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The Not-Quite-Way-Too-Early Duke Incoming Freshman Power Rankings

Coach K signed a star-studded 2018 class headlined by R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson. So which future lottery pick should America be most excited about? Presenting a special Blue Devils edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

We interrupt the start of college football season to bring you an urgent announcement that’s sure to shake you to your core. Sensitive readers should proceed with caution, and parental discretion is advised. Are you ready? Here goes: The 2018-19 Duke men’s basketball team has the greatest recruiting class of all time.

I guess I should pump the brakes. I don’t pay enough attention to recruiting to feel confident making such a bold assertion, so let me rephrase and say that Duke has the greatest recruiting class since the most recent greatest recruiting class of all time … which arrived in college last year … when Duke also had the greatest recruiting class of all time. Confusing, I know. There are a lot of GOAT labels getting thrown around, and it’s hard to keep track of them all. At the very least, here’s what we know for certain: Duke has the best recruiting class in college basketball this season … unless you want to make the argument that Kentucky’s pieces actually fit together better and therefore the Wildcats have the superior class. In that case, I guess 2018-19 Kentucky could have the greatest recruiting class of all time?

The point is that Duke’s freshman class is absolutely loaded, as the Blue Devils landed the top three players in the ESPN 100 rankings and signed two other top-50 prospects for good measure. It’s the kind of haul that would make even Sam Gilbert drop his jaw, and it’s causing the hype train to barrel out of control heading into Duke’s season opener against Kentucky on November 6. It also poses a philosophical question that would melt Bill Walton’s brain: If nearly everyone in a class is a five-star prospect, is anyone really a five-star prospect? Five-stars often step into a college basketball program and instantly become the best player on their team, but Duke’s freshmen can’t all be the best player on the Blue Devils. And recruiting rankings aren’t a precise science: Two years ago, ESPN had Bam Adebayo above both De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, while Harry Giles was ranked ahead of Jayson Tatum. How is anyone supposed to make sense of this?

That’s why I’m here. I have extensively combed through seconds—and sometimes even minutes!—of overproduced YouTube highlights to get a sense for which Duke freshmen America should be most excited about. So without further adieu, allow me to present my It’s-Probably-Not-Way-Too-Early-Considering-the-Season-Tips-Off-in-a-Couple-of-Months-but-I-Will-Concede-That-Most-People-Don’t-Have-College-Basketball-at-the-Forefront-of-Their-Minds-Right-Now-So-I-Think-It’s-Fair-to-Say-That-It’s-Still-Too-Early Power Rankings for this year’s version of the greatest recruiting class of all time.

5. The 17-Year-Old White Kid

Joey Baker represents everything you need to know about the embarrassment of riches being stockpiled in Durham. If Baker were enrolling at, say, Northwestern, he would be heralded as one of the best players in program history before even putting on a uniform. Instead, Duke convinced a kid who was a top-20 recruit in the 2019 class to skip his final year of high school and reclassify into the 2018 class, all so he could potentially redshirt for the Blue Devils this season.

Take five seconds and think about what you just read. It’s absolutely bonkers that any program in America would have the stones to try to pull this off, let alone actually do it. Duke is operating on its own level in college basketball, where it doesn’t matter how talented a potential recruit is. The Blue Devils just call the shots however they damn well please, and five-star prospects trip over themselves for the opportunity to play for a man in his 70s who dyes his hair and requires reconstructive surgery so often he might as well be a member of the Jackass crew. I’m not sure I’m joking when I say that Coach K could convince LeBron’s son to skip all of high school, relocate to Durham, and wipe up the sweat for next year’s crop of Duke freshmen, a group that doesn’t even exist yet and is already considered the greatest recruiting class of all time.

4. Tyus Jones’s Younger Brother

Now that Baker is out of the way, it’s time to get serious and size up the four freshmen who are expected to start alongside whichever uncoordinated big man Coach K wants to throw out there with them. Tre Jones is a tier below the top-three prospects in the 2018 class, but he’s talented enough that it’s probably unfair to reduce his identity to “Tyus’s younger brother.” Then again, this could have been easily avoided had he picked literally any school other than the one at which his brother became a legend for his clutch play en route to the 2015 national title, so I apologize for nothing. Roll the tape!

Listen, I don’t want to assign labels after watching one three-minute highlight tape (Narrator: “Yes, yes he does”), but Jones seems to be what you’d get if Tyus were more athletic and had a weirder-looking jumper. The first part of that is great. A more athletic Tyus would be a nightmare to defend, especially when surrounded by three players who are even better than him. Jones figures to emerge as the first pure, pass-first point guard that Duke has had since his brother left the program in 2015, which means this is probably the end of the “Can Duke overcome its point guard issues?” columns from the last three years. If I’m being completely honest, though, that jumper is getting a swipe-left from me. I know Lonzo Ball proved that a point guard who shoots from the wrong side of his face can still make it rain in college, and Jones could certainly develop into a reliable outside shooter. But if someone from the future showed up and told me that Jones’s freshman season will be more like Trevon Duval’s than Tyus Jones’s, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t exactly be shocked.

