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Will the real Duke MVP please stand up? Or did he just do it?
You could make a case for 4 of Duke's 5 starters as the team's MVP thus far in the season. After the annual ugly win over Clemson, let's look at some of those cases, and I'll weigh in on my vote.
Mason Plumlee: MP2 is currently the media darling for POY nationally, and it's a reasonable choice, even after another low scoring game against the Tigers, this time only notching 8 points, narrowly missing another double double. He's averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds, and just under 2 assists and blocks per game. Moreover, he gives Duke a credible post presence. For a jump shooting team like Duke, that's so important as defenses are having to not just stay honest and defend the post, but many times bring a double-team, and Mason showed tonight how good of a passer he can be from the low blocks, leading to open looks at the basket. You may have to go back to Shelden Williams to find this kind of production out of a Duke big. So, why not Mason as the MVP? Well, honestly, he still may prove to the most valuable. But, here's why he might not. I'll not address FT shooting, because, as I have already stated, I think he'll make them when it counts. Even so, he's trending back toward 50% after a hot start to the season. That aside, what I saw against Clemson does concern me. Clemson didn't regularly double-team Plumlee. They left Devon Booker to man him up alone. And Booker came through. He overwhelmed Plumlee physically with a few blocks and steals as well as just pushing Plumlee away from the basket and forcing him into tough shots. On the other end, Booker got himself to the basket quite often. Sadly for Tiger fans, he had trouble converting. Mason of late has looked soft in the post - getting stripped, blocked, shots altered. When receiving the ball with his back to the basket (and not a clear lane to the rim) he's had trouble turning good scoring position into actual scores. So what I am saying essentially is that, were he not on an undefeated #1 ranked team, I don't think Mason would be the leading candidate for POY, and I don't think he's this team's MVP, either.... although I could be wrong...
Seth Curry: Curry is probably the most likely player on the team to explode for 30 points in any game. He's averaging 17 ppg and over 40% from 3pt range. He can create his own shot and can drive by a defender who's in his face to stop the jump shot. He's got long, mid, and short range game. He's top 10 in the league in FT percentage. As pointed out by Len Elmore during the Clemson game, it's hard to imagine how good he could be were he not saddled with that nebulous leg injury that keeps him from practicing. So, why is Seth not the MVP? Well, his size and speed can be hindrances on both sides of the ball. Clemson did a great job chasing Seth around and not letting him get an open look. This can happen when an opposing guard is as quick and/or tall as Seth. On the other side of the ball, a larger, quicker guard can have his way offensively with Curry trying to lock him down. Sadly, there are quite a few guards out there who fit that bill. So, no, a silky sweet, dead-eye shot might have garnered lesser Duke teams' MVP votes, but not this one.
Ryan Kelly: Kelly is the Zen pick for Duke's MVP. The Duke Basketball Report published an article talking glowingly about his grasp of the game and how he reached a point against Davidson where the game was flowing through him - and they didn't mean he was getting a lot of touches. I'll not go so far, but when Kelly is shooting well (and lately he's been shooting really well) he's a tough matchup for anyone. And it's not just his size and his shot; it's just as much his intelligence. Kelly rarely makes a mental mistake, he's almost always in the right spot on both sides of the ball, and his individual defense has gotten to be quite good. He leads the team in blocks, and not because he's a high flyer. And while nowhere nearly as pretty, Kelly's shooting is as good or better than Seth Curry's. So why is this heady "Stretch 4" matchup nightmare with deadly aim and solid defensive skills not the team's MVP? First - inconsistency. While Kelly's percentages are similar to Curry's, Ryan is much less consistent in his shooting. He is as likely to hit every shot as he is to miss every shot. Seemingly, each positive run, like the one he's on now, is countered by a negative run of equal proportions. Second, the "Stretch 4" has its disadvantages. Kelly is second on the team in rebounding, yes, but that's at about half the rate of Mason (5.4 vs. 11.3 rpg) and just above Sulaimon and Cook. This team could certainly use more rebounds out of its forward position. Moreover, when matched up against quicker/stronger opponents, Kelly can pick up fouls at an alarming rate. Against Clemson he tallied 0 fouls, but that whole game had a surprisingly low foul count (12 total for both teams, 14 FT attempts each). Kelly is a great 'glue guy' for Duke, doing a lot of the little things and always making smart plays, but unless he can continue to score as he has been over the last 3 games or so, he's not the MVP.
Quinn Cook: What do you say about a guy who drops Hurley-esque dimes one game and Redick-esque points the next? I have heaped praise on Cook before, and I'll do it again here. Duke has needed a true point guard over the last handful of years (save the bittersweet short career of Kyrie Irving). You could see in the first half against Clemson how much this helps. Look at some of the losses Duke has had in the last few years and a common thread arises - quick, physical opposing guards are draped over Duke's guards the entire game, shutting down the offense. Duke's collection of shooting guards are not able to break free for shots or to distribute the ball, and if defense switches every time, ball screens don't work either. Enter Cook, a guy who's quick and strong enough and with enough handle to create space and run the offense. It took a few minutes against Clemson, but once he figured it out, there was a stretch where Cook created offense by being able to turn Clemson's pressure into a disadvantage. First, he back cut without the ball to the basket for a score. Next, he beat his man, drew interior defense, and hit Mason with a lob. Later, he beat his man, then nearly broke Booker's ankles and headed to the basket for a layup. These things have been missing from Duke's repertoire lately, and it's all well-documented. But here's why Cook is my MVP for Duke right now. Swagger. Quinn oozes confidence in the "you're not going to beat me today" manner that we haven't seen in a while, maybe since Redick, though Redick crossed into bravado a few times, admittedly. He is the extension of the Coach K on the court (how better is "Next Play" exemplified than a career high in scoring immediately after an 0-11 performance?), he can score in multiple ways, he can dish assists with the best of them, he can lock down the opposing PG on defense, he's a great rebounding guard, he's constantly talking to and encouraging his teammates, he hustles as much as anyone else on the floor -- he is the leader of this Duke team, and he knows this, man! The other starters will have their ups and downs throughout the year, but the consistent anchor will be Quinn Cook, setting the tone for the team, because it's his team.
It will be fun to see Mr. MVP going against Lorenzo Brown on Saturday...