Good Riddance, China: Player Grades After Three Games

Mostly, I’m happy to be done with China. Countries with hideous institutional morals always make me slightly nervous. There’s something creepy about the fact that the spiritual decrepitude comes from on high; you can tell they actually don’t care about things like cheating. It’s the same thing that was so unsettling about the Soviet Union. You know the saying, ‘the ends justify the means’? That’s a very western idea, like it’s okay to be a dick as long as you can explain it with a good reason. ‘Hey guys, I know this looks bad, but I promise it’s for a higher purpose.’

In China, I’m pretty sure they don’t care one iota about justifying the means. It’s just: HEY, LOOK: THE ENDS! A sweet Olympic opening ceremony! (Forget the dead people.) A win over Georgetown! (Forget the horrendous refereeing.) A gold medal! (Forget that the gymnasts were 12.) A robust industrial complex! (Forget that we’re quite literally killing the planet.)

I prefer America, where individuals have shoddy morals. And where if you want to have institutional depravity, you have to win the people over with lies. There’s comfort in the fact that you still need to use deception to be evil.

Anyway, let’s get to the grades. Duke won all three games against the Chinese U-23 national team, so hurrah to that, but the greater rhythm of the games was marred by constant whistles. It was great to see the guys play, but I certainly wouldn’t call this good basketball. So let’s start with the main culprits: the red zebras.

Referees: F

I couldn’t find a picture of a Chinese ref, so I just used Chairman Mao instead. He might as well have been officiating, anyway. In Georgetown’s brawl game, they’d attempted 15 free throws to Bayi’s 57. In three games against China, Duke attempted 48 foul shots to China’s 111. There’s a few theories as to why this happened. Maybe the refs were bribed. Maybe there’s just some kind of natural prejudice at play, and they gave the calls to their own guys. Or maybe this was mandated from on high. My guess is the latter, since the refs looked oddly frazzled in every game (Coach K once got them to change a call by screaming at them), and also seemed to automatically blow the whistle any time a Chinese player went up inside.

By today’s game, they’d obviously been schooled not to complain. After a terrible call, you’d see that moment of protest start to develop on their faces, and then it was quickly replaced by the, ‘oh yeah, I’m in China’ expression. Even the announcers were laughing about it. Doug Gottlieb’s advice to Andre Dawkins after a phantom reach call was, “just nod your head.” Miles Plumlee seemed to be the one guy who couldn’t bring himself to accept the situation. He’d still protest vehemently after every missed call, like he knew the reality of the situation but couldn’t bring himself to be okay with it.

  The Thorn: A+

He doesn’t actually get an A+ for the whole trip, but how about his defense today? He was basically my hero. Every time he came in the game, he was up in everyone’s face, getting steals on and off the ball, and tipping passes. You could tell he was pissing China off. The one thing I love about Thornton is he legitimately seems not to give a fuck. Boy is fearless. If he had a little more talent, he’d be more useful, but this morning he was glorious. My favorite moment of the whole game was when he came off the floor and Coach K grabbed him by the head and hugged him with the most intense look you can imagine. You know he had to be pissed at the whole China situation too, and to see Thornton sticking it in their ear was a deep satisfaction. Bless you, Thorn. Today, you’re my hero.

The White Raven: A+

He’s just killing it everywhere. He was great on the court, playing with a fluidity we never saw last season and scoring in bunches (14-18 from the field over the last two games). He was great after the bogus calls, smiling with that bemused expression that was a perfect summation of the injustice. He recognized the absurdity without getting too mad. White Raven’s always above the fray because he ain’t a land-bound creature. Also, he was great in the facial hair department. It’s always touch-and-go when white college players grow a beard, but it was the best possible move for Kelly. He went from looking like a gangly kid to a suave (and possibly tough) Eastern European sharpshooter. There’s more than a little Toni Kucoc in him now. You have to love what he’s bringing to the table.

