Coach K is never one to lock in a starting lineup and player rotation scheme for the season. As the year goes on, he usually tinkers with combinations, sometimes to motivate, other times to tweak offensive or defensive efficiency.
The mixing and matching began right from The Opening gate this season. After starting both exhibition games, a healthy Alex Murphy didn’t play at all in the opener. Point guard Quinn Cook, who Krzyzewski anointed as the starter over the summer, began the game on the bench, while Tyler Thornton got the start.
“We’re still looking at what our team can do,” Coach K said afterward. “The four guys who would start are our two big guys (Kelly and Plumlee), and if Seth (Curry) is healthy, Seth is going to start, and Rasheed (Sulaimon)…Tyler could start or you could start Quinn, or you could also start Amile (Jefferson) where you are a little bit bigger, so we will look at those different things. You are just going to have different lineups in there.”
So there are seven possible starters, with Murphy’s playing time still up in the air. Coach K gave very little information about the decision to bench Murphy, only saying that the team didn’t reach a point in the game where he’d play.
Here’s a closer look at Duke’s opening day lineup decisions:
The Blue Devils substituted 26 times and used 16 different combinations on the floor. Eleven of those 16 combinations were used in the two exhibition games, for a total of 28:52. That means that the lineups on the floor for 51:08 of the two exhibition games didn’t play together in the opener. There were 19 different exhibition game lineups that didn’t play together against Georgia State.
Obviously a large chunk of those exhibition-only lineups were because of Murphy’s DNP, but even without Murphy, there were 10 lineups that played 17:56 of the exhibitions, then didn’t play together in the opener.
The starters (Thornton, Plumlee, Kelly, Curry, Sulaimon) were on the floor together the longest against Georgia State—a total of 16:49. In the two exhibition games, that group was together for a total of 1:32 (although Curry missed one of the games due to injury).
The second most common lineup had Cook, instead of Thornton, with the other four starters. That group saw 4:38 of action, after getting 2:53 in the exhibitions.
Cook, Thornton, Plumlee, Jefferson and Curry was the third-most-popular lineup. It got 3:36 of playing time. That was one of five lineup combinations in the opener that didn’t play together at all in the exhibitions. Those five all involved Quinn Cook, and four of them involved Cook and Thornton together.
7:48 of the game against Georgia State had Duke lineups that hadn’t been used in the exhibitions.
Cook and Thornton played together for a total of 10:48. The team was outscored 15-12 with both in the game, although it held its own in rebounding: 10-10.
With just Cook in the game, Duke outscored Georgia State 21-19. Duke had a 41-21 advantage when Thornton, who was a plus-minus star at the start of last season too, was in the game without Cook.
More than half of the opener—21:27—had Curry and Sulaimon on the floor together. They logged 7:16 together in the two exhibitions. Duke outscored Georgia State 47-20 with both shooters in the game. When neither was on the floor—which took place for all of 1:13—Duke was shut out, 4-0.
With Curry by himself, Duke had a 21-12 advantage. With Sulaimon by himself, Duke was outscored 19-6.
One other interesting combination was the hyper-twins of Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson. Both players will be crowd favorites, with their tongues dangling, arms waving, and slobber flying as they take the court with reckless abandon.
But, at least early in the season, the emphasis is on reckless.
Coach K pointed out that excitement and energy are double-edged swords. “Amile is going to be a force multiplied for us,” Krzyzewski said. “His exuberance in the second half--Mason blocked a couple of shots and (Jefferson) was already running down the court. He should have been getting the blocked shot. So with things like that it’s like, yeah your exuberance is good, but let’s be exuberant after we get the ball.”
Having Cook and Jefferson on the court together, which Duke did for 11:12, is a bit much at this point. The Blue Devils lost the portion of the game when the hyper-twins were both playing, 26-22. Even more pointed is the score when neither Cook nor Jefferson was in the game. For the 16:49 when both were on the bench, Duke outscored Georgia State 40-18.
Clearly, at this point in the season, Coach K is testing his team, seeing who can thrive on the floor together, and which players bring out the best in which teammates. The next game is against defending national champion Kentucky. Usually, rotations are shortened for high-level opponents. It will be interesting to see whether Krzyzewski brings back some of the exhibition combinations or continues to whittle down the list of lineups that will see playing time.