Duke freshmen blend talent, chemistry

Tight-knit group hopes to avoid drama and mistakes of last year’s team

RJ Barrett is one of four highly touted freshmen Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will rely on to lead the Blue Devils in 2018-19. (Mark Blinch / The Canadian Press via AP, File)

DURHAM — Duke captain Jack White didn’t mean to make it sound like a shot, but sometimes, things can slip into even the most innocent comments.

“These guys,” he said of Duke’s freshman class. “From day one, they’ve been putting themselves out there, buying in to the team, the group, just buying in to our culture. They really just gave it up, focus on winning, and they just want to see the team do well.

“And,” White added, innocently enough, “it’s really refreshing to see that from such a talented group of young guys.”

While White’s intention was clearly to praise the new class of likely one-and-dones that will form the core of this year’s team, the implication was clear: It’s refreshing to see them buying in and focusing on winning, because the talented group of young players that spent a season in Durham last year may not always have done so.

While Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval provided plenty of on-court highlights last year, it wasn’t always comfortable off of it. Carter’s parents complained following the season about the late addition of Bagley to the class forcing their son to play a supporting role. Trent’s father also complained about the way he’d been used, and Duval had a few questionable moments during the season, including his decision to tweet a highlight of him dunking immediately after the team was upset by archrival UNC.

This year, things seem rosier with the Blue Devils. RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones all decided to come to Duke at roughly the same time, so there shouldn’t be any lingering jealousy or baggage.

“It’s what they do,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the chemistry the freshmen have shown. “They’re very personable guys, and they’re good guys. They knew each other before they got here. They didn’t only know each other, but they respected one another. To get a class to be like that, you have to have those qualities, being secure in who you are and the confidence that they have in my staff to know what to do with them. That they would get better together. They’ve communicated almost all of their senior years, and they’ve played against one another.”

Not only do they all get along, but the kids can play a little.

Barrett is a 6-foot-7 do-everything forward who can score, rebound and involve teammates. “RJ’s a winner, and he’s going to find ways to win,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s that positionless player.”

Williamson, also 6-foot-7, is a 285-pound beast underneath with the ability to play on the outside, drive and play above the rim. Williamson even spent a few minutes at point guard in one of Duke’s two exhibition games.

“Zion, when he was little, and I know it’s hard to believe that he was little, he was a point guard,” Krzyzewski said. “He really understands the game, and he’s got a good handle. Putting the ball in his hands is a smart thing to do.”

Reddish, 6-foot-8, rounds out the positionless trio. Like Williamson and Barrett, he was one of the top four recruits in the nation. He’s battled nagging injuries. He sat out Duke’s summer games in Canada with a strained groin and has been slowed, but not sidelined, by a displaced rib fracture and mid-game cramps.

Jones, the No. 13 recruit in the class, is a pure point guard and the younger brother of Tyus Jones, who arrived in 2014 with another closely-knit group of freshmen and ended up leaving after his one year at Duke with a national title in tow.

The quartet combined to score 154 of Duke’s 238 exhibition game points, which is 65 percent. Barrett and Williamson were also the team’s top two rebounders, and Jones dished out 18 assists.

While their offensive skill is evident, Duke’s chances of playing during the season’s final weekend will depend on their willingness to play defense. Last year’s team had to resort to playing zone after several failed attempts to get man-to-man working.

“I love it,” Williamson said. “When we came here, we had a three-hour meeting about the core values. If you really represent the core values, it means diving on the floor, sacrificing your body for your teammates, no matter how much you’re up by or how much you’re down by, always playing hard. (Duke championship teams) all played hard, and they were known for their defense. When teams played them, they knew that they were going to get a great defensive team, so we’re trying to get back to that.”

Which, as some veterans will attest, would be a refreshing change.