The Duke Blue Devils wrapped up a three-game preseason tour in Canada on Sunday, offering scouts and fans their first look at one of the most highly-anticipated college teams in recent memory. While presumptive rotational mainstays Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones sat out, fellow freshmen R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson capably shouldered the load in wins over Ryerson University, the University of Toronto and McGill University.
Barrett averaged 31 points, six rebounds and five assists through three games, Williamson averaged 30, 11 and three and Duke predictably had its way each time. It’s certainly not worth getting hung up on stats, but there were some definite takeaways from watching their star prospects dominate in this setting.
1. Will we get Duke fatigue? We are almost definitely going to get tired of hearing about Duke this season, but probably won’t get tired of watching them. While the opposition in Canada wasn’t exactly ACC-caliber and it’s still August, it’s obvious that this Blue Devils team will end up looking somewhat antithetical to last year’s group, which relied on a 2–3 zone for defensive stability and chose to play a bit slower. Having Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter to clean up mistakes and a strong perimeter scorer in Grayson Allen allowed them to win that way. Expect this Duke team to play fast and offer freedom to its many playmakers: this is a team that could legitimately mess around with a “positionless,” fluid style on both ends.
Given the absence of Jones (who is a traditional point guard) and Reddish (whose preferred role is point forward), Duke tasked Barrett with primary ballhandling duties and also gave Williamson the freedom to grab defensive rebounds and push. Both players specialize in putting pressure on the rim, and their respective degrees of strength and athleticism will be difficult to deal with on the move no matter who Duke is playing against this season.
There’s still a chance that when Reddish comes back there could be a too-many-cooks situation, but an emphasis on free-flowing, open-court play will fit the roster’s strengths and also help ensure that all three of the star players get ample scoring opportunities. Simply watching Barrett and Williamson terrorize defenses in that manner at the same time was a positive indicator.
2. The Zion Williamson hot takes aren't slowing down. Brace yourself for the flood of Zion Williamson hot takes that are sure to fly from October through the draft, but also consider the distinct possibility that he lives up to his billing. Lost in all the guffawing over Williamson’s viral highlights and unprecedented level of Internet cachet is the fact that he’s a much more well-rounded player than he’s generally gotten credit for.
He’s a willing passer with a good sense of the floor and handles it well enough to get where he needs to go (then consider that all he really needs is a small amount of interior space to get airborne and finish, once he has a head of steam). His effort on the glass was commendable, and his size and explosiveness let him rise around taller players to corral tough rebounds.
Williamson’s athletic package, of course, is like none we’ve ever really seen, and more impressively, it’s functional within the context of his game. He’s one of the most unstoppable teenage transition players you’ll ever see, and it’s more remarkable considering the fact that he falls on the younger spectrum relative to the rest of this year’s draft class, turning 18 last month.
While a spotty-looking jump shot will make Williamson’s life a bit more difficult, particularly away from the ball, Duke would be smart to make him a threat along the baseline once Reddish and Jones return to help with distribution duties. You worry a bit about him staying healthy given the substantial amount of force applied to his knees every time he lands, but his body should only improve as he matures.
It’s still not totally clear what his positional profile will be long-term, but Williamson but Williamson is also such a physical outlier that it may not matter as much. Regardless, he’s astonishing to watch, and seems bound to become a divisive point of conversation among scouts by the time this season gets underway. And while it’s tough to discern this early and on a team this loaded, there’s likely to be a case for him as Duke’s best player, pound for pound.
3. Assessing R.J. Barrett's skillset. R.J. Barrett makes for an interesting foil to Williamson as a more traditional, perimeter-oriented wing prospect. The Toronto native drew a crowd, consistently played hard and put up dominant numbers despite not playing his best all-around basketball (which says more about how good he can be when everything is working).
Barrett looks like he’s already in outstanding shape and has begun to pop even more as an athlete, getting downhill decisively and having his way around the basket more often than not. He’s an aggressive slasher with the ball, and quick and strong enough to defend both bigger and smaller opponents. Barrett is in the early mix but certainly not a lock to go first overall, as the top pack of players in a wing-heavy group (including Reddish, Williamson, Nassir Little and Sekou Doumbouya) have yet to separate themselves.
Skill diversity is an important showing point for Barrett this season, and he was functional playing point guard on this trip. He’ll make the appropriate dump-off passes and reads, but isn’t as instinctual a playmaker as Reddish or even Williamson and stands to slow the game down a touch at times. He’s already a mature player, and the decision-making component should improve.
Like Williamson, his jumper mechanics looks a bit messy right now, but Barrett can also hit when he’s open and certainly isn’t a total zero from outside. Though he’s sometimes a bit more emotional and reactive than you’d like when the game doesn’t go his way, Barrett’s level of intensity on the court was impressive. If he and Williamson can be the tone-setters, this is a team capable of beating anybody.
4. Duke's hidden gem. Javin DeLaurier hasn’t received a ton of love as a prospect quite yet, but Duke’s athletic sophomore center might be the perfect piece to anchor this team defensively, and will at the very least warrant more serious treatment from an NBA perspective than he did spelling Bagley and Carter last year. He’s long, tall and impressive moving laterally. Though he’s a bit limited offensively, he could have a Jordan Bell-like impact on this team and grow into a similar type of prospect at a substantial 6’10”. Keep an eye on his development this season.
5. The Cam Reddish wait. I’m still itching to see Reddish take the floor (he missed all three games with a groin strain), and after repeat viewings as a high school prospect, I personally think he might be the most gifted player in the draft from a pure basketball talent standpoint. Duke’s presumptive wide-open style of play should really benefit him in particular and allow him to showcase his passing skills.
While many scouts were a bit down on him in the spring due to concerns over effort and a laid-back style, Reddish should be considered a candidate for the top pick. When he’s fully engaged, he’s a jaw-dropping player to watch, and Duke will need to get him there to max out the rest of the roster.