3. R.J. Barrett

Speaking of questionable jump shots, Barrett is the no. 1 recruit in the country and the favorite to be the top pick in the 2019 NBA draft, but the knock on him right now is that his shooting mechanics aren’t fluid. Given what he showed during Duke’s Canadian tour a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I agree with that assessment. I can only assume that these evaluations are framed within the context of how Barrett projects as an NBA player, because his stroke looks just fine for the collegiate level, where he’ll be playing with a shorter 3-point line and will have more time to get off his shot. Besides, it feels like every freshman who plays on the perimeter and isn’t a knockdown 3-point shooter—like Trae Young or Devin Booker, for example—gets tagged with the “questionable jumper” label. (Hell, I just gave it to Tre Jones in the last section!) The truth is that there’s no way of forecasting this stuff. Jon Diebler arrived at Ohio State with a reputation as a lights-out shooter and proceeded to shoot 28.9 percent from the 3-point line as a freshman, while Stanley Johnson shot 37.1 percent from deep as a freshman at Arizona despite there being concerns about his mechanics coming out of high school.

Here’s my legitimate worry for Barrett when it comes to this Duke team: I’m not sure how he fits in with the rest of the pieces. The obvious counter is that Barrett should serve as Duke’s foundation, and the rest of the Blue Devils should figure out how to fit around him. But let me reiterate that Barrett has two teammates, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson, who are also vying to be the top pick in the 2019 draft, and both are also talented enough to serve as the foundation for any team in America. Williamson’s fit in Durham is clear: He’s an interior player who will grab a ton of rebounds, finish above the rim, and step out to create plays from the perimeter when necessary. From what I can gather, though, Barrett’s and Reddish’s skill sets feel somewhat redundant, with Reddish being a slightly better scorer and Barrett being a slightly better distributor. And remember, Duke doesn’t need Barrett to run the offense, as Jones is ideally suited for that role. Barrett’s other defining quality—consistently being more aggressive than Reddish—isn’t necessarily something that Duke needs either. In fact, I’d argue that an aggressive scorer is the exact opposite of what a team as stacked as Duke should want, as that seems like it would lead to another Jabari Parker–Rodney Hood or Jayson Tatum–Luke Kennard dynamic.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Barrett won’t be great for Duke. His talent is undeniable, and it makes complete sense why he’s the favorite to be the top pick in the 2019 draft. But the questions pertaining to his fit leave me slightly less excited to watch his freshman season as I am to see what a pair of his teammates can bring to the table.

2. Cam Reddish

Reddish missed all three of Duke’s games in Canada because of a sore groin (and definitely not because the sole purpose of the Blue Devils’ trip was for Barrett to shine in his home country, which couldn’t have happened had Reddish played and showed up Barrett). That leaves me no choice but to turn to the wild west of YouTube to get a feel for Reddish’s game. And would you look at that—his most watched mixtape has “WALKING BUCKET” in the title. I’m sold. Let’s see the rest.

I want to take this opportunity to stress that overreacting to highlight reels is a cardinal sin for any basketball analyst. It should be avoided at all costs.

Buuuuuuuuuuut …

BUUUUUUUUUUTTTTT …

Did you see what I just saw? That is a bad, bad man. In fact, I’ve seen enough to declare Reddish the most naturally talented player in college basketball this season. He reportedly has consistency issues and can be passive in how he carries himself, so I guess I understand why Barrett is the more highly regarded prospect. But man, that was quite the four minutes and 49 seconds. Reddish definitely has the goods.

In any other world, Reddish would be the one player I’d be most excited to watch in 2018-19. But in this world, that honor can belong to one man and one man only.

1. Zion “Fat Mamba” Williamson

If you thought the national coverage of Trae Young was over the top last season, just wait until you see what happens with Williamson. For God’s sake, referring to him as “Williamson” already feels weird. He’s just Zion. That’s all that needs to be said, and is pretty wild to think about. How many freshmen in college basketball history have reached first-name-only status before playing even one game? Has it ever happened?

If you’re new to the party and are unfamiliar with Zion, allow me to bring you up to speed. Here are the only two things you need to know:

1. He is listed at 285 pounds.

2. He can dunk from the free throw line.

There’s obviously more to his game than that, but screw it. I’ve been watching basketball for my entire life and have never seen anyone like this. That doesn’t mean Zion will be a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime talent. But it does mean that one of the most entertaining subplots of this season will be listening to commentators try to come up with player comparisons. Zion is like a bigger, more explosive, left-handed Charles Barkley. He’s like Julius Randle crossed with Larry Johnsonwith a splash of Deonte Burton thrown in. He’s Draymond Green if Draymond Green was different in some ways but not so different in others.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to see a freshman season unfold. I’m excited for Zion’s first 25-point, 25-rebound game. I’m excited to see him shove his knee into the face of some poor sap from Stetson who tries to draw a charge as Zion ends his life with a dunk that would shatter a 1990s backboard into a million pieces. I’m excited for dipshit college basketball refs to ruin the fun by waving that dunk off and calling a charge, only for everyone on the internet to ignore the ruling and pretend that the dunk counted. I’m excited for January to roll around and for America to have no idea whether Zion has a reliable jump shot. Most importantly, I’m excited to argue about whether Zion is fat with strangers on the internet for seven months.

(I’m not saying you’re an idiot if you think Zion isn’t fat. I’m just saying that Myles Garrett is almost the same height as Zion, is jacked out of his mind, and is only listed at 272 pounds.)

If you don’t have thoughts about Zion now, you will have thoughts about him soon, because the media coverage will become so exhaustive that it’ll be impossible to avoid. So buckle up now, America. The college basketball season doesn’t start for another 10 weeks, but the era of Zion has already begun. And with that, it’s time to dust off a meme that has been sitting in a corner of my attic for far too long: Duke is BACK.