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What We’ve Learned About This Duke Basketball Team

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NCAA Basketball: Army at Duke
Nov 11, 2018; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tre Jones (3) and forward Cam Reddish (2) and center Marques Bolden (20) and forward Zion Williamson (1) and forward R.J. Barrett (5) take the court after a break during the second half against the Army Black Knights at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 94-72.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last week was really one of the more unusual in Duke basketball history.

We’re not saying it was one of the best necessarily although it was pretty great. But it was certainly one of the more unusual.

Look at what we’ve seen.

Duke and Kentucky both took summer tours and Kentucky got huge raves on their trip to the islands. We didn’t watch them but the buzz was intense and noticeable.

Duke’s trip was probably less splashy.

The Blue Devils hit the Toronto Metro area and Montreal and played without Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and, except for a few minutes in the first game, Alex O’ Connell.

We saw enough though to understand that both RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson were going to be very, very good.

We tempered our expectations due to the level of competition, but bearing that in mind, here are the stats from the first seven games for both (we’re looking at those two because they’ve played in each game, unlike Jones and Reddish):

Williamson:

  • vs. Ryerson: 29 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, two steals, shot 13-23
  • vs. Toronto: 24 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one block, two steals, shot 12-16
  • vs. McGill: 36 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, three steals, shot 15-23
  • vs. Virginia Union: 29 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks one steal, shot 11-13
  • vs. Ferris State: 23 points, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, two blocks, two steals, shot 9-14
  • vs. Kentucky: 28 points, seven rebounds, two assists, one block, one steal, shot 11-13
  • vs. Army: 27 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, six blocks, one steal, shot 11-14

Barrett:

  • vs. Ryerson: 34 points, five rebounds, two assists shot 12-30
  • vs. Toronto: 35 points, nine rebounds, three assists, one steal shot 15-26
  • vs. McGill: 23 points, five rebounds, 10 assists, shot 8-16
  • vs. Virginia Union: 23 points, four rebounds, three assists, three steals, shot 10-14
  • vs. Ferris State: 32 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one steal, shot 11-18
  • vs. Kentucky: 33 points, four rebounds, six assists, shot 13-26
  • vs. Army: 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal, shot 9-19

In all games played so far, Williamson is shooting 70.68%. Normally you’d throw out the first five because they’re against inferior competition and obviously don’t count, but in his two official NCAA games so far his shooting percentage has gone up: in the games vs. Kentucky and Army, Williamson has shot 22-27 for 81.4%.

This is also striking: on the summer trip, vs. Ryerson and McGill, Williamson took 23 shots. In those games of course the burden for scoring fell, fairly or unfairly, on Williamson and Barrett since Reddish and O’ Connell were out. They also had to pick up a lot of the playmaking in the absence of Jones.

Toss those two games out and in the others, Williams has taken 16 (Toronto), 13 (VUU), 14 (Ferris State), 13 (Kentucky) and 14 (Army).

In those games, he has shot 54-70 for 77.1% - and again, it has gone up in NCAA play.

But it’s remarkable that in those games, he’s scored 24, 29, 23, 28 and 27 points while averaging just 14 shots per game.

What we’re seeing from Williamson is getting into nearly unbelieveable territory. We’ll save the comparisons for now but can he keep it up? We’ll see.

Barrett has a genius for scoring too but he’s taking a lot more shots to get his. However, his talent is also very real and he probably has a slightly bigger adjustment to college than Williamson, who is a physical prodigy, does. Look for his offense to become more efficient as the season moves on, particularly as Reddish continues to emerge.

So far, and we can only look at the two exhibition games and the two official games. So let’s see his stats:

  • vs. Virginia Union: 13 points, three points, seven assists, one steal, shot 4-13
  • vs. Ferris State: 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, 1 block, three steals, shot 4-9
  • vs. Kentucky: 22 points, two rebounds, three assists, four steals, shot 6-14
  • vs. Army: 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, shot 9-21

His stats aren’t as gaudy as the other two, but consider this: in two games, Reddish is shooting 47.1% from the bonusphere.

Defenses will get better and we’re just two games in, but the NCAA record for three point shooting is 46.8% (Steven Sir, Northern Arizona). The first guy from a major conference on the list is former Arizona star Salim Stoudamire (45.7%) and Duke’s career leaders are Trajan Langdon (42.6%) and, not surprisingly, JJ Redick (40.5%).

Two games is not a lot to draw on and he’ll surely hit tougher defenses and slumps. However, if he can continue to shoot well, it’s going to make zoning Duke much more difficult.

Finally, let’s look at Tre Jones. A lot of what he contributes is intangible like defense and leadership and we can’t easily quantify those things. But what we can look at is assists.

  • VUU: 9
  • Ferris State: 9
  • Kentucky: 7
  • Army: 7

That’s 14 assists in two legitimate games - against two turnovers.

As Reddish said over the summer, Tre’s going to drive.

Even so, what we’ve seen so far is that this is a great passing team. Jones clearly knows what he’s doing and all of his classmates are great passers and they all enjoy it. That’s a huge thing given how offensively gifted all three are.

We’re not totally sold on Duke’s inside game. Marques Bolden, finally healthy, can defend inside but hasn’t scored or rebounded particularly well - and may not need to. But neither has Javin DeLaurier. If they can defend the lane, that might be enough.

Which brings us to another point. We’ve railed for years about stupid shot blockers either throwing the ball out of bounds or just giving it back with a hard rejection.

Williamson has shown twice now that you don’t have to do that.

Against Army Sunday, he just took the ball away from a Cadet. But that block against Kentucky...what do you call that? The best we could come up with is a takeaway block but really it was more like an open field interception. That must have been demoralizing - much more so than just throwing the ball out of bounds.

Out of everything we’ve seen from Williamson, it’s hard to say what is the most enticing, but that blocked shot - and what he did with it - was breathtaking.

So is the picture in this article. Wow. Just look at that for a minute.

The other thing that was pretty amazing this week? Just the ride.

When we got to Cameron Sunday everything had changed. Word had gotten out that a show is in town. When we got to the new plaza between Cameron and Will Call, it was so crowded that we had to really work to find a way through. We heard scalpers were busted, which means that ticket prices on the spot market were sharply up. There were no empty seats in the student section - none.

After the game, Coach K mentioned the circus, referring to it as “noise” saying this: “Part of becoming good is keeping the noise out of your locker room and when something good happens. In this case, it was exceptional noise, where as an 18-, 19-year old — you have four freshmen, we don’t have veterans — you have to be more mature about listening to that and I don’t think we handled that well and we played against a team that took advantage of it.”

Certainly true.

How Duke deals with it - the noise, the circus, the hype - will say a lot about how the season evolves.

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