Duke has a different kind of superteam this season. Mike Krzyzewski has beaten John Calipari at his own game in recent years, turning the Blue Devils into the premier destination for one-and-done players. He has had a top-three pick (Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III) in each of the past five drafts, but never two on the same team. Now, with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish, he might have all three in 2019.
This isn’t the first time in the one-and-done era that three lottery picks have come from one college team. Calipari has done it three times at Kentucky, but those teams were built around either a big man (DeMarcus Cousins in 2010, Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015) or a point guard (De’Aaron Fox in 2017). Duke, with three athletic 6-foot-7-or-above wings who can create their own shot, looks more like one of Coach K’s Team USA squads. It’s as if Jabari, Ingram, and Tatum were all on the same team.
Zion needs no introduction. He’s a viral sensation, with more Instagram followers (1.8 million) than most NBA players. Imagine Vince Carter’s leaping ability in the body of an NFL defensive end. Zion weighs more (6-foot-7 and 285 pounds) than every player in the league except Boban Marjanovic, yet he can dunk from the free throw line with the ease of Zach LaVine. He’s not just a dunker, either. He can put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble. The question is whether his lack of elite length (6-foot-10 wingspan) and streaky outside shot will prevent him from being as dominant in the NBA.
Barrett, the favorite to be the no. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, is an easier projection to the next level than his more heralded teammate. His coming-out party was the FIBA U19 World Cup last summer, when he led Canada to a shocking upset of Team USA with 38 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists. At 6-foot-7 and 202 pounds, Barrett is a point forward who can get to the rim at will and create shots for himself or his teammates. It will be hard for anyone to pass him on draft night if he knocks down 3s this season.
Reddish, not Zion, might be the prospect with the best chance to overtake Barrett. He’s a supersized wing (6-foot-8 and 218 pounds) who ran point in high school, and he’s the best shooter of the Big Three at Duke. His issue is that he might not get as many opportunities to play with the ball as his two teammates, simply because he’s the best off-ball threat of the three. NBA scouts already have concerns about his tendency to sleep-walk through games at times, and it will be easy for him to fade into the background on this team.
Coach K needs to get his three star freshmen to buy into a team concept. They are all used to dominating the ball, and there will be an adjustment process as they figure out how to play together. This isn’t a bunch of established All-Stars playing for a few weeks in the summer. Zion, Barrett, and Reddish all have something to prove, and they have a lot of money on the line. At least one may have to sacrifice in a really tangible way. Devin Booker was taken at no. 13 overall in 2015 after one season at Kentucky as an overqualified shooting specialist.
The player who has to keep everyone happy is freshman Tre Jones, whose older brother Tyus won an NCAA championship in 2015 playing off Okafor and Justise Winslow. Tre, an elite prospect in his own right, will have to distribute the ball and spot up off his more highly touted peers. He’s the first traditional point guard Duke has had since Tyus. The Blue Devils have cycled through a series of highly touted shoot-first guards at the 1 over the past few seasons, which was more of a curse than a blessing given how many NBA prospects needed to share the ball each year.
The easiest way for Coach K to make sure his best players get enough touches is to create more possessions over the course of the game, which means getting stops, turning over the other team, and playing in transition. Duke should look much different than it did last season, when it sat in a 2–3 zone to prevent its two star big men (Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr.) from guarding on the perimeter. Duke wasn’t among the top 90 teams in pace in the country, something that should change with more aggressive man defense.
The identity of the Blue Devils’ fifth starter will be a key story line. Junior center Marques Bolden, a more traditional post scorer considered a potential one-and-done player when he came out of high school, started in their last two exhibition games. Bolden is competing for minutes with junior Javin DeLaurier, a more mobile but less skilled big man, and both have experimented with a 3-point shot in the exhibition season. Duke needs its supporting cast to make 3s, so the better shooter of the two could win the job.
The Blue Devils will need at least one unexpected hero in March. Bolden and DeLaurier are the closest things to experienced players they have, and there’s no senior on the roster like Quinn Cook, who played a key leadership role on the 2015 championship team. The role players have to make shots. Defenses will send multiple players at Zion, Barrett, and Reddish, creating open looks for everyone else. If their big men can’t knock them down, Duke will go small, with some combination of junior Jack White, sophomore Alex O’Connell, and freshman Joey Baker.
Three-point shooting is the great equalizer at the NCAA level. The first great team of the one-and-done era (Kentucky with Cousins, John Wall, and Eric Bledsoe) lost in the NCAA tournament to a West Virginia team without any notable NBA players because the Mountaineers sat in a zone and dared the Wildcats to shoot their way out of it. The formula to beat a more talented team in March is simple: slow the tempo, limit the number of possessions, and turn the game into an outside shooting contest.
Coach K has a team that can crack that formula for the first time in years. He has said that he wants to run a five-out offense similar to the one he used with Team USA. Those teams steamrolled through the last three Olympic Games because they could win playing any style. They could dictate tempo with their defense and score in transition, and make 3s in a half-court game. There was nothing defenses could do against the best athletes in the world when they were playing in so much space. That could be Duke this season.
Zion is the key. The Blue Devils will have a much easier time spreading out the defense when he’s at the 5, rather than Bolden and DeLaurier. Even if those two are making 3s, they can’t attack off the dribble like Zion. He will be a mismatch nightmare as a center. The question is whether he can hold up on defense. Zion has to push taller and longer big men out of the paint, and he has to be consistently engaged as the second line of defense. He will get an early test in their season opener on November 6 against all of the size at Kentucky.
For as big a name as he is, Zion is the great unknown on this Duke roster. There are a lot of wings like Barrett and Reddish at the next level. There is no one like Zion. High schoolers with his frame can typically make a lot more money playing football than basketball. A 285-pound player with his skill set and athleticism at any level is unfair. He’s significantly bigger than LeBron was at the same age, and he’s every bit as athletic. Zion just needs to be good enough on defense to allow his team to downsize and play four perimeter players around him.
Duke, like everyone else, is chasing Villanova, who have won two of the last three NCAA championships. Jay Wright hasn’t needed as much NBA-caliber talent because he has been running an NBA-style offense with four and five 3-point shooters on the floor at the same time. Coach K can do something similar this season, except with far better athletes. He can put together lineups with three 3-point shooters around a Barrett and Zion pick-and-roll, or one with Zion handling the ball and Barrett screening, if he wants to get creative. The only chance defenses will have to slow them down is sagging off them and daring them to shoot, and even that might not work. The two combined to shoot 16-for-46 from 3 (34.8 percent) in six exhibition games.
Coach K has had some incredible recruiting classes over the last few seasons. This group could be the best of all of them. The Blue Devils have a chance to be a next-generation hybrid of the Heat and the Warriors at the college level, combining the athleticism of the former with the 3-point shooting ability of the latter. There’s no way to know what Zion, Barrett, and Reddish will become at the next level, but their skill sets fit perfectly with the direction the sport is headed. An NBA team with all three might be the best team in the league in a decade. They have the chance to do something special as teenagers. They might not be on another team with this much talent for a long time.