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Next Year, Duke Has Some Challenges, But They’re Pretty Cool Challenges

It’s not like talent is a challenge here.

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High School Basketball: McDonalds High School All American Games
Mar 28, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; From left to right McDonalds High School All American guard Tre Jones (0) and guard RJ Barrett (6) and guard Cameron Reddish (8) and forward Zion Williamson (12) who have all committed to playing basketball at Duke University pose for a group photo at Philips Arena.
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Over at the Chronicle, Ben Leonard wants to let you down easy: next year, he says, won’t be a championship year.

Well, maybe, maybe not. It’s impossible to know anything this far out (we’re talking to you, ESPN).

He has a few major concerns: three point shooting, defense and youth. You could toss in one-dimensional offense too.

We’ve been following it longer than he has so while Leonard has some valid concerns and he may end up being proven right, let’s consider some things, starting with defense.

Duke struggled this year on defense to be sure. However, Marques Bolden did okay and we think Javin DeLaurier will be good on that end too.

As far as the freshmen go, two of them are already tough defenders: point guard Tre Jones and 6-8 RJ Barrett. Cam Reddish has identified defense as a personal weakness and something he wants to work on. Zion Williamson is an unknown here but obviously he has profound athleticism so he is certainly capable of being a great defender.

Alex O’ Connell should be better as well and some of the guys who didn't play much at the end, like Jordan Goldwire and Justin Robinson, could contribute also.

In short, Duke should have enough guys to put five decent defenders on the floor this year (and notably a guy who can provide serious ball pressure) and given his preferences, Coach K has always gone with good defenders first.

We’re not sure we totally buy the three point shooting problem either.

O’ Connell is good but Reddish is also capable. Barrett is a slasher but we haven’t really heard much about his range and while Williamson is a guy who has been called a bull in a china shop, any 6-6 player with NBA aspirations will need to diversify his game.

This spot reminds us a bit of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady routine. “Who are we forgetting...who could it be...could it be...Jack White??”

Duke’s reserves this year didn't play a whole lot but they all had phenomenal attitudes, not least of all White.

We saw him show glimpses of a much better game at times as a sophomore and he hit a few threes. His role will expand this year and if he can fill a niche, he’ll get a chance to do that. We suspect he’s a much better player than people realize (for one thing he has a superb vertical leap).

These two potential problems could find a mutual solution: with several potentially good and very quick defenders, Duke may be able to apply ball pressure like we haven’t seen for a while. And in transition (hello, Zion), defense becomes offense.

We largely agree with him on youth as we’ve said for a long time now but as the first Jones from Apple Valley proved, youth and intelligence can be a formidable pairing.

We’re fairly optimistic about this group for a few reasons.

First, the returnees can help a lot. Bolden, DeLaurier, O’ Connell and White will likely play the most, but all of them will help immensely in practice and will help the freshmen learn the drills and stations.

Secondly, Duke will have a gifted point guard in Jones. He’s going to be exceptional.

Third, we’re fascinated to see how Barrett and Reddish work together. It’s like having two queens on a chess board. In a perfect world, they’ll push each other higher but even in an imperfect world, they’re versatile, mobile, and in many ways interchangeable. Each guy can play at least three positions and Reddish has point guard or at least near point guard skills (and as far as running goes, imagine them on the court with DeLaurier, who is a tremendously gifted athlete).

Williamson is a more interesting question.

He’s made his reputation as a masterful dunker of course but where else does he go? Who will his model be? Charles Barkley? Rodney Rogers?

More importantly, what are his weaknesses?

He played at a relatively low level in high school and while there’s no question about his raw talent, some have been raised about his skills.

For one example, watch this video where he does some one-one-one stuff with Barrett. A lefty, when Barrett forces him to his right he can’t adjust. He still tries to shoot left-handed and it doesn’t go in very often. He does some wicked dunks with his right hand, but he’ll need more refinement as he advances.

But he’s an insane rebounder and lethal in transition. And while a lot of guys can do the dunks he’s shown, very few people try them in games. Williamson is unrefined but immensely promising.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind: although he has relatively short arms, his power and athleticism could allow Williamson to play some small ball center. What would that be like? How much speed would that add to the lineup?

Just a thought.

What’s going to be fun about this team is watching Coach K put the pieces together and finding out how they fit.

Actually, that’s pretty much the fun every year.

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