DURHAM, N.C. — One star-studded freshman class has left Duke for the NBA. Another has come in right behind them.
A national title once again is a realistic goal for the latest crop of blue-chip Blue Devils who seem to fit into neatly defined roles.
Tre Jones looks capable of running the show at point guard. Guard R.J. Barrett has the all-around game that made him the nation’s No. 1 recruit. Swingman Cam Reddish has the versatility to play four positions. Zion Williamson, at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, is capable of playing both big and small — and delivering highlight-reel dunks.
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“The ultimate goal is a national championship, and as you can see, the teams that win a national championship have great chemistry with one another,” Williamson said Monday. “They know where the ball needs to be, whose hands the ball needs to be in at what times, and they have fun with it. That’s what we’re building towards.”
A beaming Coach Mike Krzyzewski said his starting lineup for now would include those four freshmen plus one of two returners — either Javin Delaurier or Marques Bolden — and plans to have them running the five-out motion offense, the system run by the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, among other high-scoring teams.
Krzyzewski, who has reason to smile, said his players “are great movement guys — if they’re making great reads, then other guys are open “because other guys are going to react to them. … Another guy’s going to have a better shot, and ultimately that’s what the five-out motion does for these teams. … They take on their own character by the characters that they have playing it.”
🏀🔵👿 Skill Development:
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2. Personalized plan.
3. Get in the gym.
4. Get better. pic.twitter.com/FQi1MO2iHv
— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) October 12, 2018
Barrett said the freshmen and the returners “can play positionless basketball.”
“We’re really long and athletic, so it’s going to be hard for teams to score on us,” Barrett added. “On offense, we have three guys, four guys that can just get by anybody at all times. And we have a lot of shooters, so it’s going to look good for us.”
Of course, this isn’t the first highly recruiting class to come to Duke thinking that way. Nor is it a new phenomenon for Duke to have a freshman-packed roster, with 14 of the 16 one-and-dones in program history passing through since 2011.
The Blue Devils won the 2015 national title behind point guard Tyus Jones — Tre’s older brother — along with Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor. But two years after that, Duke had three more one-year players — including Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles III — but flamed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Last year’s group bore a closer resemblance to 2015, finishing a rimmed-out shot from the Final Four and losing to Kansas in a regional final. Krzyzewski is replacing the entire starting lineup from that group, four one-and-done freshmen — Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval — plus program stalwart Grayson Allen.
— Duke Basketball (@DukeMBB) October 13, 2018
“All we can take away from them is the advice they give us about how it is, being a freshman at Duke, and the environments we’re going to be in,” Williamson said.
What the Hall of Fame coach wants from his current players is to communicate more effectively — especially on defense, where calling out screens and barking out quick instructions is vital. That was enough of a problem last season that Krzyzewski scrapped his beloved man-to-man defense in favor of a zone.
“It’s kind of a nebulous thing to talk about. It’s not an easy thing,” Krzyzewski said. “The communication aspect has always been very critical for the success of our team, and it’s actually why we had to change from man to zone last year, because we were never able to conquer the communication thing that man was needed. … It almost worked to win the whole thing.”