No. 1 Duke has to figure out how to replace arguably its most irreplaceable player — point guard Tre Jones.
The strength of this Blue Devils team has been how neatly its four star freshmen fit into clearly defined roles. Zion Williamson makes headlines with his once-in-a-generation athleticism while RJ Barrett delivers consistent scoring and Cameron Reddish focuses on long-range shooting.
Jones is the least talked about of the foursome, but the things he provides — running the offense with unflappable efficiency, and pressuring the opposing team’s point guard on defense — are tough to quantify and even tougher to replace.
Jones is out indefinitely after injuring his right shoulder early in the Blue Devils’ 95-91 loss to Syracuse on Monday night that will surely drop them from the top spot in the polls.
And coach Mike Krzyzewski has until Saturday — when No. 4 Virginia visits the Blue Devils (14-2, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) — to come up with a backup plan.
“There are bumps in the road along the way for a lot of people,” Krzyzewski said in the aftermath of the loss, calling it “a very difficult night for our basketball program and our team. We’ll figure out ways of handling it.”
Team spokesman Mike DeGeorge said Jones separated his right AC joint during a collision with the Orange’s Frank Howard while chasing a loose ball with 14:23 left in the first half. Jones laid on the court in obvious pain, with trainers holding towels to shield him from onlookers while the team’s medical staff evaluated him. He walked to the locker room holding his right wrist while apparently trying to immobilize the shoulder.
“You could see excruciating pain on his face,” Krzyzewski said. “We just tried to calm him. Not that he was yelling. He felt that something could be broken. And that’s how much pain he was in.”
Jones’ heady, steady play at both ends of the floor has drawn comparisons to his older brother Tyus, the point guard on the Blue Devils’ last national championship team in 2015 who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
His assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.7 is nearly twice that of any other player in the league, and his on-the-ball pressure was a big reason why Duke was ranked third in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings before the Syracuse game. After playing roughly 40 minutes without him, the Blue Devils dropped a spot to No. 4 in those rankings.
He earned his fourth steal of the game on the play when he and Howard crashed into each other. The rest of the Blue Devils combined for four steals all night.
Without Jones — and without Reddish, who was held out with flu-like symptoms so severe that he never even showed up on the bench — this Duke team looked nothing like the group that had won 14 of 15 and nine straight since that loss to Gonzaga in Maui.
Little-used sophomore Jordan Goldwire — who averages less than 9 minutes — was first off the bench to replace Jones and wound up playing eight minutes. Sophomore guard Alex O’Connell logged 34½ minutes — more than 20 more than his average.
And Barrett, who averages an ACC-best 23.4 points, assumed some of Jones’ duties at the point while also remaining one of the team’s two primary scoring options, just as he did during Jones’ absence on the team’s three-game Canadian tour this summer.
“It wasn’t like a new look for us,” Williamson said of Barrett playing the point. “We knew we could play that, but they just hit big shots.”
He finished an assist shy of a triple-double with 23 points and 16 rebounds. But he also took 30 shots — 17 from 3-point range, the second-most in Duke history — against Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone defense that dared the Blue Devils to beat it from the outside.
“In the middle of the game it was a surprise for us, but there are no excuses,” Barrett said. “We’re talented and when two guys go down, two more guys step up.”