Plumdog Millionaire: A

What’s happening here? The Artist Formerly Known as Plumblefuck the Elder seems to have picked up his game. He looks tough on the boards, smart on defense, and even slightly competent in the offensive post (12-18 in the televised games). I don’t know if this is a fata morgana or what, but it looks an awful lot like he put some work in this offseason. Cautious optimism abounds.

Plumblefuck the Younger: C+

Mason, on the other hand, looks much the same. He still has very little grace on offense, he still follows up every strong dunk with a stupid foul on defense, and he still takes stupid chances that lead to fouls 40 feet from the hoop. Until shown otherwise, I’m going to keep assuming he’s good for an odd dunk and not much else. Although I must admit, he has shown that strange, unpredictable flair for the brilliant pass. He had two of them this morning, one on a backdoor to Dawkins and one on a quick hitter in the post to Miles. It’s so bizarre to behold, like watching an elephant ice skate.

Rivers Flow-Mo: C+

Nickname is a big-time work in progress. This C+ is pretty preliminary. The main thing I noticed is that there’s quite a gap between Rivers’ skill set, largely based on individual acts of greatness, and the system he’ll need to play at Duke. I’m not worried about that. What I am worried about is the gap between his ego and the humility required to play that system. His swagger, which could become really obnoxious really fast, comes hand in hand with an attitude that could verge on selfish. Coach K took him out of the game at least once because he didn’t get back on defense after a frustrating call, and his tendency to treat defense as a second-tier priority even when he made it back to that end reared its head more than once. The jury is very much out on Rivers, and you have to think his progress will depend less on talent, which he has in spades, and more on character.

The Koala Kid: A-

Solid as usual. I think I’m resigned to the fact that he’ll never be quite as dynamic as his brother, and that frees me up to see him for what he is- a very consistent and calming presence on the court who can still catch fire. Last year, we saw him get rattled exactly once, on the road at Virginia Tech. The rest of the time he was smooth as silk, and I still say the Arizona game could have gone differently if he hadn’t been hurt. He showed his usual panache in China, hitting the big shots when we needed them and facilitating the rest of the time. Mostly, I’m just glad to have him on the team for the next two years.

Young Threezy: B+

Again, very solid. He struggled a little bit from three in game two (2-7), but made up for it this morning (2-3, 4-7 from the floor). You can’t really read too much into shooting results in international play, because the ball is a little bit slicker, so for now it’s enough to just be pretty happy with his consistency. The two main challenges for Dawkins this year will be his man-to-man defense and staying inside the game flow for 40 minutes rather than vanishing for long periods. It’s hard to know much at this point. By the way, my other big nickname idea for the year is to call Threezy and Seth “The Brothers Grim.” Will that have any legs?

The Dutch Fugue: B

I kinda like this guy. It seems like he can get to the basket, doesn’t it? Am I over-evaluating him too early? Someone back me up here…whenever he was in the game, I thought he brought some positive offense. I wondered why he didn’t get more playing time.

  Josh “Hairy” Hairston: C

Not impressed. I don’t see much development. He and Thornton are kind of a mysterious pair of sophomores. They’re kind of like my freshman class (’05), which consisted of Daniel Ewing and Lee Melchionni. You were always kind of like, really? This is the best we could do? And that’s not knock on either of those players; Ewing did some good work. Still, they seem like odd fits on a Duke team.

Gbinije, MP3, and Zafirovski didn’t make much of an impression on me one way or another, so I’ll before christening them with grades. Overall, I’m happy with the trip. We got out alive, nobody brawled (I actually got a little uptight when the Chinese players seemed to start getting chippy toward the end…also, did anybody else see the Chinese coach yell at his big man after he helped Ryan Kelly up off the floor? EVIL.), and we move to face the Standard Oil national team.

Tomorrow morning will be great: I’m introducing the W.A. Erwin Cup. Stay tuned for that. We’ve also go soccer previews coming later in the week.

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