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How Will Duke’s Freshmen Work Together?

Our prediction is very well indeed.

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Duke Countdown To Craziness
DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 22: High school basketball player Cameron Reddish, standing, (Westtown School - Norristown, PA) attends Countdown To Craziness at Cameron Indoor Stadium on October 22, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

When Zion Williamson picked Duke Saturday, surprising just about everyone, one of the first questions we saw was: can they play together?

The “they” here is Williamson and fellow recruits Cam Reddish and JR Barrett.

Al Featherston touched on this in the column we have posted today:

“How can three small-forwards co-exist?

“Well, to begin with, that question suggests that the person asking it has not followed Coach K’s career. Has there ever been a more position-less coach in basketball history? He’s played three swing-men together on a multitude of occasions.”

One of our favorite Duke teams was the core that followed the great 1986 team. Point guard Tommy Amaker was the smallest guy and Danny Ferry, perhaps generously listed at 6-10 was the biggest.

Ferry was really Duke’s original Stretch Four and didn’t spend a lot of time around the basket (one of the more comical things in his career was watching him try to drive as a freshman. He clearly wanted no part of contact around the basket at that point his career. He got over it later). John Smith, at 6-7 held down the post on offense. Robert Brickey got more work inside on defense. Billy King, at 6-6, was a shutdown defender who struggled in nearly every aspect of shooting. At 6-5, Kevin Strickland could score outside and drive. Quin Snyder followed Amaker as point guard and was one of Duke’s better shotblockers during that era.

It was such a fun team. We remember that at times it fell behind on offense and there were these long stretches of no scoring by either team then Duke would slowly climb back in it. Ferry would fire threes and Brickey would take on guys like UNC’s hugely powerful JR Reid and hold his own.

As Al says, Coach K has never cared about positions. What he has always cared about though is how the pieces fit together and how people can play to their strengths.

So how will these guys fit?

That depends first on who comes back. If Duke’s entire starting five leaves that changes things.

However there should still be a number of guys who return and they will be experienced and, much more so than this year’s team, will be able to help the freshmen fit in.

By next year, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell will all be very solid players. Jordan Goldwire, Jack White, Justin Robinson and Antonio Vrankovic - none of those guys are liabilities now. They’ll be better too and all of them will be able to speed up the process for the freshmen.

Like Amaker, Bobby Hurley and his brother Tyus, Tre Jones is destined to play point guard. For all of Coach K’s thoughts about plants not in jars and not having positions, he’s almost always had one: point guard. He likes having a really good person to trust with the ball. So we can put Jones in his seat right now and it’s the driver’s seat.

Barrett is a versatile player who’s shot needs some work. But he’s a born slasher and an outstanding passer and potentially a great defender. His body is fairly mature for his age and his game is more developed than either Williamson or Reddish. His wingspan is 6-10.

Reddish was pitched by John Calipari as a position less player. He’s a much better outside shooter than Barrett or Williamson. Over the next year he should add a fair amount of muscle. He’s the thinnest of the three. He or Barrett could conceivably spend time at point guard and conceivably power forward too.

The knock on Reddish has been his intensity, but in this Chronicle article, he acknowledges his weaknesses and that he plans to work on them.

And Williamson? He’s already world-famous for his dunks and his body. We’ve compared him to Rodney Rogers and Charles Barkley but there’s another comparison worth mentioning and it’s a Duke comparison from the past: Art Heyman.

It’s not a direct comparison. They played in radically different eras. Heyman played at the end of segregation. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had already played in college and Oscar Robertson was a contemporary. It would be several more years before the ACC began to integrate.

There are similarities though.

At 6-5, even in the early ‘60s Heyman was undersized for a power forward but he could score and rebound prodigiously. He started with another similarly sized player, 6-4 Jeff Mullins who was also a great scorer among his many talents. Like Williamson, Heyman also seemed larger than life and also had a cult following which probably increased after he went to Myrtle Beach and checked into a hotel with a woman after registering as - wait for it - Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Robertson (has anyone ever asked Robertson if he is aware of this?) And while Duke swooped in at the last minute and stole Williamson from Clemson and, to a lesser extent UNC, Art Heyman showed up at RDU still not completely decided.

We’re aware of Heyman’s statistical profile but he was before our time so we can’t make specific comparisons. We’re quite sure that Williamson is more athletic though and we suspect he’s a better passer too (he and Barrett and Jones will have fun moving the ball). He’s won fame for his combination of bulk (6-6 and 275) and ludicrous athleticism but we’ll have to wait to see things like his shot mechanics, how good a ball handler he is and how he deals with guys like, say, Florida State’s 7-4 Christ Koumadje.

The point is that they are all versatile and all different and all still evolving. Reddish’s poor defense could cost him minutes. Barrett’s or Williamson's shot mechanics could cost them minutes. Reddish could gain 25 lbs. and play power forward. Intense training could drop Williamson to 250 which might not be a bad idea.

Who knows?

The most important thing though is what we see in the Chronicle article linked above: they want to play together. From Reddish about his soon-to-be-classmates: “We all can’t wait. We talk literally every day. All day, every day, we talk.”

As great as talent is, natural ability only takes you so far. Chemistry is far more important. You won’t find many championship teams with poor chemistry.

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