We always save Duke for our final preview and now it’s time to look at the Blue Devils.
Everyone knows that Duke is loaded. This is a team with some serious young talent, so let’s start there first.
Duke has five freshmen and four of them are expected to start and to make a major impact.
RJ Barrett comes to American college basketball from Canada with a glowing reputation and on Duke’s summer exhibition tour he showed it might be deserved. He can slash to the basket, he has spent time at point guard and he defends with intensity.
At 6-7 and 202, the criticisms of Barrett are minimal: he needs a better outside shot and maybe a bit more muscle.
That’s about it.
What separates Barrett from most young players though is focus and desire. Those things are innate in the best players. We’re not comparing him to Kobe Bryant, but Kobe was legendary for his willingness to get in the gym and work his ass off.
Barrett has some of that intensity. He’s willing to pay a price to be great, so he has a legitimate shot at being great.
His game can look a little herky jerky, but seen that before. Chris Carrawell had a similar quality to his game. It may not look great but it’s really hard to defend.
Another quality that we really like about his game is that he is a willing passer and enjoys when other guys score. And that’s infectious.
Take Cam Reddish for example. The 6-8 218 lb. freshman out of Norristown, PA, has already been billed as a prototype of positionless basketball. He can certainly shoot - he’s one of the best outside threats on the team - but he’s also wildly versatile and can play any position except (we think) center. He’s an outstanding ball handler and like Barrett can pick up the point as needed.
And like Barrett, probably more so, he’s a superb passer. He didn't play in Canada this summer but in exhibition play, he had seven assists against Virginia Union and five against Ferris State.
He’s gotten some criticism, including self-criticism, for not being intense enough on defense. Coach K has debunked that to an extent, saying that he makes things look easy. It could be classic Krzyzewskian positive thinking but this was true for Luol Deng too. And he’ll be playing with some really good defenders so that should focus him.
Like Barrett again, he could use some extra weight. That will come in time.
That is most definitely not an issue for Zion Williamson. At 6-6 and 270, he’s an unprecedented combination of power, quickness and leaping. An NBA scout watched him practice recently and, upon seeing him dunk over everyone said “it’s like it’s not even fair.”
It’s even less fair because of this: the guy is a very skilled basketball player. Like his two previously mentioned teammates, he’s a superb passer. Like Barrett, he works hard on defense. He stunned fans and TV announcers during the Ferris State game by diving on the floor to knock a ball loose - when Duke was up by about 50.
His outside shot could use some work - his elbow tends to flare out a bit - but there’s not much else to criticize. Like all players, he needs to mature, but in his case, not so much physically. Where does he go from here? For him it’s more about stretching and endurance than getting stronger.
He’s going to shock some people this year and down the road, has a chance to be a transformative figure like some greats of the game - Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
We did say a chance. Talent guarantees nothing. Hard work and character build on talent though and his gifts are breathtaking. People will realize his work ethic and character soon enough; time will show us how far he can take it.
Barrett and Reddish may be better rounded players for the near future, but Williamson’s IQ is high enough to make up any difference and no one we can think of can match his combination of power, quickness and explosiveness.
Coach K recently said that Williamson is basically a guard - a 270 lb. guard! - and proved it by having him play some point guard against Ferris State.
No surprise he could do it on offense but he put real ball pressure on Ferris’s point guard too.
So that gives Duke three guys who can play point but only when the real point guard is out and that shouldn’t be for long.
Tre Jones will take over the job and keep it or as long as he is at Duke. He’s Tyus’s little brother and as you will remember, Tyus was a pretty damn good point guard - we’d argue brilliant in fact. Bobby Hurley is Duke’s best point guard ever but Jones could be the smartest.
It’s a tough act to follow and Tre is not a clone of Tyus and no one should expect him to be. Tyus had a real genius for goosing his team in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. Need a three? Got it. Shut down another guard? Done. Clutch ballhandling? Of course.
Our theory about Tyus is that he willed himself to greatness despite good-but-not-great athleticism. He had to overcome that and did it through grit and intelligence.
We wonder how that works for his more talented brother who doesn't have that advantage.
On the other hand, he has spent thousands of hours competing against Tyus and has learned hundreds of valuable lessons. This can be a huge advantage. Who gets that level of personal coaching and up-close observation from an NBA guard with a near-genius grasp of the game?
What we’ve seen of Tre so far is really good. He’s a passionate defender and he’s willing to sublimate his offense which is the mark of a really good point guard.
He hasn’t yet been in a situation where he needed to bail his team out so we can’t compare him to Tyus in that sense.
Like Barrett, Reddish and Williamson, he’s a wonderful passer.
Let’s stop there for a moment.
Passing to us is the single best part of the game. It’s where it can get magical, where guys who can see things the rest of us can’t can share their gift suddenly and sometimes shockingly. Think of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Pete Maravich. We linked some Bob Cousy video recently and saw him making passes with his back turned and in mid-air. Those guys could see things that normal people just can’t.
