BDN Preview: Duke’s Sophomore Class

Lance King Images for BDN

A year ago, anyone planning to write about Duke’s then-freshman class would have had a lot of work to do, as there were five, count ‘em five, new Blue Devils to assess.  Today, the job is much easier, as that group of five frosh from 2011-12 has for a number of different reasons dwindled to a one man sophomore class.  Nobody really expected Austin Rivers to stick around for more than a year, and sure enough, he declared for the draft after his freshman year and was a lottery pick of the New Orleans Hornets.  Alex Murphy, who had been playing very well in the off-season, the trip to China, and the pre-season, suffered a concussion and ultimately took a redshirt.  Marshall Plumlee just wasn’t ready physically to contribute at this level, and would have just ridden the pine behind his brothers, so he was redshirted as well. And then Michael Gbinije, who never earned any significant playing time despite the team being in dire need of some length and defense on the wing, bugged out for Syracuse.

That leaves point guard Quinn Cook, a player whose development many observers, including this one, believe will be critical to the success of this year’s Blue Devils.  The 6’1” Cook had an outstanding high school career, playing his first three years at DeMatha before transferring to Oak Hill for his senior campaign.  He was widely regarded as the top player in the D.C. metro area, and one of the top point guards in the nation.  Quinn suffered a partial tear to his knee, however, in practices leading up to the Elite 24 game in the summer of 2010, between his junior and senior seasons in high school.  He came back sooner than expected and had a solid senior campaign, though, was named a McDonald’s All-American, and wound up ranked as the #31 ranked player in the RSCI ratings – very likely lower than he would have been absent the knee problem.  But he probably rushed back too soon from the injury, and he was never 100%.  The knee continued to bother him, so much so that Duke shut him down last summer, meaning Quinn did not play in the games during Duke’s trip to China and Dubai, and missed a number of preseason practices as well.

Cook was ready for the start of the season, though, but it never seemed that he quite got untracked all year long.  His performance was up and down, which is not uncommon of course for a freshman, especially a freshman point guard.  His minutes were inconsistent because his play was inconsistent.   He had moments where he was brilliant in taking the ball to the hoop and finishing.  He dropped dimes to teammates who didn’t even realize they were so open.  But on defense, he struggled to move laterally and therefore to stay in front of penetrating opponents, and he did not always seem quick to the ball.  He also had mental lapses where he just flat-out missed defensive assignments, which usually resulted in an immediate hook from Coach K.  Quinn appeared to be making real progress though, with a string of solid games in December and early January, but then he re-tweaked the bad knee at Clemson, and that set him back again, and he never regained any real consistency.

Quinn finished the year with averages of 11.7 minutes, 4.4 points on 40% shooting (25% from 3 point land), 2 assists, and an excellent 3.5:1 assist to turnover ratio, clearly the best on the team.

So why is he going to be such a key component of this year’s team?   After all, Duke lost only Austin Rivers on the perimeter, and he didn’t play point.  Well, one of the real weaknesses of last year’s squad was the absence of a true, natural point guard, one who could both penetrate and dish, as well as score on the offensive end, and then also D-up opposing guards – and be a floor general out there.  You know, the kind of player that Quinn Cook can be.  The Seth Curry Point Guard Experiment did not go as planned, and was scrapped.  Tyler Thornton is a hard-nosed, energetic defender and a real leader, but he is quite limited offensively.  Rasheed Sulaimon, while showing great promise, may turn out to be an option at the point, but I don’t think that’s his natural position and I don’t think that’s where K would ideally like to play him.  The best thing for this team would be for Quinn Cook to remain healthy and to take over as Duke’s unquestioned point guard, and stay there.

Quinn had an excellent summer in 2012.  He got some solid international experience playing for the East Coast All-Stars at the Four Nations Cup in Estonia, where he ended up averaging 22 points per game and being named to the All-Tournament team.  He was outstanding at the NC Pro-Am as well, where he joined forces with a number of Duke teammates, and spent time working out with his God-brother Nolan Smith.

Best of all, Quinn is healthy.  He appears to have finally given the knee a chance to heal, and it shows.  From all reports from the summer and as pre-season practice begins, he is moving much more smoothly, he is quicker, he is faster, he is pushing the ball on offense and moving his feet on defense.  This is a kid who has all the skills and all the talent needed to take over as the quarterback of this team, as Coach K envisioned when he recruited him.  Quinn doesn’t need to score 20 points per game.  What he does need to do is what he does naturally, which is control the flow and tempo of the game, push the ball when the opportunity arises, penetrate into the lane, dish, and hit open jumpshots.  That’s on offense.  On D, he needs to be in the shirt of the opposing point, and be ready to move his feet to contain dribble penetration.  He’s simply got to commit on the defensive end.  Quinn is not a tall point guard by any stretch, but he has a solid body.   He needs to use it, so the opponent cannot get in position to shoot over him.

Tyler Thornton is a nice player who does have some skills, and is a kid who definitely has a role on this team.  But let’s face it:  he's not the natural PG nor does he have some of the tools Quinn Cook possesses.  If Cook can maximize that potential – and now that he’s healthy, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t – as well as develop into a leader out there, he can solidify Duke at the most important position on the floor.  If you then consider the three solid seniors in Duke’s lineup, plus dynamic freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, highly skilled redshirt freshman Alex Murphy, an intriguing prospect in Amile Jefferson, and others, well now we’re getting somewhere.