Zion Williamson is going to Duke. And with that, Mike Krzyzewski has completed the greatest recruiting class in college basketball’s modern era.
Duke already had commitments from R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish. With the addition of Williamson, the Blue Devils now have the consensus top three recruits in the class of 2018 heading to campus. It’s the first time players ranked No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 have all committed to the same school since the RSCI — Recruiting Services Consensus Index — debuted in 1998.
Clemson was thought to be the front-runner late in Williamson’s recruitment. In hindsight, it seems foolish to ever bet against Coach K on the recruiting trail. Duke landed the No. 1 player in 2017 (Marvin Bagley III), two of the top four players in 2016 (Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum), the No. 4 player in 2015 (Brandon Ingram) and the top player (Jahlil Okafor) in 2014. Duke has officially surpassed Kentucky as the program most likely to land the very best high-school players in the world.
How did Duke shock college basketball and come away with Williamson? Here’s what he said after putting on the Blue Devils cap:
“Coach K, he came to all of us and he said just that word ‘brotherhood’ is just a very powerful word. He came to us and said if we all can come together, all three of us bring our own talents and our own uniqueness to the table, I feel like all of us together, also with the point guard of Tre Jones, I felt like we can all do something special at Duke University.”
We ranked Duke as the best on-court fit for Williamson before his decision. This is why Durham makes the most sense for him.
Opportunity and fit in the frontcourt
Bagley is going to be a top-five pick in June’s draft. Wendell Carter Jr. should be a lottery pick, too. That meant Duke needed to replace its starting frontcourt for next season. There’s no one better to fill that void than Williamson.
Since Coach K took over USA Basketball ahead of the 2008 Olympics, he’s embraced small ball in full force. Williamson looks like an ideal match for his system as either a power forward or a center. At 6’6 and 275 pounds, he’s an explosive leaper and inside scorer who also profiles as a tenacious rebounder and shot blocker.
Hoping we see a fair amount of Zion Williamson at the 5 at Duke. Perfect collegiate small-ball center. Use him as a lob-catcher, diver, short roll driver/passer, let him grab and go in transition, switch everything with him defensively. Should make for entertaining hoops.— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) January 21, 2018
Duke will either be able to play him with a traditional big man like Javin DeLaurier or go small with Williamson at center surrounded by shooting.
The Duke offense has ranked no lower than No. 8 in efficiency every season since 2009, according to KenPom. Williamson is going to get every opportunity to put up big numbers from the jump.
The right match with R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish
Williamson doesn’t need the ball in his hands to have a major impact on the offense. His greatest value will come as a cutter, screen setter, rebounder, and transition threat. That makes him a great fit alongside Duke’s other two super recruits — R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.
Barrett is going to have the ball in his hands a lot. All he did at the FIBA U19 World Cup was lead Canada to a gold medal by upsetting John Calipari’s USA team with a 38-point performance in the semifinals. At 6’7, Barrett is a point-forward type who could form a devastating pick-and-roll combination with Williamson.
Reddish makes this alignment even more intriguing. He’s the rare high-school star who can already thrive on or off the ball, combining dribble-pull-up scoring ability and proficiency as a spot-up shooter. As long as Reddish’s three ball lives up to the hype, Duke should have a properly spaced floor for Williamson and Barrett to go to work in.
It’s worth noting that Duke also has point guard Tre Jones — younger brother of Blue Devils legend Tyus Jones — coming in. He’s merely the No. 10 overall recruit in the 2018 class, per ESPN. He’s a natural facilitator and capable shooter who should do well getting Duke’s biggest stars involved.
Duke knows how to produce top NBA draft picks
Duke has had a top-three pick in the last four NBA drafts. That trend will possibly continue for a fifth straight year depending on where Bagley gets drafted. For as tempting as the local fit with Clemson was for a Spartanburg, S.C. native like Williamson, there’s just no comparing a program like Clemson with one like Duke.
In ESPN’s early 2019 mock draft, Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish were projected to go in the top four picks. Will that hold with all three players on the same team? Will they be able to play a team-friendly brand of basketball when each player has such lofty ambitions as a one-and-done?
Unselfishness will be the biggest key for Duke next season right after trying to finally figure out its defense. College basketball has never seen a team with three freshmen this talented all on the same team. You can already pencil Duke in as No. 1 in the preseason polls next season. The entire sport will be waiting to see if these stars can actually play together.
Williamson’s penchant for highlight-reel dunks was going to make him a college basketball sensation no matter where he chose to play. Now that he’s teamed up with Reddish and Barrett, Duke is on the verge of one of the most fascinating experiments the sport has ever seen.