Duke makes the most of its experience

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Duke makes the most of its experience
3:05 AM ET

  • Myron MedcalfESPN Staff Writer

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    • Covers college basketball
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
    • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

LAHAINA, Hawaii — On Tuesday afternoon, Marques Bolden snatched a rebound and stood about eight feet from the rim, unsure of his next step.

The Duke fans at the Maui Invitational who’d cheered throughout the most impressive performance of Bolden’s career in the No. 1 Blue Devils’ 78-72 victory over No. 8 Auburn had the answer.

“Shoot it!” they shouted in unison.

Bolden passed, but after he finished the game with 11 points (4-for-5), nine rebounds and seven blocks — a vital stat line for a team that lost a 17-point lead and nursed a five-point advantage deep into the second half against a top-10 opponent — few would have cared if he’d listened to them.

To be clear, this was the first time in Bolden’s tenure at Duke that dozens of fans told him — begged him — to play as if he had the green light. It was what most envisioned when he arrived in 2016 as a five-star recruit, but then he failed to justify the buzz in his first two years on campus.

“He’s becoming a pro,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “He stuck it out, and I’m glad he’s being rewarded with this team.”

That’s why Tuesday’s effort matters.

Every projection about Duke’s 2018-19 season — Can they beat the Cleveland Cavaliers? Are they better than the Fab Five? Will they lose a game this year?– emphasized the value of the four five-star freshmen (Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett and Tre Jones) but never accounted for the possibility of a shot-altering, rim-running, 6-foot-11 Texan joining the show.

If Bolden is a serviceable big man this season, Duke can win a national title. If he’s good, or something better than good, the Blue Devils could make a serious run at an unblemished campaign in 2018-19.

“We’re a lot better [with Bolden], as you see,” Jones said after the game. “We knew all along what he was capable of doing. Hopefully, he can stay like this, and he can bring us to the next level.”

Before the turbulent start to his college career, Bolden was one of the most important recruits in the country.

Bolden is a significant character in the ongoing recruiting war between Kentucky and Duke. Bolden was ranked 16th overall in his class by ESPN when he picked the Blue Devils over the Wildcats in 2016. In his recruiting pitch to Bolden, coach Mike Krzyzewski preached the value of the Duke brand and its ability to benefit players long after their careers end. A few weeks before Bolden’s commitment, John Calipari wrote a blog about his recruiting efforts and promised to never tell a recruit that he will be “taken care of for the rest of your life by the program.” By all accounts, it was viewed as a direct shot at Duke and Krzyzewski.

But the young man who caused that frenzy never seemed to be worth the trouble in his first two seasons. Injuries didn’t help. A lower-leg ailment disrupted his first season, and a knee injury affected his sophomore season.

“This is the first year he’s been healthy the whole time,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s made the most of it. … He’s really gotten into great shape, and he’s taken care of himself. As a result, he’s good.”

To observers, however, his skill level, not his health, was his biggest issue. Bolden did not resemble Duke’s past five-star prospects in his freshman and sophomore seasons, when he averaged 1.5 PPG and 3.9 PPG, respectively, in limited minutes. At Duke, McDonald’s All-Americans have usually turned pro after one year or transferred. Both Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter, a pair of five-star prospects, left the program in recent years after failing to find roles. Some figured Bolden would join them.

At Duke, in the one-and-done era, players don’t bake. They’re microwaved, and then they’re ready for the next level. Bolden didn’t follow that path.

But perhaps this is his time, his chance to accompany the most intriguing collection of young talent Krzyzewski has ever had and play a sizable role in its mission to claim the national title in April in Minneapolis.

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Marques Bolden comes up with a block on defense, then runs the floor for an alley-oop.

“The huge difference in the game was, I think, Marques’ play, especially in the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “For a while there, it was play after play. Because they’re winners, they came back.”

Now Bolden seems positioned to offer more support to this group than anyone outside the program anticipated. He’s healthy. He’s no longer in a crowded frontcourt like last year’s group, which featured lottery picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III.

Bolden is also unique on this squad. Duke has the size to employ a variety of lineups. But the Blue Devils needed an active big man to battle Auburn’s 6-foot-11 Austin Wiley, who had 17 points and nine rebounds. The junior was a problem in the paint for the Tigers, which affected the outcome.

Duke is a more efficient operation, and a more terrifying force, when Bolden plays the way he did Tuesday. The man who has faced more scrutiny due to the pace of his progress than any player on Duke’s roster is evolving into a key contributor for what might be a special team.

“I really don’t pay much attention to a lot of noise,” Bolden said.

On Tuesday in Maui, however, the noise came from Duke fans who were happy to see the big man dominate a game and wonder if a reinvigorated Bolden might make this team unstoppable the rest of the way.

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