Nate Watson and David Duke are off to fast starts as PC enters Big East play (Photo PC Athletics).
By KEVIN FARRAHAR
An ugly showing at the Maui Invitational overshadowed terrific starts to the season for Providence College’s two most experienced players.
After the Friars were blown out by Indiana and Alabama (and came within a missed Davidson layup of walking away from the tournament 0-3) most were looking at what was wrong with the Friars, not what was working.
Still, it was difficult to ignore the strides made by Nate Watson and David Duke, even amid the struggles. A convincing road win at TCU only magnified the progression of Ed Cooley’s talented inside-out duo.
Duke seems to be putting it all together in his third season at PC. His numbers are outstanding:
*19.7 points per game, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 45.9% from the field, 80% at the free throw line, and over 46% from deep.
Yet they don’t truly capture the extent to which Duke’s game
has grown. Cooley and his staff are leaning on Duke heavily. He is Providence’s leading scorer, and has slid over to point guard when Jared Bynum needs a break with relative ease. Duke is averaging 20 possessions per game this season, a mark only reached by three players in the Cooley era — Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton, and Ben Bentil. That’s up a full seven possessions per game for Duke, and he’s taking full advantage.
The biggest strides in Duke’s game have come as a pick-and-roll ball handler and in knocking down jump shots both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. Duke was ineffective as a pick-and-roll scorer as a freshman, averaging a meager .511 points per possession (PPP) in those opportunities. That was good for the 14th percentile in the nation.
Last season saw that number bump to .714, which landed him in the 45th percentile. Duke had 47 of these opportunities as a freshman and 63 last year.
Through just six games, Duke has already enjoyed 35 scoring opportunities out of pick-and-rolls. His points per possession is way up to .971 PPP. That’s good for the 76th percentile nationally.
Duke is shooting the ball tremendously well this season, knocking down catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, step back threes, and hitting shots while covered. His 1.227 PPP on catch-and-shoot opportunities ranks him in the 78th percentile in the country. More impressively, he is ranked in the 92nd percentile on guarded jump shots (8-15 shooting). According to Synergy Sports data, Duke ranks 19th in the country in terms of hitting shots while being closely guarded. He is 9-of-17 on catch and shoot opportunities this year and put on a clinic at TCU, scoring 28 points to go along with seven assists, and setting the tone offensively in a game Providence needed badly. Jamie Dixon’s club simply had no answer for him.
Watson has been the most consistent Friars on the offensive end through six games. The senior has more than doubled his points per game production this year (he’s averaging 18.7 ppg.) and is seeing a career high 28.8 minutes per game. Talk about efficiency, Watson is shooting 62.7% from the field, 75.5% at the free throw line and has had just one game in which he shot below 60%.
Watson’s numbers were down across the board last year after he returned from a knee injury suffered in the preseason. The injury cost him extensive practice time and pushed his weight over 270 pounds. A 59% career shooter from the field through two seasons, he was down to 51% last year, his free throw percentage dipped below 60% for the first time, and his
minutes fell from 23.5 as a sophomore to 18.9 as a junior.
Watson had just four fast break scoring opportunities last year — a number he has already matched this season. Not only are Watson’s shooting percentages up, he is showing a far more consistent face up game.
He is pretty much dominating offensively, averaging 1.164 points per possession — that’s a borderline elite clip (89th percentile in the country), especially for a player who gets the defensive attention Watson does.
Notably, his points per possession out of post-up situations are back to where they were his first two seasons at PC (.943 as a freshman, .978 sophomore year, down to .765 last season, and back up to .955 through six games this year).
Watson is doing a ton of damage off of cuts, scoring 1.524 PPP, good for 87th percentile in the nation. As aggravating as Providence’s no-show in the Maui Invitational was, the combination of Duke and Watson should give the Friars an opportunity to win every night.
PC’s rotation is starting to come into form a bit, and has received a boost from the return to health of Jimmy Nichols. He redshirted last season but the South Carolina native has played consistently solid minutes since returning. He scored eight points in 15 quality minutes against TCU, but where Nichols can make a real impact is on the defensive end.
Opponents are shooting just 2-12 when being guarded by Nichols this year, and PC’s length was noticeable when Cooley played Nichols with Duke and sophomore Greg Gantt. Providence turned deflections and turnovers into easy opportunities repeatedly at TCU.
It has certainly been an uneven start to the 2020-21 season for PC, but if Duke and Watson continue to shine, and role players like Nichols play with consistency, this should be a very competitive group come March.