The Duke Blue Devils will have a trio of talented youngsters trotting about collegiate hardwoods this season. R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cameron Reddish all come to Durham with hype usually reserved for a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Jason Statham as a zombie saving the world by way of eating sharks or something.
Likely something, but let’s not concern ourselves with semantics.
Considering all three players were once projected to play similar positions, as well as the recent history of Wendell Carter’s ceiling being disrupted by philosophy, Duke’s Big Three might be an issue Coach K will have to overcome this season.
Obviously, it is worth mentioning that it is the best kind of issue to have. Heck, there’s honestly no such thing as having too much talent. No one will shed tears over Coach K having to figure out how to utilize three future NBA players at the same time.
If we go one more step, the supposed Wendell Carter issue last season was only that from the prism of NBA Draft stock. The same might apply in this situation. As it is always important to note in these instances, a college coach’s job is to win college basketball games. Often, that comes at the expense of a player’s ceiling and/or skill set.
Coach K isn’t alone having this happen. As an example, just last season another Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo struggled to properly utilize Jaren Jackson Jr. Unlike what happened with Carter and the Blue Devils, it can be argued Izzo’s misuse of Jackson hurt the Spartans. K’s use of Carter, playing sidekick to a high-usage rate player in Marvin Bagley, did not hurt Duke.
Removing the context of the other Duke players is unfair, but focusing on the team’s best three natural talents does unveil a few underlying issues Mike Krzyzewski will have to deal with. The biggest of which might be a simple fix, which circles around the idea of having all three players on the floor at the same time.
This issue largely stems from the idea of Zion Williamson. Not what he actually is, as that remains a relative unknown, but how he will function in practice over theory.
The YouTube sensation is a known elite dunker, but lost in the highlight clip shuffle is that he appears to be an undersized big man who is unable to shoot. Williamson is either an incredibly flawed three or four who can’t stretch the floor.
So, is Williamson best utilized at the three or four? Well…
Not to tell a Hall of Fame coach what he should do, but Williamson might be best utilized at the five. Maybe that goes against what NBA scouts are hoping, as they’d likely prefer to see him in the combo-forward role, and Williamson might be undersized from a height standpoint, but at the collegiate level his bulk and athleticism will more than make up for it.
Draymond Green he is not. Still, there’s little reason to think a dynamic athlete — with the core strength he also features — like Williamson will do anything other than thrive against more stagnant, traditional bigs trotting about the nation.
In turn, this opens up the floor to both Reddish and Barrett — the latter of the two a player who I believe to be a generational talent.
Barrett’s biggest question mark heading into his freshman season revolve around his shooting. When you couple that with Williamson’s supposed lack of a jumper, Duke could face spacing issues. While those worries do remain, they also seem overblown in regards to Barrett, as he’s showcased an improvement in that area over the last 12 months and his stroke projects for consistent development.
With Barrett mostly pegged as a three at 6-foot-7, and Reddish at 6-foot-8 pegged for the same slot, the next issue Coach K has to figure out is what both’s roles are when/if they’re on the floor at the same time with Williamson.
Last season highlighted how Krzyzewski was willing to play two big men at the same time, though Carter and Bagley were not your traditional large members of the human species, with each possessing the ability to spread the floor on offense. The defensive issues did come with Duke featuring the two big men, especially highlighted in the famed Boston College/pick-and-roll game that essentially forced Coach K to go zone the rest of the season.
Nevertheless, it did give us an example of Coach K being open to playing different kinds of lineups. This begs the question to be asked — would he be willing to play Barrett or Reddish at the four (the other at the three), with Williamson at the five, despite having no one in the lineup over 6-foot-9?
It would likely come at the expense of rim deterrence and a higher rebounding ratio, but there’s upside in the intention of being able to switch on all players from the three through five positions.
Without having a sample-size of the three players all on the court together, the above idea clearly falls more into the abstract than the factual counter.
That same caveat can also be dropped on the offensive positives and negatives that come with playing Duke’s Big Three at the same time by bestowing the suggested three-through-five positioning.
If Barrett’s jumper is indeed improved, Williamson’s lack of one is no longer as big an issue. Instead, he can be better employed doing what he projects to do best, which is getting buckets in transition and (mostly) only scoring through the creation of others (here being anyone else on Duke).
In far simpler terms: The Blue Devils might be best off playing the quickest brand of basketball in the Coach K era. Not exactly a Mike D’Antoni ‘seven seconds or less’ style of hoops, but something more closely resembling the Iowa State Cyclones’ system during the Fred Hoiberg era.
Hoiberg’s system was one of the first to echo the position-less basketball that’s become the norm in the modern NBA. It never fully got there, but as highlighted by having larger talents like Georges Niang and Royce White sometimes running the point, there was the legitimate creation of an unorthodox system during that time.
While laughable on the surface to suggest Coach K takes a playbook out of nearly anyone else’s playbook, nevertheless Hoiberg’s, the notion of a Blue Devils lineup without steadfast constructs could be ideal.
After all, there’s no reason for Krzyzewski to limit his rotation’s upside by pigeon holing players to specific parameters.
Joseph Nardone has been covering college basketball for nearly a decade for various outlets in a variety of ways. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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