Kyle Filipowski, Duke’s 7-foot forward, makes big plays — and small ones, too


PORTLAND, Ore. — Kyle Filipowski phrases it like a question.

It is not.

“You noticed that?” Filipowski says, sitting slumped over in front of a crowded cubby in Duke’s locker room, deep within the bowels of Veterans Memorial Coliseum. He’s not talking about his career-high 19 points — each of them essential to Duke’s dramatic 54-51 win over Oregon State in the first round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament — nor his 14 rebounds, basically half what the Beavers mustered as a team. Duke does not win Thursday’s rock fight without all of them, but Filipowski is more focused on something else: one specific defensive possession, late in this almost-disaster on Thanksgiving day.

As the final score indicates, this was not an overwhelming display of offensive ability. Far from it — Duke had never won a game shooting so poorly in program history. And, listen: 26.7 percent from the floor looks exactly how it sounds. Clank, clank, clank. (That this game featured the third-fewest possessions in a Division-I game this season should also give you some idea of how sluggish everything was.) So, points were at a premium. Precious commodities. And with four minutes left to play, down one, Duke couldn’t exactly afford to cede any more.

“You have to find a way,” coach Jon Scheyer said after, “to gut it out.”

Just, ideally, that way doesn’t look like this: Filipowski, a 7-foot forward, matched up on the 6-foot-2, 165-pound Jordan Pope on the perimeter. Filipowski is more mobile than most 7-footers, but still. Oregon State hunted the mismatch for a reason. “That’s a lot of what people critique about me, is playing defense,” Filipowski said. “I have a chip on my shoulder, showing people that I can play defense, especially against guys like Pope.”

Well, here’s your chance. No pressure, man. Just the probable outcome of the game on your shoulders.

So with under 10 seconds on the shot clock and Filipowski’s heels on the 3-point line, Pope began his process. He drove right, but Filipowski followed him step-for-step — so Pope reset, retreated briefly, then went left, on a straight-line shot to the rim. But Filipowski was his shadow, hugging Pope’s hip the whole way — until, at just the right moment, he poked his hand into Pope’s dribble and promptly stole it, snuffing the danger out in one second.

So yes, we noticed. And as the question comes spilling out of our mouth, all Filipowski does is slyly, slowly, turn up his neck, revealing the proudest grin in possibly all of Portland: “You know, it was a close game. I was just locked in.”

He was, indeed — and truthfully, has been since this season started. Despite Duke’s somewhat-sluggish offense at times, its slow starts and subpar shooting, Filipowski has simply been a force, the latest freshman stud in the program’s proud lineage. Through six games, not only is he the team’s leading scorer but he has gobbled up more rebounds in that stretch (66) than any freshman has in program history. (At the time of this writing, Filipowski is second nationally in defensive rebounding rate, per KenPom.) This is the same someone who supposedly struggled this summer when less-rosy reports trickled out of preseason practices?

“He’s a big-time competitor,” Scheyer said. “He hasn’t gotten off to the best starts, but when the game is on the line, he’s not afraid.”

Per Synergy, the Blue Devils had only faced six zone possessions all season, so the Beavers’ coverages clearly caused some confusion. “It made us really hesitant on offense,” Scheyer said. “I thought that was pretty obvious.” Filipowski missed eight shots, including four of his five 3s, in line with Duke’s dramatic offensive struggles. He wasn’t absent from blame when the Blue Devils went nearly seven scoreless minutes late in the second half.

But as Scheyer said, when it mattered most, Filipowski figured it out. His dunk with 34 seconds left proved decisive. He was a monster on the glass — along with Ryan Young, who finished with a game-high 15 boards — and in the process, got practically all of Oregon State’s frontcourt into foul trouble. “When he wants to flip that switch and be relentless on the glass and do what he needs to do,” junior guard Jeremy Roach said, “that’s when he’s really in kill mode.”

And Thursday was just the latest example. So now six games into Scheyer’s first season as head coach, though, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Filipowski is this offense’s focal point, its tone-setter in terms of want-to and toughness.

As it was on Thursday, Duke goes where its freshman forward takes it.

Could that change? Sure. Dariq Whitehead, the No. 2 recruit in this year’s class, is still working his way back from a fractured right foot sustained in August, and he’ll be a high-usage piece once he’s at 100 percent. Roach is the lone captain and only player with serious postseason experience. To get where this Blue Devils team wants to be, it’ll need both of those guys to be better than they were Thursday when they combined to go 5-of-23 from the floor, including 3-of-13 from 3-point land.

But by nature of his start to this season, and the gravity he now commands on the court, it’s hard to imagine Filipowski as anything but a key component of whatever Duke ends up doing. “I mean, there’s not many people that are better than Kyle in the middle of a close zone,” Young said. “That should be a nightmare for teams to try and guard.” The idea of a 7-foot, stretchy, sweet-shooting big man is always nice in theory, but even with the expected bumps in the road, Filipowski is following up on his potential. He looks the part. Plays like it.

And if not for him, Duke is likely looking at the loser’s side of the bracket for the rest of this weekend.

“He’s a gamer,” Scheyer said. “I’m not surprised by what he did.”

In Duke’s postgame locker room the buzz was palpable. Smiles abounded like sweat-stained jerseys, players just happy to have survived and advanced. Filipowski may be on the fringe here, hurriedly packing his things, but his presence is prominent. That last defensive stop, the one he is so fond of, is still fresh in everyone’s mind.

Kudos to Young, though, for being the one to say it. Could he have made that same stand, and prevented a basket at such a prominent moment?

He grins before answering, and looks back over his shoulder at his fresh-faced frontcourt mate.

“No,” Young admits. “Glad it was him.”

(Photo of Kyle Filipowski: Craig Mitchelldyer / Associated Press)


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