Thursday, April 2, 2009

Future Dukies Frightened and Confused By Human Defense

Every Wednesday night during the winter and early spring, I take the 4/5 train uptown to PS 155 in East Harlem. My friend Tim is an elementary PhysEd teacher there, and for two hours a group of us play pick-up basketball in the school gym. Of all the games ever played in Harlem, from Rucker Park to the back alleys, ours is easily the least impressive. Most of us are average in skill, but severely lacking in athleticism. We're prone to bricked jumpers, errant passes that hit people in the face or groin, and falling over.

There's just one exception: a high school senior named Jesse, one of Tim's former students, sometimes drops in. He's by far the best player on the court, and the only conceivable way to stop him is with a group mauling strategy. Every time he beats his man off the dribble (an absurdly easy feat) and enters the lane, a swarming mass of unathletic arms, potbellies, and chests clobber him from all angles. Half the time, he still makes the shot. The other half, he manages to look at the floor, calmly call a foul, and refrain from punching anyone in the face. Good guy.

The most frustrating part comes when Jesse guards me on defense. It seems to happen every week. Since he's so much quicker, it's almost impossible to beat him off the dribble. He's also an inch taller, physically stronger, and can out-jump me by about a foot, so backing him down for a potential post move is pointless. Even if I snag an offensive rebound, I have to pump fake about seventeen times to get him off his feet, and by that time help defense has arrived.

Basically, I have three offensive choices against Jesse. One, I can pass. Two, I can settle for a long jumper. Three, I can let him force me outside the lane off the dribble and take an awkward, low-percentage runner or turnaround. Needless to say, none of these outcomes have a positive effect on my team, and most of them actively hurt our chance to win. As a defender, Jesse reduces me to being negligible or negative.

I bring this all up for two reasons. First, the Harlem game last night kept me from seeing all but the last fifteen minutes of the McDonald's All-American game. Second, from the brief bit I caught and the recaps I read later, I can't detect any discernible difference between my limitations against Jesse and the Duke recruits' similar shortcomings against future D-1 stars.

As a refresher, Duke had two All-Americans in the game. Mason Plumlee, from Indiana, came in second in Monday's slam dunk contest, while Raleigh's Ryan Kelly won the three-point shoot-out. Both are about 6'10", white, and skinny.

The first play I saw when I turned on the TV went like this: Lance Stephenson, incredible talent and well-known Brooklyn headcase (and possible sex offender), led a fast break. He passed to the left wing and continued to the basket. The return alley-oop pass came, and instead of dunking it with authority, Stephenson gently laid it in. The reason? En route, he lost some momentum when he had to push one of his teammates out of the way. And who was that timid soul? The one who took tentative steps toward the basket with delicate thoughts of perhaps receiving the pass himself, before realizing the physical superiority of Stephenson and anxiously deferring/being shoved to the baseline?

Duke's own Ryan Kelly!

After that showing, he was pulled, and the box score showed that in 13 minutes of action (the lowest of any player), he scored 6 points and pulled down 2 rebounds.

In case you missed Tuesday's post, let me rehash a quote from an ESPN scouting report about Kelly.

Once a scrawny, face up four-man who refused to mix it up in the paint...

After the game, I checked out DukeBasketballReport, a laughably fawning, homer message board where the moderators censor any criticism of the paragon of perfection which is Blue Devil basketball. (I was personally issued a permanent ban from the site after three posts for suggesting that Coach-For-Life Krzyzewski may have let us down in the recruiting department.) Needless to say, I was very interested in the spin these rosy-eyed optimists would put on Kelly's performance. The consensus?

Kelly is a scrawny, face up four-man who refuses to mix it up in the paint. They also admitted that he probably would not make an impact in his Freshman year. And believe me, when the sycophants at DBR make that kind of concession, you know things aren't looking great.

Of course, they followed up this critique with breathless praise of his three-point shooting, and eager predictions of the havoc he would one day wreak from the perimeter.

Right, because that's exactly what Duke needs right now; a 6'10" kid with deficient quickness, no rebounding ability, and a weak body frame, just lurking outside, making fake cuts to the basket, and popping out to stroke those 3s. I can't think of a better way to reverse the seven-year trend of being outmuscled against top teams. I look forward to his 1-for-9, 4 rebound performance in the 2011 sweet 16.

If I sound a little angry, you'll have to forgive me. Mason Plumlee didn't help matters. He came into the game shortly after Kelly left, and his first offensive foray wasn't much better. Posting up just outside the box, he made a few slow spin moves, got pushed further away from the basket by a defender who was obviously much stronger, and settled for a predictable turnaround jumper that was violently stuffed by a helpside defender. Sound familiar, Duke fans? I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn't watching an old familiar face.

Plumlee learned his lesson- he spent the rest of the game setting picks on the perimeter, and his only other contribution was to miss a potential game-tying three as time expired. Final stat line: 18 minutes, 6 points, four rebounds.

The big talking point is that Plumlee has the potential to become a lot stronger, with more upside than Kelly. Is it possible? Sure. A lot of things are possible. I could spend the next year training, maximizing my quickness, and practicing for three hours every day. And when the Harlem season starts up next November, I could dominate Jesse, the superior athlete. Oh, but wait. That can only happen if he doesn't get better too. But he plays all the time, so he probably will. If you were a coach, who would you choose?

I'll stop hammering you in the face with that analogy. Suffice it to say, even if Plumlee does improve, everyone else will improve too, and they're already stronger and better. The ACC is no picnic for players who start at a disadvantage. And let's not forget that Mason's brother Miles, who has a similar build and a similar game, was a flop as a Freshman this year.

In the end, I realize that judging these guys from one performance in an All-Star game where the majority of players refuse to pass is a bit unfair. And I'm not trying to be mean to the recruits. It's not their fault if things don't work out, and I'm sure Coach K will get the most out of their potential. As to my gut feeling about their prospects, I hope time proves me wrong and they both turn out to be shining stars who lead Duke back to the Final Four. I'll be the first to apologize if that's the case. I am frequently wrong, and even take a certain pleasure from looking back at woefully misguided predictions I've made in the past.

But sometimes I'm right, and damned if these dudes don't look an awful lot like more of the same.

1 comment:

  1. Kelly's stats were even worse than you predicted. He shot 0-3 (0-1) and pulled down two rebounds in 14 minutes. He did manage to turn it over twice, though!