College Sports

Triumph, tragedy and a good night for Vernon Carey at Duke’s Countdown to Craziness

Friday night marked Duke’s introduction of its newest men’s basketball team to its adoring fans.

Countdown to Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium attracted yelling, screaming Blue Devils fans eager to see new stars like freshmen Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt.

There’s plenty to write about what the Blue Devils showed during a 20-minute scrimmage, but the presence of two special guests, who appeared on court before the basketball started, must be noted.

First, Duke sophomore guard Tre Jones put his right arm around his mother, Debbie Jones, as they walked to center court during player introductions. Last winter, Debbie Jones was diagnosed with breast cancer. On Oct. 5, after months of treatment, she was declared cancer free.

The crowd cheered for Tre and had plenty of love to send Debbie’s way, too.

“I feel like with what she’s been through the past eight or nine months,” Jones said, “with how strong she is and everything she’s shown, battling the breast cancer and getting over it, I wanted to bring her out and share that with me.”

Moments before the Blue-White scrimmage tipped off, Duke director of basketball operations Nolan Smith wheeled 14-year-old MyAsia Stokes to center court in a wheelchair. Gravely ill and undergoing treatment at Duke Children’s Hospital, Stokes wore Duke junior Alex O’Connell’s jersey as she held the ball and smiled when the players surrounded her and the crowd cheered.

Following a photo with the team, Smith rolled Stokes back toward the home bench, where Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski hugged her and kissed her cheek.

From those moments of triumph and tragedy, basketball then unfolded at the famed college basketball palace.

Here are five observations about the Blue Devils after watching their first public appearance of the new season:

Vernon Carey is ready

After arriving on campus at 6-10 and 270 pounds, the freshman center has dropped 15 pounds and looked solid in the scrimmage.

Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. (1) puts up a shot over Javin DeLaurier (12) during the Blue Devils’ scrimmage at the annual Countdown to Craziness on Friday, October 18, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett

Excelling inside and out, Carey scored 15 points with two assists, a blocked shot and three rebounds in 17 minutes of play.

“Vernon Carey played really well,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s really come on.”

Carey showed touch to drill his lone 3-point attempt, a straight-on shot from the top of the key. He displayed a nimbleness in the paint to maneuver around defenders to score, utilizing a finger roll successfully.

His play on the perimeter isn’t a surprise to Krzyzewski and his staff because Carey played on the outside in high school. Since he has arrived at Duke, he has worked hard on his interior game and that work brought him success Friday night.

“Literally, he’s not played in the post,” Krzyzewski said. “So his footwork, that comes from his work with us, our staff, since about the second week of July. So he wants to get good and I think with the less weight, he’s been a good runner. Tonight was outstanding for him.”

The points didn’t come for Tre Jones

Krzyzewski and Duke’s staff hope Jones, back for his sophomore year after averaging 9.4 points per game last season, can be more of a force offensively this season. Krzyzewski would like Jones to be a double-double guy in points and assists.

Duke’s Tre Jones (3) tries for a steal from Jordan Goldwire (14) during the Blue Devils’ scrimmage at the annual Countdown to Craziness on Friday, October 18, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett

Maybe it was the emotions of the night with his mom on the court, but Jones struggled with 1-of-10 shooting while scoring just two points. He missed all three of his 3-point attempts, not an encouraging sign for a player who hit only 26.2 percent of his 3-pointers last season.

It was just a scrimmage, but this bears watching as the preseason progresses.

The Blue Devils are a balanced team

Unlike a year ago when Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett starred for Duke in their lone seasons of college basketball on the way to being selected among the top three picks in the NBA draft, the star power didn’t appear ready to explode out of the gym.

Duke has the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class, with the 6-10 Carey and 6-9 Hurt the highest-rated players.

While talented, neither looks NBA-ready from day one in a Duke uniform like last year’s star freshmen, who led Duke to a 32-6 record and an ACC championship.

Beginning his 40th season at Duke, Krzyzewski is actually OK with this type of team. He even called it an “old-fashioned” squad.

“We have players from all classes who can play, including a graduate student, which we usually don’t have,” Krzyzewski said. “I think as a result everyone feels like they’ve got a chance, and they are working at it. They come and compete every day, and they are making each other better.”

Perhaps that produces hungrier players who bring it in every practice to push each other. Talent trumps all, of course, but as Duke seeks its first Final Four since 2015 a little extra edge wouldn’t be a bad thing.

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One side shot too many 3s Friday night

The White team, consisting of Jones, O’Connell, Hurt, Javin DeLaurier and Wendell Moore, lost the 20-minute scrimmage 47-38 to the Blue team.

While Carey paced the Blue, the White team hit only 15 of 44 shots (34 percent) while making only 2 of 19 3-pointers. Hurt and O’Connell, who should be that team’s best perimeter shooters, were each 1 of 5 behind the deeper arc.

Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. (0) launches a three-point shot during the Blue Devils’ scrimmage at the annual Countdown to Craziness on Friday, October 18, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. Robert Willett

The Blue team attempted only six 3-pointers, making two. Krzyzewski credited Carey with helping the offense flow better for his team, which hit 21 of 36 shots (54 percent) overall.

“He’s really learning the game,” Krzyzewski said. “Every time he touched the ball tonight, the next thing that happened was good. He actually was a guy that you could play through tonight. That was something that was good to see.”

A decent press defense appeared

With the Blue team leading by 10 points in the final minutes of the scrimmage, the White team unleashed a full-court press featuring Moore, a 6-5 freshmen, and Jones hounding the ball as it was brought in-bounds.

After Moore scored on a layup, he guarded the passer who was in-bounding the ball. That forced a pass into the corner where Jones hounded Jordan Goldwire to steal the ball before hitting a layup of his own.

Keep an eye on that defensive pairing. Moore and Jones could cause problems for Duke’s opponents at times this season.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.