Duke, Ryan Kelly and the Stretch 4

Duke's Ryan Kelly, a versatile big man, fills a key role for Duke that has been around for decades.

DURHAM, NC — It’s no coincidence that without injured junior forward Ryan Kelly (sprained foot) Duke’s offense struggled this weekend in the ACC Tournament. An effective three-point shooter who can also play down low, Kelly’s Stretch 4 position is as identifiable with Duke as pesky defense.

“I really think that we kind of started that whole thing about 25 years ago,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If you look at the history of our program, we’ve had a lot of really good guys in that position who have gone out to be pros and lottery picks.”

Mark Alarie was the first, although the three-point line didn’t exist while he was at Duke. But Danny Ferry, one of the best players in college basketball history, helped perfect it. The 6-10 forward hit nearly 39% of his three-point attempts and added 7.0 rebounds over his Duke career.

Grant Hill and even the great Christian Laettner – known as a center – could stretch the floor. Krzyzewski cited a game at Louisiana State against a tough zone defense anchored by Shaquille O’Neal where two Laettner three-pointers helped give Duke the win.

“To me, as much as anything in our program, that position has been kind of innovative and then it became – obviously, anything we do is never innovative,” Krzyzewski said, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “But we actually do come up with some good things over the years.”

A long line of Stretch 4′s have followed, multi-dimensional matchup nightmares that make Duke nearly impossible to guard: Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier, Luol Deng, Kyle Singler.

“If you’re a chess player, it’s like having the queen. That guy could do anything,” Krzyzewski said. “He could go anywhere on the court and as a result, you have a lot of unpredictable movement, which gave space to your other guys. That’s why we’ve been such a good driving team and usually, a team you can’t double in the post.”

Kelly isn’t as dynamic a scorer or as good a rebounder as the Stretch 4′s that preceded him. But his presence alone – particularly when he’s hitting shots – makes a huge difference.

The Blue Devils struggled offensively without him in two games in the ACC Tournament, shooting just 37.1% from the floor and averaging 59.5 points. Duke has to hit three’s to win, and it made just 10-of-46 three-pointers in Atlanta.

“With (Kelly) out, you can load up better on the three. You can hedge better or step in better on ball screens because you can protect the lane and you’re not worried about two or three guys. You might be worried about one other guy and you can match up with him,” Krzyzewski said. “Quite frankly, you become an easier team to defend.”

In the five Duke losses Kelly has played in, he shot 8-of-31 from the floor and averaged 5.0 points. In his other 26 games, he shot 99-of-210 and averaged 13.2 points.

A big reason Duke beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill earlier this season was that Kelly took the Tar Heels’ shot-blocker John Henson out on the perimeter. The most critical thing Kelly’s presence does is create spacing on the floor. Duke loves to spread the court and drive, and with a Stretch 4 like Kelly, everyone is a threat to make a three-pointer after a kick-out.

“Spacing is good when the spacers can do what space gives you. So when we have (Mason and Miles) Plumlee in there, it’s a more congested court, although we’re better on the boards,” Krzyzewski said. “Then if they play off your point (guard) like they did down in Atlanta – whoever it is, Tyler (Thornton) or Quinn (Cook) – then that clogs it even more.”

Krzyzewski likes to have a Stretch 4, but he’s the all-time winningest coach in college basketball because he can adjust to his personnel. Kelly sprained his foot in the week preceding the ACC Tournament, and he has been running in the pool. “If we were playing water polo, I guess he’d be ready to go today. But we’re not,” Krzyzewski quipped.

Krzyzewski said he hopes to have Kelly back by Thursday, but right now he is day-to-day. Duke can win games in the NCAA tournament without him, but having him will be key in the later rounds.

“We have to do some things to get movement, and that’s what we worked on (Monday at practice), to get a little bit different movement than we had down in Atlanta,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s stuff that we’ve done during the year but gotten away from a little bit. … At times the way we were running offense, we were offensively-challenged, which we haven’t been until (Kelly) went out.”

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