DURHAM, N.C. — Monday night’s season debut of Harry Giles, the No. 1-rated player in the 2016 ESPN 100, means Duke can finally boast of having all the major players in its rotation healthy for the first time this season.
It also means the Blue Devils are, in a sense, starting over. In the first half of the Blue Devils’ 65-55 win over Tennessee State, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used different lineup combinations as if it was one of their opening games of the season.
“We’re in October, not December, with our team,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s part of our growth process.”
That growth process includes Giles, whose return from injury has been arguably the most anticipated at Duke since Kyrie Irving's in 2010-11. The process also includes freshmen Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, who were held out the first seven games this season with foot and lower leg injuries, respectively.
“Seeing Harry out there is really big, it’s really exciting for us,” Duke guard Luke Kennard said. “He’s going to be really, really good for us.”
At some point he will. But when?
Although Giles finally played in a college basketball game, it may take a while before we really see Giles play.
The natural movements will come back to Giles. During his debut, it was almost as if a thought bubble could be seen popping above his head while he was on the court. There was nothing about those four minutes that hinted at a player going off basketball instincts. Giles looked deliberate and admitted that was due to nerves from not only playing his first game after injury, but his first collegiate game.
“Each day, each game, each practice, I’ll get better,” Giles said. “I’m just trying to improve every day.”
When he’s at his best, the 6-foot-10 forward runs the floor with grace and could become the centerpiece in the post that Duke has been missing. Giles didn't score or grab a rebound against the Tigers, but that's meaningless.
The point is he was out there. That appearance has been a long time in the making.
Giles played his first competitive game since tearing the ACL in his right knee as a senior in high school. He also tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee back in 2013.
“I’m just thankful to be playing again,” he said. “The first game was really just going out there, just seeing where I’m at, getting up and down the floor, just getting used to playing.”
Krzyzewski said Giles’ playing time will not be limited by his knee.
“It’s just a matter of him being in shape,” Krzyzewski said. “He hasn’t played in 14 months. He has to fit in, and he will, but it can’t be about him or Tatum or Bolden. It’s got to be about Duke.”
Tatum and Bolden played just their fourth games this season after they, too, nursed injuries. They may not be playing with the same rust that Giles spoke of, but none are playing instinctively yet, either. Bolden has averaged just more than eight minutes a game since his return.
Junior guard Grayson Allen said now that Duke has its full complement of players, finding the right mix should not entail revamping the team.
“We’re not changing our team for them; they’re coming on board for us,” Allen said. “We know the core that we have. We’re not starting from scratch and catering to them; they’re getting on our train.”
Even with the amount of talent that may make Duke’s roster on paper the best in the nation, there will still be plenty of growing pains. Krzyzewski mentioned three separate times against Tennessee State in which Tatum passed on shots that were only open if taken in rhythm. Coach K said Tatum would get used to taking those shots with more experience and confidence.
“The neat thing about individual guys, and the beauty, is when they grow to be one,” Krzyzewski said. “And when they grow to be one, all their good stuff hits, man. And that’s what we’re going to do.”