Look Ahead — 2019 Newcomers of the Year: RJ, Zion are Duke’s latest standout freshmen

The Blue Devils again have a wealth of young talent, led by Barrett and Williamson

While Duke freshmen RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson have been dominant during the Blue Devils’ 11-1 start, coach Mike Krzyzewski is still preparing them for the rigors of ACC play and beyond. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has been known to critique the performance of his home crowds, giving the Cameron Crazies credit for being particularly energetic following big games and, on occasion, telling them he needs more from them going forward.

Rarer still, however, is for Coach K to comment on Duke fans following a neutral site game.

In his first press conference following a two-point loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational — thus far the only loss of the season for the Blue Devils — Krzyzewski delivered his message to Blue Devil Nation.

“Duke fans,” he said, “just cut it out, man.”

“Let’s get real about this whole thing,” he added. “Let’s not get spoiled. We’ve got four 19-year-old kids there trying to bust their ass trying to learn how to play and have a lot of pressure on them. Let them grow.”

The chiding came in response to the social media outcry following the Maui loss. Down 89-87, Duke got the ball six times in the final minute with a chance to tie or win with a three. Freshman RJ Barrett took five shots, got blocked three times and missed them all. On the final possession, no one else on the floor touched the ball. Barrett finished the game 9-for-25. It was the second time in six games that he’d put up more than two dozen shots and the fifth time he’d failed to shoot 50 percent.

It seemed, to Duke fans, like Barrett may be hogging the ball a bit much, especially considering that Zion Williamson — a unique talent who has been adopted by ESPN as the driver of this season’s basketball coverage, getting more air time on the networks than Dick Vitale — was on the floor beside him.

“These kids aren’t perfect,” Krzyzewski admitted. “My kid wasn’t playing hero ball. He was playing winner’s ball.”

The Hall of Fame coach has said repeatedly, starting before Duke’s summer trip to Canada, that Barrett was a winner, perhaps one of the best he’s had at manifesting that attitude.

It’s not the loss, criticism and response that earned Barrett and Williamson the co-honor of the North State Journal’s 2019 Newcomer(s) of the Year. It’s what’s happened since.

In his next three games, Barrett’s shooting numbers were 9-of-18, 12-of-14 and 10-of-14, setting a season high for shooting accuracy and a season low for shots taken. In the six games ending with Gonzaga, he averaged 21 shots per and a 40.8 percentage. Since then, he’s averaged 18 shots and 53.7.

“I love RJ,” Krzyzewski said. “RJ’s big time. There are just times where you’re not going to be able to score. He was missing some shots that he’d normally make, and they were making him take some shots that were a lot more pressured. It’s a combination, but he had some open looks, but once he was missing, he was I call it a ‘gunny sack’ or taking the misses with you, where you put pressure on yourself to score because you haven’t. And you can’t do that. And that’s what I talked to him about. … We just said ‘Everybody is 0-for-0. Just start off fresh. You’re not allowed to try and make up for missed shots.’”

Williamson, meanwhile, went from shooting 47.2 percent in the three Maui games to a 68.4 percentage in his next three outings.

“After the trip, we’ve done some things to get him the ball more,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s just the evolution of your team.”

After the Maui loss, Krzyzewski’s response to the criticism was initially viewed as an endorsement of Barrett’s style of play. The change since then, however, indicates that his message was a very different one.

Duke fans should “cut it out, man,” because the coaching staff was already working on fixing the problem, and his current crop of freshmen stars have the ability to implement the changes immediately. That’s what will make Duke a contender for the national title and put Barrett and Williamson near the top of Krzyzewski’s long list of one-and-done stars.

“He always likes getting into the lane,” Krzyzewski said of Barrett. “Some people criticize him for getting into the lane too much. I’m fine with it, and I think it’s a matter of getting to know his team better. After Maui, with our entire team, we talked about getting better and sharing the ball and how we can get better defensively, and the guys have done a good job with it.”

So, don’t panic.

“I’ll go to war with my guys,” Krzyzewski said. “We lose, I’ll lose with them.”