. “This is a huge adjustment for us right now with Ryan being out.”
Such adaptations have been required of Krzyzewski’s teams in each of the past three seasons, necessitating repeated recalibrations on the fly.
Kelly’s absence is obvious this year.
Even as they handled the Tigers with relative ease, the Blue Devils struggled against defensive pressure; Kelly is their usual inbounder when facing a press. What’s more, his ability to rebound (5.4 per game, second on the team), to take charges, to play in tandem with similarly sized Mason Plumlee, was glaringly absent.
The Raleigh product also is sufficiently skilled to handle the ball in traffic. He stretches defenses with the threat of his shot. His experience enables him to facilitate the court spacing that’s such a central attribute of Duke’s offense.
“When he’s out there, when our starting five is out there, you have five guys who have to be guarded all the time,” Collins observed. “That’s why N.C. State is such a good offensive team – they have five guys that can hurt you.”
Following a loss at N.C. State in Duke’s first game entirely without the versatile 6-11 Kelly, Krzyzewski was asked why the Wolfpack had so much success with fastbreak forays against the Blue Devils.
“Ryan is one of the best defensive players in the country in position defense,” the coach explained. “But he also is that guy who covers the four (power forward) and corrals guys. No one has done that (prospered in transition) against us this year.”
Meanwhile, at the time of his injury Kelly was the most accurate bombardier in the ACC among those making at least one 3-pointer per game (52.1 percent). He was Duke’s third-leading scorer (13.4 points per game).
Since the wing landed on the bench, Duke has confronted defenses more determined to smother Seth Curry’s 3-point tries (as in a resounding defeat at Miami) or else to double-team Plumlee in the post.
“Without Kelly, the court gets a little tight for Duke,” said Wake Forest’s Travis McKie after his Demon Deacons nearly upset the Devils in Winston-Salem. “Definitely threes are huge for Duke, but without Kelly they’re a different team.”
Last season Kelly injured the same right foot while practicing on the eve of the ACC Tournament. He missed two games in that event as well as Duke’s NCAA opener, a shocking loss to 15-seed Lehigh.
At the time Krzyzewski noted his team wasn’t the same without Kelly, an intermittent starter. He didn’t press the point. As a result most observers immediately discounted the absence of a player who finished third on the 2012 squad in scoring (11.8 points), rebounds (5.4 per game), and blocked shots (31), second in free throw accuracy (.807), and tops in efficiency from 3-point range (.408 on more than three attempts per contest).
Instead, the popular verdict harshly dismissed Duke for a downbeat ending to a 27-win season.
The preceding year, the effect of a key injury was so painfully apparent it spawned a different sort of disappointment -- a keen sense of promise lost.
Freshman Kyrie Irving, off to a superb start as Duke’s point guard, injured his right toe in a victory over Butler in December 2010 and was lost indefinitely. “The disappointing thing was, Kyrie was just starting to explode,” Collins recalled. “He was a new dimension we were bringing onto a team with Nolan (Smith), Kyle (Singler), and Mason.”
Irving didn’t return to the lineup until mid-March. By then the team had coalesced under the floor leadership of Smith, and couldn’t easily accommodate Irving’s reintroduction. The ’11 Blue Devils came to be remembered as much for what might have been as for their 32-5 record and ACC Tournament championship.
Duke fans, or those who simply relish watching greatness in action, recognized a special opportunity had been lost. So did Duke’s coaches. “We felt with him, that team was head and shoulders the best team in the country,” Collins said.
This year’s squad has been ranked No. 1 from time to time, both with and without Kelly. Still, it is very much a work in progress.
“We’re not a great team with Ryan, we’re a really good team,” Krzyzewski said. “But we’re better than our parts when we have all our parts together.”
During Kelly’s absence the team has turned in part to Amile Jefferson, a freshman used sparingly prior to the injury. The slender 6-8 Philadelphian is himself in the early part of his oncourt evolution; he most comfortable near the basket and has yet to attempt a 3-pointer in college.
So far Jefferson averages about a third as many points as Kelly (4.7). But he’s scored in double figures in all but one game as a starter in Kelly’s place; Duke won three of his starts and remains in the top five in the national polls.
“I think the lesson is, you can’t be married to, you can’t just play a certain way,” said Collins, schooled by circumstance. “The main lesson is to be flexible and learn to adapt.”