There are some things that are certain in life: death, taxes, and Duke basketball being a serious title contender.
Duke’s Basketball team this year has arguably the best recruiting class of all time. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish are all five star recruits and are more than capable of bringing a title to Durham. These are first year basketball players, but their skill levels are that of NBA pros. Pair these “freshmen” with four-star knockdown shooter Joey Baker, and Duke is on track for yet another incredible season.
But don’t count your chickens before they hatch; Duke is infamous for early tournament chokes with the best of teams, and even with head coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm who’s to say history won’t repeat itself.
Though coming up short of a title is a possibility, the chances of that happening this coming year are seemingly lower than usual. To avoid a truncated season, Duke must overcome the extreme inexperience their roster possesses; Duke needs its one-and-dones to be quick learners and, assuming the elite coaching continues, any issues that arise come tournament time go straight out the window.
An “x” factor will determine how great this Duke team is. That player is *drum roll please* RJ Barrett.
No, it is not the six-foot-seven, 285 wrecking ball-of-a-man named Zion Williamson; his success on the court is mostly dependent on RJ’s playmaking. Zion can create his own shots, but he will be able to play at his utmost potential when RJ is hitting.
If RJ is on, the floor will be spaced (especially when Joey Baker is playing) leaving lanes for Zion to attack. On top of that, the two run a terrifying pick-and-roll, and RJ’s elite passing means back door alley oop galore for Williamson. But there is something Zion needs to do better if Duke wants to give themselves the best shot at a natty title.
Zion brings a variation of the “LeBron James effect” to the court when he plays. Before you lose it, no, Zion is not LeBron, but many parallels can be drawn between their play styles. Zion has the ability to collapse an entire defensive set by driving or posting up solely because of his physicality – like LeBron.
When LeBron collapses a defense, he fully utilizes the passing lanes this collapse brings which allows for his teammates to get easy layups and spot-up jumpers. Zion must mirror this aspect of LeBron’s game and integrate it into his own so the plethora of shooters Duke has can do what they do best: score. If Krzyzewski can follow and enforce this formula, Duke will steamroll March Madness.
Worst comes to worst, RJ takes the ball to the rack and the defense collapses and closes off the paint, leaving Zion open on the perimeter. Coach Krzyzewski will live with an occasional Zion three pointer.
The fact of the matter is nobody in the country can guard Zion in transition or when he is attacking the basket. These are the facts of the matter: Zion can create his own shots but is much more effective in space – this space can be created by RJ or Jones; Zion can take anyone in the country to the rack but when extra defensive help comes, RJ needs to be ready to show out and Zion needs to be ready to pass; lastly, and perhaps most shocking, Zion can kind-of shoot (extreme emphasis on “kind-of”).
If, by the grace of God, Zion is going four-of-five or five-of-five from downtown, then there is no team in the country that can stop Duke. Zion can get past any defender if they step out to cover him and RJ will have a huge scoring load taken off his shoulders – which brings me to my next point.
Cameron Reddish is another offensive contributor to this already stacked roster; a knockdown shooter who has unbelievable post moves, and with the ability to finish at the rim better than most his age, Reddish is utterly incredible. He is only 18 and is already standing at 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan – not to mention he averaged 23 points per game in the Nike Elite Youth League.
To recap, Duke has is an eerily similar player to Lebron James in Zion Williamson, an unstoppable triple threat in RJ Barrett, an NBA ready third option in Cameron Reddish, and, to top it all off, one of the best point guards in the nation: Tre Jones.
These high school superstars are under the helm of the best college basketball coach in history and should make for another season of Duke hanging around the one to five seed if, and only if, the moment isn’t too big for the one-and-dones.
If they don’t rise to the occasion, it will be a disappointing conclusion to one of the most hyped collegiate teams ever assembled. If they do though, then sorry Duke haters, you will definitely hate them even more after this season is all said and done.