This was not how year one was scripted for Vermont freshman Ernie Duncan.
Heralded out of high school and the first recruit in his class to commit to the Catamounts, Duncan’s first collegiate start was supposed to be the beginning of Vermont’s next wave of talent. However, back problems limited Duncan in the team’s season opener and continued to persist to a point where head coach John Becker opted to use a medical redshirt on him, announced prior to their tip against Harvard.
Duncan will not have surgery, but will rest and rehabilitate a fracture in the L2 in his back in hopes to be fully healthy for the 2015-16 season.
“We’re continuing to get imaging and continuing to evaluate,” Becker said. “There’s still things we got to figure out with him, just core and stuff like that off those impressions that’s been on his back. I’m optimistic that he’s going to be healthy, but its certainly not a slam dunk at this point.”
The 6’3″ Evansville, IN native took time away from the game when he was held out of summer practice and on the bench for his team’s trip to Canada with back issues. Those problems continued into practice and into the season and Duncan said he would like to get healthy so he can contribute four years to Vermont.
“I think I probably could have played the rest of the year, dealt with the situation, but I think I’m definitely improving by the day and I’m only going to get better,” Duncan said. “I’m not going to jump back into play unless I’m fully healthy and feel confident with my body, so I actually have a lot of time to lay back and do a bunch of rehab and learn about the game another way.”
When the freshman was on the floor it was apparent that he wasn’t able to do everything he wanted. He did show the ability to naturally make his teammates better. In the season’s first two games, at Canisius and Siena, Duncan scored 11 points, dished out seven assists and turned the ball over just twice.
“Since I was a little kid, I just had an ability to set teammates up and put the ball where they could score and I really think I was born with that ability,” Duncan said. “As the years went by, its gotten better and better to be able to read a play before it’s actually going to happen and being able to read the help defender and predict on what he’s about to do, so I’m able to put the ball in a place where the guy can just score.”
He quickly showed his ability to make quick passes to set up teammates like a veteran point guard. Teammates made a basket most of the time when Duncan tossed them the ball: His 39.2% assist rate would currently rank in the top 20 in the country if he had the minutes to qualify.
“Playing a little bit definitely gave me a lot of confidence because I thought I wasn’t really healthy,” Duncan said. “I still got out there and definitely handled myself and was able to command a team.”
While the 6’3″ point guard impressed in his first action, he will be forced to watch the rest of the Catamounts run this season in street clothes. The freshman has tried to take a positive view of what is a difficult situation and there is upside — starting next season he and his younger brother Everett, who signed with Vermont during the early signing period, will get to play together.
“I can see positives in situations and that’s definitely one thing I’m looking forward to and I can get four years with him,” Duncan said. “After I got beat in high school, the last game in the semifinals was the last time I played with him, but now knowing I get four years with him makes me happy, getting that chance with him.”
Until then though, Duncan will be relegated to the bench and helping freshman Trae Bell-Haynes and Cam Ward grow into their roles.
“I’m just taking the coaches perspective and trying to be involved on the bench as much as possible,” Duncan said. “Just watching the game, I can see even more openings than I do on the court.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.