PORTLAND, Ore. — The text thread between Jeremy Roach and his sister, Chloe, is pinned at the top of his iPhone. Easy access, always there. But while Roach’s parents are in Portland this week, watching the junior guard lead Duke through the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Chloe isn’t. She’s back home in Virginia, watching from a distance.
And what she saw Thursday, when her baby brother shot 3-of-14 in an almost-upset against Oregon State, ticked her off.
“She called,” Roach’s mom, Carole, told The Athletic, “and gave him an earful.”
Her message? Basically the same as everyone else in Roach’s inner circle: to trust himself, to stop being tentative. Roach’s role on this season’s uber-young Duke unit is to get everyone else involved — he’s the experienced junior point guard, after all, the lone rotation member back from last season’s Final Four run — but lately, that’s been to his own detriment. In the team’s last three games, he’s been shooting a measly 27.3 percent overall, with a nearly even assist-to-turnover ratio. To everyone who knows the Virginia native, it was obvious overthinking. Trying to do much, trying to see it all, rather than playing in the present.
“Jeremy and I spoke, and my thing was, just play instinctually,” Jon Scheyer said Friday. “You know, just be you.”
His sister took things a step further, sending him a Bible verse — Joshua 1:9 — before Friday’s semifinal against Xavier: Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.
Which, translated for today, means something like this. “Be confident. Trust my work,” Roach explained. “I mean, I put in a lot of work to not be shooting confidently.”
Steal & score from cap!
? ESPN pic.twitter.com/EgEGpHSLlv
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) November 25, 2022
Then you factor in the broader context — that the day prior, Duke posted its worst shooting percentage in a win ever — and, well, what did Roach have to lose? “I told him this morning,” Roach’s father, Joe, said, “sometimes, you’ve gotta be selfish.” So late in the first half against Xavier, with freshman forward Kyle Filipowski having carried the team offensively to that point — what’s new? — Roach rattled home his first field goal of the day, a 3 that put Duke up a point. He pulled trig, and would you look at that: It worked. So just over a minute later, this time in transition, Roach came across a drag screen and launched again, only with much more haste.
“I knew I had it going then,” Roach said after Duke’s eventual 71-64 win, grinning as he spoke. “Just kinda wanted to keep that going.”
And did he ever. Those two shots seemingly woke something within Roach, who never looked back after those made baskets. He finished with a season-high 21 points, one off his career best, which also marked the first 20-point game by a Duke player this season. Then you factor in his five assists, four rebounds and two steals — against only one turnover — and it’s arguably as complete a contest any Duke guard has had this season. “The team goes when he goes,” Ryan Young said, “so it’s awesome to have him hitting those shots.”
That’s both in the micro and macro sense. In the short-term, against a sharpshooting Xavier team Friday, it meant that for once, an opponent couldn’t only focus on Duke’s frontcourt, which thus far has sort of been the defensive strategy. Per CBB Analytics, Duke entered Friday’s game in the 21st percentile nationally in field goal percentage, making a paltry 48.7 percent of its 2s and 30.2 percent of its 3s. And while that isn’t all on the team’s guards, a large part of it was. Between Tyrese Proctor, Jaylen Blakes, Dariq Whitehead and Roach, Duke’s primary four backcourt players have only made 29.2 percent of their 3s — so defenses have, somewhat understandably, started sagging off them, instead packing the paint. But when Roach starts firing over ball screens, starts shooting the second a kickout hits him, that changes the calculus.
“Having Jeremy do that, becoming more of an offensive threat now and being able to produce like that,” Filipowski said, “it’s great because now (us big men), we’re able to get that inside position, or we’re able to get that open 3 because he’s now drawing a couple guys.”
That on-court gravity counts for something. Now, is it realistic to expect Roach to replicate this on an every-game basis? Absolutely not. There’s a reason this was only the second 20-point performance of his 70-game college career. He’s still more of a pass-first point guard, someone who sets up teammates rather than seeking out his own shots. “That’s his first instinct,” his mother said. “He likes to make sure everybody else gets involved.” In fact, before sinking nine of his 15 attempts against the Musketeers, Roach had never made more than seven shots in a single college game, and it was only the third time he’s taken that many attempts.
Sometimes, you don’t get to choose what kind of offensive catalyst you are.
Sometimes, the pieces around you dictate it.
And right now, in a season-long sense, that’s where Duke stands. While Proctor continues powering through his early slump, while Whitehead works his way back from his fractured foot in August, Duke needs Jeremy Roach to be this dude. Maybe one or both of those guys gets it together soon, morphs into more of an offensive alpha that these Blue Devils don’t seem to naturally have. But for the time being? Well, let Roach let it rip. Shooting spinning turnarounds with 8:15 left in the game isn’t usually his recipe for success, but hey, it sure worked against Sean Miller’s squad.
“He’s got to be that guy when he needs to,” his father says. “Sometimes, you gotta step out of your role.”
Plus, it wasn’t like Roach suddenly let his other duties slip. Once the Musketeers adjusted and started attacking Roach harder on close-outs, he made the correct passes, finding cutters and open teammates. He defended his tail off, funneling Xavier’s drivers into his ferocious frontcourt teammates, who took over from that point. Case in point: Jack Nunge, Xavier’s 6-foot-11 leading scorer, was held to his worst performance of the season, a 1-of-13 effort, where he was constantly challenged by Duke’s big-man depth. Filipowski had four steals and a block, Dereck Lively swatted two other shots, and Mark Mitchell rejected another attempt at the rim. After holding Oregon State without a field goal for practically the last seven minutes Thursday, the Blue Devils doubled down on that strategy and didn’t allow an Xavier field goal in the game’s final five minutes.
Obviously that isn’t all on Roach, but him handling more of the offensive responsibility means Duke’s bigs can defer more energy and intensity to the defensive end, rather than having to fill up the box score.
Put it all together, and it was fitting that as the final seconds ticked off the clock Friday, Roach was the one with the ball in his hands. Talk about his fingerprints being all over the game, literally.
“When he’s that way,” Scheyer said, “to me, he’s the best guard in the country.”
Informed after the game of Roach’s statistical standing — Duke’s first 20-point scorer, nearly notching a new career high, all the nitty-gritty of his efficiency — his parents’ jaws drop, in a positive way. They’re proud, clearly. But then in an instant, they remember that they weren’t the only ones reminding their son to shoot the dang ball. Time for another phone call.
“Let me call Chloe,” Carole said, smiling, “and say, look what you did.”
(Photo of Jeremy Roach: Soobum Im / Getty Images)