That’s the Mensa level of passing and it’s a privilege to witness it. We don’t know that any of Duke’s freshmen have that, but they don’t have to. Sharing the ball and moving it around opens the court up. Barrett gives it to Reddish who gives it to Jones who whips it to Williamson who hits someone else for a layup.
You can change everything if your guys can pass.
All four of those guys will start. The fifth freshman, Joey Baker, will not. He may redshirt or maybe not. Either way is fine.
Baker came to Duke a year early to get reps in against his classmates and the rest of his teammates. He’ll mature this year, whether he redshirts or not, and will likely become a major contributor later. He’s a gifted shooter and that’s always useful.
Duke lost a lot to the draft last year obviously - Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter and Grayson Allen all went in the first round, while Gary Trent went in the second. Trevon Duval was not drafted but has found work as a two-way player.
Duke has some very useful players back though and while other guys have left early for the league, Javin DeLaurier, Jack White, Marques Bolden, Justin Robinson, Antonio Vrankovic, Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire have considerable experience now.
DeLaurier, who until this year was the most athletic player Duke had, struggled somewhat last year. Fouls were a problem at times and his offense was unreliable to the point where other teams more or less ignored him.
Still, he was 6-10 and quick and could get off the court so there were times when he was incredibly helpful.
This summer, he decided to make himself an offensive factor - being ignored is an expression of not just indifference but also of contempt - and has extended his range to become a three point shooter. He won’t do it all the time obviously but he can now.
So, we learned in exhibition season, can Bolden.
Duke’s biggest regular at 6-11, Bolden has struggled with injuries and perhaps intensity. He is the only guy Duke has who is really suited to post play though and he’ll be given plenty of chances to step up. Ferris State isn’t an ideal data point but in that game Bolden shot 6-8, had six rebounds and three blocks - and a chest bump from an obviously impressed assistant coach Nate James.
Duke can be good even if Bolden withers, but put a powerful big man on this team and it changes things.
We liked White early on because the Aussie native was willing to wait his turn. He spoke early in his career about how he like being part of something bigger than himself and that he was willing to let other guys move ahead of him if it meant the team would be better.
Not surprisingly, the junior (along with classmate DeLaurier) was named a co-captain for this season. He’s more athletic than he looks, he plays hard at all times and he’s a solid defender, rebounder and shooter. He’ll finish his Duke career next season as a much-loved Blue Devil and will come off the bench ready to help in a variety of ways.
Alex O’Connell was a rail-thin freshman last year and he still looks like a skinny teenager He’s 19 so he is in fact a teenager. But he looks like he’s 15.
That isn’t necessarily a problem. Brandon Ingram was painfully skinny. So was Mike Dunleavy and Georgia Tech had Craig Neal who was so skinny he was lovingly called Noodles.
For perspective, earlier this summer Williamson outweighed O’Connell by more than 100 pounds (it’s more like 90 now).
Despite his thinness, O’Connell showed a keen intelligence for the game. He’s an outstanding shooter who could become a well-rounded big guard. He’s going to fill out eventually and, like his father Dave, who played at Duke in the ‘70s, has some nice hops. He’s also an alert passer.
He could carve out a nice role now with three point shooting and energy plays and build on that. By his junior year, O’Connell could really be something. Think along the lines of a father of another Duke player - Doug Collins. That should be O’Connell’s role model.
Vrankovic, Robinson and Goldwire will probably not play as much as the guys ahead of them, but all could carve out useful roles. Robinson is a willowy 6-10 now, three inches shorter than his famous father David, but long-armed and capable of blocking shots and hitting threes. We’ve seen him as an unusually valuable reserve because of what he offers behind the scenes. He’s really smart about team stuff and we understand that he works hard to keep his guys on an even keel. Fitting for the Admiral’s son. We’ve always seen him as an unusually valuable reserve. Don’t be surprised if he turns out to be a really big factor in a game or two for Duke this year.
Vrankovic is a good basketball player from the waist up but he will never have quick feet. He has great hands though and he manages to put himself in the right spots on a regular basis. He’s become a useful guy. Like Robinson, expect him to be a big factor on occasion, if in small stretches.
Goldwire had some moments as a freshman but he needs to be more reliable to get more minutes. He’s a sound guard though and could be a reliable reserve, though the fact that so many guys can play point will likely limit his minutes this year. Like Baker, or Marshall Plumlee when Jahlil Okafor showed up, the increased competition could make him a much better player later.
Coach K has said he’ll be moving Duke to a version of the Five Out offense, He picked it up from his Olympics assistant Mike D’Antoni, who has run it for the Houston Rockets to great effect.
To oversimplify, the ball moves around the perimeter and after you pass or hand the ball off you cut through the middle. The guy who now has the ball has the option of passing it to the cutter, shooting, or passing or handing it off to the player to his left or right before cutting to the lane himself. It tends to lead to open corner shots as well, often after passes from the cutter. The offense also seeks to unbalance the defensive center and force him to either come after a cutter, which could open up a lob pass from someone else, or which might also get him out of rebounding position. This offense could also lead to a lot of long rebounds.
Ideally, all five players can penetrate or shoot which increases the pressure on the defense. With Duke, almost anyone can slash or pass inside which means that Williamson in particular but also DeLaurier, Reddish and Barrett are going to get a lot of passes up high.
