Duke freshman RJ Barrett is the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and a top preseason candidate to win national player of the year. The do-everything left-hander and his top-shelf freshman teammates have given coach Mike Krzyzewski arguable his most esteemed recruiting class ever. With that, Duke has expectations to win a sixth national championship despite losing its top five scorers and most of the roster from 2017-18.
“I knew most of that when I made the decision to come here,” says Barrett, the consensus top freshman in the class of 2018. “Duke as a program speaks for itself. Coach K is the greatest coach of all time. The (talent) that was coming here was the main reason I came.”
In spite of all the hype from the influx of talent in Durham, Barrett knows one certainty: “Nothing is guaranteed here.”
Associate head coach Jon Scheyer, who was elevated to Krzyzewski’s top assistant when Jeff Capel left for the head job at Pittsburgh this offseason, agrees with the star freshman.
“We know talent alone won’t win games. We haven’t done anything yet,” Scheyer says. “Just because people are ranked so high doesn’t mean it translates to championships.
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Expectations aside, the rankings are impossible to ignore considering Barrett is joined by No. 2 and No. 3 recruits Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish (respectively, per ESPN).
It’s the first time a top three chose one program in the one-and-done era.
“Those three are as versatile and exciting as they come,” Scheyer says.
The three range between 6-6 and 6-7, with each offering a different offensive strength in conjunction with the length to guard multiple positions. Barrett figures to rotate between shooting guard and small forward while creating for his teammates with the ball in his hands often. Reddish is another smooth-scoring wing who can facilitate and show takeover abilities. And Williamson, who will likely take on more of a power forward role, has jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism that likely will lead to a bulk of highlight-reel dunks throughout 2018-19.
“What they give us, more than anything,” Scheyer says, “is the opportunity to really play positionless basketball.”
That trio is complemented by another versatile freshman in Joey Baker, a 6-7 off-the-ball sharpshooter who reclassified to come to Duke a year early. And perhaps the most intriguing freshman is five-star point guard Tre Jones, the brother of 2015’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player Tyus Jones on Duke’s last national championship team.
“I don’t think age makes much of a difference with this team,” Reddish says of freshmen seeing a majority of time this season. “Everybody’s unselfish, and our coaching staff is going to help us (mature) fast. The older guys have been great bringing us up to speed.”
While Duke has some veteran presence, namely junior big men Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier, no returning player averaged more than 4 points or 13 minutes per game.
“As a whole, we have great size at every position,” Scheyer says. “It makes it exciting and unique. But we still have to figure out our identity.”
Bolstering that maturity factor will be Barrett’s international experience. The 18-year-old Canadian spearheaded his national team to a FIBA Under-19 World Cup championship over the United States as the tournament’s MVP last summer. In that title game he had 38 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists.
“My international experience has given me a feel for the game other freshmen and college players don’t have,” Barrett says. “I plan to take that to make my teammates better.”
Krzyzewski, the NCAA’s winningest coach, will turn 72 in February. Barrett says while he and his teammates might have only one season in Durham, North Carolina, getting their coach another national title is an obvious goal. “Why wouldn’t it be?” he says.
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