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DBR At McDonald’s Practice

Jason Evans went by and got some really good stuff. We don’t have a byline for him yet but the work here is his.

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Duke-bound Tre Jones
Tre Jones on the move in McDonald’s game practice.

When the folks who run the McDonald’s All-American game agreed to let me cover the practices, they were very clear about one thing. THESE PRACTICES ARE CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC! I was under the impression it would be the teams, the coaches, a few folks from McDonald’s taking pictures and video, and then maybe a couple dozen journalists.

I was wrong.

When I walked onto the practice court (they used the practice facility that the Atlanta Hawks use) it was quite a scene. In addition to the players, there were at least a hundred people in the gym. I immediately noticed almost all of them were wearing logos – a black sweatshirt with the R of the Houston Rockets; a polo bearing the C of the Cleveland Cavaliers; a purple vest that was the unmistakable colors of the LA Lakers; and I really think I saw a Boston Celtics belt buckle. Any illusion that this is a showcase of amateur basketball stars was shattered. This is business, big business, and the kids everyone is watching are worth millions.

Practice lasted 90 minutes and the two teams (East and West) were on separate courts almost the entire time. It took less than 30 seconds for me to note the most significant thing Duke fans should know about this event… our 4 recruits really, really like each other.

As the East players began their workout, Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were continually paired up. You literally could not see one of them without seeing the other right next to him. In one-on-one drills, they always faced off against each other. In 2-on-2 or 3-on-3 drills, they were always on the same side. They seemed to constantly be chatting and laughing with each other. It was almost like a pair of brothers – they seemed to almost know the other better than they know themselves.

After about ten minutes, just as I was about to turn my attention to watching our guys on the West team’s court, both teams took a quick water break. I stated looking around for Tre Jones and Cameron Reddish and I did not need to look very far. They immediately came over to RJ and Zion and suddenly, rather than a pair of brothers there were 4 of them. The Duke Gang was inseparable. They tossed the ball around. Cam and RJ started a little one-on-one game as Zion and Tre laughed about something and then began shooting 3-pointers side-by-side.

Later, at an interview session, I asked each of the 4 commits about their bond (we will have some video to post soon) and they each were clear. These are more than teammates, they are friends. They have had a group text chat since last summer, even before they had each committed to Duke. They have been talking about how much they wanted to play together and the things they could do together for a very long time. They have been friends – friends who just happen to be among the best teenaged basketball players on the planet – for quite a while. I think it gives them a special bond and I am betting we will see some special stuff from them on the court as a result.

As for the individual players, here are some of the things I noted watching practices this week:

Zion Williamson – The first impression I got of Zion is that he is small. It seems crazy to say that someone so much bigger than me is small, but most folks project Zion as a PF in college and seeing him next to the other PF prospects at the McDonald’s practice, he was visibly shorter. I have seen some services list Zion as 6-7. I’ve heard that he measures 6-6 in his stocking feet. If you ask me, he’s closer to 6-5. But, if that gives you pause about his ability to play the “4” for Duke then all you need to do is watch what he does on the floor to have your pause thrown out the window. The McDonald’s team is comprised of freak athletes, kids who are all but assured of being impact players at the next level and in the NBA. And even among these “freaks” Zion’s athleticism stands out in a big way. He elevates so quickly and powerfully, he easily grabs rebounds from players 3+ inches taller than him. On one play, a player on his team threw a lob and Zion was absolutely covered, I couldn’t even really see him because a 6-9 player was guarding him. But then Zion somehow jumped higher than his much taller teammate and just destroyed the rim as he dunked the ball. In a room full of NBA scouts, there was an audible murmur.

I was impressed with Zion’s outside shot as well. His 3-pointers looked smooth and his shooting form is quite good. He doesn’t really jump all that high on his jump shots, sometimes almost shooting them flat-footed, but he made a good percentage of them. With his physical frame and strength, his ability to finish through contact is truly impressive. I’m not sure what the record is for traditional 3-point plays at Duke, but Zion may threaten the season record next year. Zion also seemed to work hard on defense much of the time, something that set him apart from many of the other players in practice.

