Humility sometimes needs to be forced on people. For the Duke Blue Devils, a college basketball team filled with future NBA players, a reminder of who each individual member of the team truly is could be considered a necessity. Thanks to Zion Williamson being out with an injury, that’s exactly what’s happening.
On the surface, of course it’s insane to say Duke is better off without the pillar of the team. Williamson brings more to the Blue Devils than highlight dunks, as he’s been the foundation of their defense, as well as a key cog in an offense largely centered around three players.
Without him, the other members of The Duke Collective are being exposed. Politely reminded it’s not so much a four-headed beast in Durham, but a centerpiece-driven roster with high quality fragmented parts trotting alongside an other-worldly god.
That’s not to undercut just how special RJ Barrett happens to be. He is, while often too much a volume-shooter, an excellent second star to Williamson’s megaton appeal and skill. Nor does it diminish the usefulness of Tre Jones; the streaky yet sporadic stellar play of Cam Reddish; or the other variables; though inconsistencies, hovering around Coach K’s lauded program.
It does, however, eliminate all notions that could have been slipping within the subconsciousness of Williamson’s teammates. After all, basketball players tend to have alpha mindsets. It would be natural for some, if not all of the Duke players to wonder how good they — the individual — could be if given a larger role in Zion’s absence.
The answer? About as mixed, with some excellent positives sprinkled in, as it was when Zion Williamson was healthy for the Duke Blue Devils.
On the season, Reddish has fewer 20-point games (six) than he has outings in which he’s scored in single-digits (nine). In the games without Williamson, he’s shown the same flashes he’s often showcased in glimpses, averaging 17.0 points per (counting the UNC game), but still only made 10 of his 32 attempts from beyond the arc.
Reddish, a talent seemingly born to play an alpha-only role next to no one’s second (or third), is a marvelous player with an absolute bleep-ton of talent coursing through his body. He’s not, unfortunately, a player Duke can regularly rely upon to hold down the scoring fort as a No. 1 or 2 option. He’s doing well while operating as Barrett’s No. 2, but the larger sample still suggests this four-game streak will eventually revert to his average means. An overall positive run for Reddish; though the Syracuse game is alarming.
As for Barrett, he is who everyone thought he’d be. A volume-shooting, wonky jumper looking talent who can finish at the rim through contact with the best of them. Sometimes he’ll shoot above his work-in-progress jumper, but his 32 percent shooting mark from distance is that for a reason. He’s not yet equipped to be regularly making 40-ish percent of his 6.2 3-point attempts per game.
Like Reddish, Barrett has excelled — at least in terms of counting-stats, much like Reddish — since Williamson’s shoe exploded underneath his weight. Still counting the North Carolina debacle, he’s averaging just under 26 points per game while adding 8.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. A line of 26-8-6 is National Player of the Year worthy.
When removing terms relative to NBA Draft discussions from experiencing his game, he’s easily recognizable as one of the best players in the nation.
This is Duke’s second best player. He already was a 23-7-4 guy before the Blue Devils lost Williamson. Forever a high usage-rate guy, even if losing the most efficient and actual best player on Duke, there was always only so much more Barrett could do. He’s nearly the same player with or without Zion. Naturally, he wants to do so much more, but he’s already been doing almost all of it as it was.
Honestly, asking more out of Barrett would be similar to hoping your wonderfully working television would begin to also bake cookies. A nice thought, for sure, but a bit unrealistic.
The (rich man’s) issue here was never going to be just how Barrett and Reddish would be in a world without Williamson. People had a rough idea of what to expect. It’s the after concerns… featuring Tre Jones.
Jones is important to Duke. A key player if only because he’s a pass-first point guard who defends. As it turns out, this had as much to do with his limitations as it was by purposed design. In the same four games in which the other key Duke Blue Devils players have attempted to step up, and mostly have, Jones’ offense is stagnant.
He’s averaging 7.3 points per game (under his season average) while making a woeful nine of his 38 field goal attempts and a mere three of his 18 attempts from distance. Unlike his freshmen brethren, it appears as though Jones’ offense is far more reliant upon a full and healthy Duke squad.
Teams were already sagging off him in attempts to muck up Duke’s flow, but now that opponents recognize Jones isn’t a threat regardless where in the Duke offensive options pecking order he is slotted, pick-and-roll situations involving the freshman will have a decreased impact. For all the swell he brings to the table, he is a weak link on offense.
And still, this remains a positive… provided Zion Williamson returns in full health for the Duke Blue Devils come the NCAA Tournament.
In the four games without Zion, Duke is 2-2 (and yes, we’re counting the North Carolina game). It could serve as the gentle reminder to RJ Barrett that, while he’s excellent, there’s probably a reason people favor Zion over him.
It’s to nudge Reddish into remaining aggressive on offense, hopefully helping him realize that even if he’s off, his value is in attempting to be active on both sides of the floor. To have an alpha mindset while playing Spiderman to Zion’s Iron Man and RJ Barrett’s Captain
For Jones, it’s less overall solid news than it is knowing his limitations, although the with-and-with Zion samples suggest he always had.
All if which finally brings us to Mike Krzyzewski. A Hall of Fame coach who has admitted Duke is vastly different without Williamson — a sentiment that can be felt without it being spoken into existence. Nevertheless, it should still make one ponder what his plan is for the Blue Devils as Williamson remains listed as day-to-day. Can/will he adjust or is Coach K holding out hope a few games will be the season’s outlier right before the return of his superstar freshman?
One of the best coaches of all-time or not, at some point someone might want to ask what Coach K can or can’t/will or won’t do with a roster that would still have three first-rounders on it if Williamson doesn’t return. The cupboard wouldn’t exactly be empty.
Alas, coaches talk about teachable moments to the point of nausea. Krzyzewski now has his, and it’s not even a difficult one. He just needs to point and say, “This is who we always were. Recognize this when Zion returns and don’t try to be something you’re not.”
If Williamson doesn’t return, then it’s up to Krzyzewski to live up to his deserved reputation. Then a new, more polarizing conversation certainly worth having would happen.
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