It would also seem more favorable to DeLaurier, especially if his shot is improved, than perhaps Bolden but we’ll seee.
It’s going to be fun to watch and very interesting to see how Virginia deals with it because Tony Bennett’s Packline is dedicated to stifling penetration and three point shooting.
The easy answer: move faster than they do but when you see UVA’s defense up close, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s viciously effective and we mean that as a compliment. Among other things, the offense has to work much harder than Bennett’s defense and that matters in the last five minutes - a lot. When you see it in person you realize how much it taxes a team.
We’re not sure how well it will work against Syracuse’s zone either but the Orange are more likely to run than Virginia so there’s that. And until Duke proves it can consistently score from three point range, the Blue Devils are going to see a lot of zone.
Last season Duke was forced to play zone more than Coach K would have preferred but with two young big men and other young guys who didn’t fully get Duke’s man defense it was the logical thing to do.
That’s less likely this year.
Barrett, Williamson and Jones are all very good defenders already and Reddish recognizes that he needs to improve there so the freshmen starters are certainly capable. And positionless cuts both ways so guys like Ty Jerome and Luke Maye are going to see lots of Williamson, Barrett and DeLaurier. For someone like Maye it’ll mean less mismatches. For Jerome or teammate Kyle Guy, it could be a shock to see Duke’s ranginess much less a 6-6 270 lb. ballerina barreling their way. The defense could be Duke’s best of the one-and-done era.
As mentioned previously, there’s a big role here for Bolden as a shot blocker and rebounder and no one else on Duke’s team has his particular package of size and skills. If he can make himself essential on defense he’ll have a reliable job.
Of course the versatility of this team means that Williamson could move from point guard on one play to center on the next. It’s remarkable.
One early concern is communication. Coach K has always stressed that and famously says Duke has three systems: offense, defense and communication. It’ll evolve during the season but early on Duke might see some breakdowns due simply to younger players not fully grokking the importance of talking.
This team should be one of the best in the country. It has some special challenges though. Three point shooting is still questionable. If Duke had JJ Redick or Jason Williams the offense might be unstoppable.
Experience is a question too as it has been for the last few years. It could make the Blue Devils particularly vulnerable against Kentucky as the kids step on the big stage for the first time. Will the bright lights make them blink?
That’ll get better as the season goes on. You’ll recall that last spring, despite the zone and other issues of youth, Duke missed the Final Four by one late floater. Talent is still talent.
And some players, particularly Reddish and O’Connell and perhaps Barrett to an extent, could get shoved around a bit. Obviously Williamson, Bolden and DeLaurier can take care of themselves, and while Vrankovic has slow feet, his upper body is powerful and if nothing else, the guy can lean on people inside. Still, it’s a concern until it’s not.
There are other mild worries too. We don’t know if anyone will be foul prone yet, nor do we fully know who is weak from the line. And with an offense dedicated to cutting and slashing, there could be a lot of foul shots.
All that aside though, if the three point shooting comes through and forces the interior open, this team is going to be a load. No one in their right mind is going to take a charge from Williamson (there’s a funny clip from preseason where Barrett chest bumps Williamson who returns the favor and sends Barrett flying), and Barrett and Reddish both can get to the basket too.
We expect that Duke will start the four freshmen along with DeLaurier for a streamlined and highly athletic group with White, Bolden and O’Connell bringing experience from the bench.
If this team can coalesce, we think the freshmen are unusual enough to make a deep March drive possible.
There is one other concern worth mentioning and we’ve fallen for it to an extent already and that’s that there is going to be a circus all season around Williamson.
Even his teammates are dazzled and have taken to calling him Zanos, after the Marvel villain Thanos, who may be slightly smaller actually than Zion. There’s a clip of walk-on Mike Buckmire just giggling deliriously after Williamson broke the Duke vertical leap record. Actually the chest bump we mentioned is in the same one. Here that is.
ESPN is going to go full Trae Young on the Spartanburg native. He seems remarkably well grounded but it is bound to wear on you and it may wear on his teammates to get constantly asked about him (on the other hand it may give them shelter from the storm too, a la Christian Laettner).
Myron Medcalf, linked above, has already said that he’s going to be the face of college basketball his season and that’s a lot to put on an 18-year-old small town kid.
Keep in mind, despite all of that, Barrett is supposed to be the star of the class.
Not as far as TV goes.
Williamson is going to be packaged and promoted and how he - and Duke- comes to terms with that is going to matter a lot.
At this point, he’s being celebrated for, basically, freakishness. No one has ever seen a guy like that. There is literally no precedent in the sport for a guy who weighs 270 and can do the things he does (Two Ton Williamson?). His athleticism is off the charts.
As we’ve said repeatedly though, so is his basketball IQ and his desire to compete. The circus could be a significant distraction. Duke’s been through it before of course, but not in the social media era, at least not to the extent that it’s about to.
Dealing with it is going to be a major key for success this year. Fortunately Duke has been here before, or at least in similar situations, and is as prepared for this as any program could be.
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