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It’s Now or Never for Duke’s Other Stars

The Blue Devils are national title favorites, but outside of Zion, the team’s all-time recruiting class hasn’t quite lived up to its billing. R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish have the tools to thrive in a Zion-centric system. They just need to accept it—and all it entails.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Duke wasn’t supposed to be the Zion Williamson show. He was one-third of one of the greatest recruiting hauls of all time. R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish were ranked ahead of Williamson in high school. Playing on a bigger stage has made Zion one of the biggest stars in sports, but it has only highlighted the flaws of his teammates. The Blue Devils aren’t a superteam. They are a flawed team with one superstar and question marks around him. Their opponents in the NCAA tournament will try to make someone other than Zion beat them. Duke won’t need Barrett and Reddish to be stars—it just needs its two other future lottery picks to play within themselves, knock down open shots, and lock in on defense. It could be a preview of their ideal roles at the next level.

Zion was unreal in the ACC tournament. He averaged 27.0 points on 76.7 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks in three games, despite missing the previous six regular-season games with an MCL sprain. He tore through three different types of teams: Syracuse uses a 2-3 zone; North Carolina plays at one of the fastest paces in the country; Florida State has elite athletes at every position and anchors its defense with a 7-foot-4, 260-pound center. None of it mattered. There is no way for anyone at the NCAA level to slow down Zion once he gets a head of steam going to the basket, or to prevent him from carving out space in the post and powering through multiple defenders.

Duke was still vulnerable, though. The Blue Devils squeaked by UNC with a 74-73 win in the semifinals. The box score looked like the one from their only loss at full strength this season: an 89-87 defeat to Gonzaga at the championship of the Maui Invitational in November. Reddish was largely absent in both games, playing an average of 25 minutes while struggling with foul trouble. Barrett was all too present, dominating the ball and repeatedly forcing up bad shots, averaging 19 points on 35 percent shooting. It was every problem the two have had as freshmen condensed into two 40-minute chunks. The Blue Devils don’t have the depth to make up for Barrett and Reddish playing like the worst versions of themselves.

Duke has several flaws that could rear their heads over the next few weeks. The biggest is their lack of shooting: The Blue Devils are no. 340 in the country in 3-point percentage (30.2). Barrett (30.4 percent from 3 on 6.4 attempts per game) and Reddish (32.7 percent on 7.6 attempts) have been hit-or-miss from deep all season, and they don’t get much help from their supporting cast. Freshman point guard Tre Jones is a reluctant shooter, while a knee injury to junior center Marques Bolden, who just returned to practice on Tuesday, has forced an even more limited big man (junior Javin DeLaurier) into the starting lineup. The Blue Devils are painfully thin. There is no one off their bench whom Coach K seems to trust. He played sophomore guard Jordan Goldwire 28 minutes against the Tar Heels, nearly a tenth of his total (262) all season.

Barrett, for all his gaudy stats, creates as many problems as he solves. His impressive season averages (22.9 points on 45.7 percent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game) are deceiving. He is not a good decision-maker for a player who dominates the ball, and he is not efficient enough (a true shooting percentage of 53.3) to justify his astronomical usage rate (32.5). Barrett is a capable passer who spends too much time playing with blinders on. He will hijack the offense, driving into the lane without a plan beyond trying to shoot over two or three defenders. His size (6-foot-7 and 202 pounds) and athleticism can’t always bail him out, especially against elite competition. That will be an even bigger issue for him in the NBA.

There are a couple of red flags when projecting him to the next level. He’s a poor outside shooter whose free throw shooting numbers (66.2 percent on 5.9 attempts per game) indicate he will have a hard time extending his range to the deeper NBA 3-point line. Barrett will have to be a primary option on offense to be effective, because defenses will leave him open on the perimeter when he doesn’t have the ball. He is a shoot-first player who NBA teams will hope to mold into a point forward, but it’d be a lengthy developmental process that could get his coach and GM fired. He averages nearly as many turnovers (3.2 per game) as assists (4.1), and his willingness to take any and every shot available to him limits his efficiency. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he is in only the 47th percentile of players nationwide when scoring around the rim.

Reddish has been even worse, averaging 13.7 points on 35.4 percent shooting, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. He alternates between disappearing for huge stretches of games and cramming a whole game’s worth of bad decisions into a few possessions. The concern coming into the season was that he would be forced into a smaller role than his talent would merit, maybe as a spot-up shooter. But Reddish has gotten plenty of opportunities: He is averaging almost as many field goal attempts per game (12.3) as Zion (12.5), with a huge usage rate (26.5) for a third option. The problem is how little he has done with them.

The idea of Reddish is more attractive than the reality. He fits the profile of what NBA teams want in a wing: He has the size (6-foot-8 and 218 pounds) to slide between multiple positions on defense and an effortless shooting stroke. The shooting is still fairly theoretical at this point, though: He is shooting 39.7 percent from 2-point range on 4.7 attempts per game, and 75.9 percent from the free throw line on 3.3 attempts per game. Reddish has the statistical profile of an average shooter, and he doesn’t do anything else particularly well. He is averaging almost 1.5 times more turnovers per game (2.8) than assists (1.9). A Reddish drive is as likely to end with an offensive foul as a successful finish around the rim. It will not be easy for him to earn the trust of an NBA coach.

Opposing defenses want Barrett and Reddish to shoot instead of Zion. The three are barely playing the same sport. Zion has a true shooting percentage of 71.1, compared to 53.3 for Barrett and 48.1 for Reddish. The game plan to upset Duke is to pack the paint and dare the Blue Devils perimeter players to shoot them out of it. The key for Barrett and Reddish will be to play under control. There is no need to take contested shots or try to drive through traffic when they are playing with one of the most unstoppable forces in NCAA history. All they have to do is take care of the ball, ensuring that Zion touches it on most possessions, and then play off of him, knocking down open shots and making the next pass when the defense rotates.

What the two do on defense will be even more important. Duke has a better defense (no. 8 in the country) than offense (no. 21) this season, and getting stops and turning over its opponents allows the team to get out in transition. A faster game fits the Blue Devils’ strengths: their athleticism makes them impossible to guard in the open court, where their lack of shooting is less of an issue. Coach K will probably have to go small at some point in the tournament to speed up the tempo and open up the paint for Zion. They closed the UNC game by playing two point guards (Jones and Goldwire) next to their big three, which puts pressure on Reddish and Barrett to defend. The two will need to be fully engaged as on- and off-ball defenders, something that hasn’t always happened this season.

Talent is not the issue for either—they just need to be more fundamentally sound. That would do wonders for them at the next level. A version of Barrett that knocks down spot-up 3s and plays with more discipline could be a secondary scorer in the NBA who can also run the offense as a 6-foot-7 point forward. A version of Reddish that moves the ball and reads the floor when attacking close-outs would be an excellent stretch 4 in the smaller and faster NBA. If they rounded out their games and embraced those types of roles, they would be much better complementary options than Barrett and Reddish actually have been for Zion.

A player as dominant as Zion can warp the perception of his NCAA teammates. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would probably not have gone at no. 2 overall in 2012 if he hadn’t played next to Anthony Davis. Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles might not have gone in the lottery in 2015 if they hadn’t played next to Karl-Anthony Towns. The only other player from either team who has done much in the NBA is Devin Booker, and he was a shooting specialist who came off the Kentucky bench in 2015. Barrett and Reddish still have a lot to prove. Duke already knows what it’s getting from Zion. Whether or not the Blue Devils win the title this season will depend on his teammates.