Duke was off and running in its game against Syracuse on Jan. 14, up 14-6 and looking every bit the part of the nation’s best team when point guard Tre Jones collided with the Orange’s Frank Howard while diving for a loose ball.
Jones injured his shoulder on the play and missed the rest of the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Instead of running their ACC rival out of the gym, the Blue Devils struggled on both ends of the court in Jones’ absence. Even with a lineup that still included Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, potentially the top two picks in this year’s NBA Draft, Duke eventually lost 95-91 in overtime.
The result and the circumstances that led to it were a reminder that the most important player on a team isn’t always that team’s best player.
And that player is usually the point guard.
It’s a notion Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged in his comments after the Syracuse loss.
“We’re a different team (without Jones),” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, we’re a different team.”
Duke isn’t the only state ACC squad whose identity has been altered because of the recent loss of one key player.
Without junior Markell Johnson, who injured his hip in a fall the previous game against Pittsburgh, NC State suffered a stunning loss at league bottom feeder Wake Forest last Tuesday. It was a game in which the Wolfpack fell behind by as many as 22 points after settling for too many 3-pointers over the Deacons’ zone defense.
State eventually battled back to tie the score. But with the game on the line, Johnson’s absence became a factor again when its offense stagnated — a breakdown that might not have happened had the team’s starting point guard been on the floor.
“He’s the one guy that can create for himself and others,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said. “Braxton (Beverly) can certainly shoot the ball, Devon Daniels and C.J. Bryce are both great at getting to the hole, but Markell gives you both of them.
“He can get to the rack and also spray to shooters. Remember, he led the ACC in assists last year, but he can also go get you a basket. That’s tough.”
Johnson is officially listed as day-to-day.
The negative impact of his absence is hardly a surprise to Keatts. The Wolfpack was only 4-3 in the seven games the 6-foot-1 Cleveland native missed last season while dealing with a legal issue back home. It went 17-9 in games Johnson played.
To its credit, State quickly adjusted to the absence of its floor leader by bouncing back to beat Notre Dame on the road Saturday. But for the Wolfpack to be at its best, it needs Johnson back on the floor sooner rather than later.
No one on the team knows that better than his replacement Beverly.
Although Beverly is a capable enough ballhandler, he is a much better shooter when he’s playing off the ball. The numbers from the Wake Forest and Notre Dame games bear that out. A 39-percent 3-point shooter for the season, he’s just 4 for 16 from beyond the arc and 4 for 20 overall without Johnson in the lineup.
“With Markell out it puts so much pressure on Braxton Beverly, because he has to dribble the ball, shoot the ball and pass the ball,” Keatts said. “He’s a guy who really struggles more than anybody with Markell out of the game.”
Like Johnson, Duke’s Jones has the ability to make those around him better.
His injury against Syracuse had more of an immediate effect because in addition to already being without shooting guard Cam Reddish, who missed the game with an illness, the Blue Devils were forced to improvise on the fly.
And they didn’t do a particularly good job of it.
With Barrett running the point, they were either unable or unwilling to get the ball inside the Syracuse zone to the nearly unstoppable Williamson, opting instead to hoist up 43 3-pointers — missing 34 of them.
Jones’ absence was even more noticeable on defense, where he is considered one of the best in the country.
With him on the floor, the Orange was barely able to get into its offense. He had four steals in five minutes before he got hurt. Without him, Syracuse’s Tyus Battle was able to go off for 32 points and lead his team to the upset victory.
“When you lose a player as important as him, as talented as him, it’s going to affect you a little bit,” Duke forward Javin DeLaurier said. “We just let it affect us for too long. You hate to see a guy who’s so important to your team go down, but at the same time, the game goes on and life goes on, and you’ve got to be ready to step up.”
The Blue Devils did just that in their next game, regrouping to knock Virginia from the ranks of the unbeaten behind a combined 57 points from Barrett and Williamson. Although they were able to prevail in the battle of ACC frontrunners, Krzyzewski — like Keatts — will feel a lot better about his team’s chances moving forward once its most important player is able to come back.
“I knew he’d be good, (but) there’s no way I’d think that he’d be this good because I had not coached him,” Krzyzewski said of Jones, whose brother Tyus helped the Blue Devils win their most recent national championship in 2015. “Once I started coaching him, I said, ‘This kid is really outstanding on the ball. He has the discipline, athleticism and the will to do it.’ He’s done a fantastic job on the ball on defense and with the ball on offense.”
Although there’s still no timetable for Jones’ return, the injury isn’t as serious as originally feared.
“He’s making really good progress, which is good,” Krzyzewski said, “because it looked like he might be out for most of the season.”