Cameron Reddish – One NBA scout I spoke to said Cam was the most impressive player he saw. I am not going to argue with that assessment. Playing on a team with a very good PG in Tre Jones, the offense largely ran through Cam when they were doing 5-on-5 drills. His court vision is phenomenal and he often found teammates with passes that seemed impossible right up until the moment they resulted in an easy 2 for the guy on the receiving end.

Cam’s long-range shooting was impressive, among the best of anyone I saw on the floor. His release is quick and effortless. He shoots the ball with a high release, making his shot harder to contest. I didn’t see him drive to the goal all that much and he clearly needs to gain upper body strength to compete with more physical players, but everything about his game seems so smooth. The comparisons to Grant Hill seem very apt to me.

RJ Barrett – This kid is the king of the mid-range game. His ability to take the ball to the hole is impressive, but what really sticks with you is how he gets the ball within 10 feet of the basket and then uses his impossibly long arms to drain fadeaway jumpers. He’s lethal at that kind of thing and it is not at all hard to recall the ways Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan scored when watching RJ play.

That said, RJ’s long-range jumper really needs work. I’m not sure I saw him hit a single 3-pointer the whole time I was watching. He took a good number of 3s, which tells me he expects to make them some of the time, so maybe he was just having an off day, but if I was guarding him, I would plant myself 17 feet from the basket and dare him to beat me from outside.

Tre Jones – Offensively, I just didn’t see all that much from Tre. As mentioned earlier, much of the offensive action seemed to run through Cam Reddish, so Tre was rarely the guy making the spectacular passes. He is a fine dribblers and took the ball into the lane a few times, but didn’t shoot much from three point range. When I interviewed him, he openly stated that he needs to work on his outside shot.

Where Tre shined was on defense. He was the starting PG for the West and was matched up with his backups, Devon Dotson (Kansas recruit) and Jahvon Quinerly (Villanova), in the 5-on-5 scrimmages. He made life very difficult for those guys. He was in their shorts, making them pick up their dribble or forcing them to go places they did not want to go on the floor. I didn’t see a lot of steals, but he got his fingers on more than a few passes. Duke fans are gonna love his effort on the defensive half of the floor.

A couple additional comments –

Someone is going to get a special player in Romeo Langford (supposedly Vandy and Indiana are the front-runners). His combination of explosion off the floor and feathery touch from long range was really special. He looked as good as anyone during the scrimmages and just seemed so confident. That said, a NBA scout told me he is a kid who blows hot and cold. Apparently, he missed his first couple shots in the first practice over the weekend and went into a shell, not playing well at all. When confident, he’s a stud, but when the going gets tough, he checks out. All I know is he had it all working when I was watching. Hard to imagine anyone that good could suffer from confidence lapses.

There’s a manchild (6-10, 250) named Nazreon Reid who is going to LSU who is going to score in bunches in the SEC. Not only does he have a huge frame that allows him to overpower almost everyone on the inside, he has good handle and nice touch from 3 point range. That said, the kid is a black hole when he gets the ball. It does not matter where he is, he is shooting it. I don’t think I saw him pass once.

Lastly, I was very impressed with Duke’s lone known remaining recruiting prospect in the class of 2018,. EJ Montgomery. EJ was not afraid to mix it up on the interior and showed tremendous finishing ability in the lane. He has good hops and was perfectly comfortable putting his 200 pound frame up against guys who had 30+ pounds on him. I asked him if he was ready to pick a school and all he would say was that he was fairly close to narrowing his list of 11 schools to just a few finalists. He admitted that Cam, RJ, Zion, and Tre are bugging him to come play with them but I could not get a read on whether that was a real possibility.

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