It’s rare you can say that one of the most high-profile recruits in the history of high school basketball pulls off a “shocking” commitment, but that’s exactly what we got Saturday, when Zion Williamson announced he’d go to Duke next season. In a world where every top high school kid’s recruitment is analyzed and over-analyzed, Zion’s somehow flew under the radar. Virtually everyone assumed that he’d pick Clemson, with a lot of late buzz surrounding Kentucky, South Carolina and North Carolina. Virtually no one had Duke even in the mix (considering they already had two elite wing players committed for this class). Only there Zion was on Saturday night, pulling out a Duke hat on national TV.
So Williamson is now officially a Blue Devil, and everyone has spent the last 36 hours discussing what’s “next.” In many corners (mostly in Kentucky) the conversation has focused on how Coach K has officially passed John Calipari as college basketball’s new “one and done” savant. Nationally, the narrative is equally as interesting, where it seems like just about everyone is ready to throw up their hands, say “Why even bother playing next season” and hand Duke the 2018-2019 national championship.
But while the arrival of America’s top three recruits overall (R.J. Barrett, Williamson and Cam Reddish) and four of the Top 10 (including point guard Tre Jones into the mix) certainly makes Duke the most compelling team entering 2018-2019, in at least one writer’s opinion (this guy’s right here) it hardly guarantees Duke a national championship. Frankly, I’m not even totally sure they should be ranked No. 1 in the country to start next season.
It might sound crazy, but let’s start with the idea that the Blue Devils are the overwhelming, unquestioned favorite to win the national championship. In terms of where Vegas will peg them, that’s probably the case. Duke is already a public favorite in Vegas (like most blue-bloods are) and when you add in so much high-profile talent (and the media attention that will come with it) it seems like a no-doubter that they will be a very public favorite to win the title. But there’s a big difference between what the bettors think and what reality is. And that’s where things get interesting.
Simply looking at the roster Duke will likely run out on opening night (ironically against Kentucky) there will be plenty of questions. Starting with this year’s roster, it feels certain that at least three of the Blue Devils’ highly-touted freshmen (Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter and Trevon Duval) will be gone after this year. Grayson Allen will graduate too, leaving four open spots in the starting lineup, and it shouldn’t shock anyone if Duke’s fifth starter, guard Gary Trent Jr. goes pro as well. Trent isn’t projected nearly as high as his other freshmen teammates, but Trent has to realistically look at next year’s recruiting class and wonder if he’d be better off leaving this year, with the very realistic possibility that if he comes back his shots and minutes will go down with so many star freshmen in the mix. It’s not all that different than what happened last year in Durham with point guard Frank Jackson. A fringe first rounder, Jackson took his chance in the pros, rather than returning to Duke and having to compete with Duval for minutes in this year’s starting lineup.
So in all likelihood Duke will lose its starting five, and even if you assume no one else leaves (which isn’t a certainty. Remember, Marques Bolden nearly transferred after last season), what are you left with? You’re basically left with a lineup where it’s almost certain that four freshmen will start, with one upperclassmen (either Bolden or sophomore-to-be Javin DeLaurier) taking the fifth spot in the lineup. Assuming there are no more major recruiting wins for Duke going forward (they’re only actively pursuing another player or two in this class) it means that the bench will once again be thin, with either Bolden or DeLaurier and current freshman Alex O’Connell as the only key players outside the starting lineup.
So when you breakdown the 2018-2019 Blue Devils, what you get is – again - a team with four highly-touted freshmen and one upperclassman in the starting lineup. Well kids, what does that sound like? Umm, actually it sounds a lot like this year’s team, a club which is really talented, but hardly unbeatable. The current Blue Devils might sport the best starting five in college basketball, but with losses to Boston College and NC State they aren’t invincible either. At this point we’re not even certain they’ll get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Let alone win a title.
And in looking ahead to next year, discussing the Blue Devils as a club with “four freshmen and an upperclassman in the starting lineup” only tells part of the story. What it doesn’t get into is how all those pieces will fit together, something that feels like it should be discussed a bit more at this point. Because while Barrett, Williamson and Reddish are the top three players in this class, they are all more or less the same player. They’re three ball-dominant wings who essentially have to have the offense run through them to be successful. And while figuring out a way to keep them all happy is a “problem” any coach in college basketball would like to have, it is a problem none the less.
Therefore, while everyone wants to compare next year’s Duke team to this current one, or even the one which won the title back in 2015 (when they had three freshmen in the starting lineup), you know who they actually remind me of? Last year’s Duke team.
That’s right, I’m old enough to remember all the way back to the archaic days of the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017, when I was told (non-stop, actually) that Duke had built an unbeatable team, thanks to a loaded recruiting class (Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Bolden, Frank Jackson) that was ready to join forces with a couple seasoned vets (Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard). There was just one problem: Once that team got on the court, everyone quickly realized that the Blue Devils basically had three guys (Tatum, Kennard and Allen) who were... wait for it… three ball-dominant wings who essentially have to have the offense run through them to be successful. While all the talent looked great on paper, once the team took the court, there were issues with floor-spacing and ball-movement from Day 1, which resulted in a wildly disappointing season which ended with a second round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
And while the naysayers would say “Well Duke didn’t have a true point guard last year” I’ve got to ask: Will things really be all that much different next year? Having Tre Jones will help, but he’ll still be a freshman, and he’ll be tasked with keeping those three wing players happy. Even with more of a traditional point guard, it feels like Duke could be facing a lot of the same problems they did last season. The puzzle pieces won’t fit nearly as well next year as they do now.
So when you think about it like that, I just don’t see where the “Duke is unbeatable” sentiment comes in, especially when you consider that there will be no shortage of suitors to challenge them. Outside of one or two players Kentucky could return most of this year’s roster, and the Wildcats will also add in three Top 25 recruits. Kansas will have a bunch of returnees, three high-end transfers and three Top 30 prospects on their way. You know that Michigan State, North Carolina and others will reload like they always do.
Therefore, while it feels like everyone has turned the 2018-2019 season into “Duke vs. the World,” I’m not so sure.
The Blue Devils will be compelling.
But they’ll be far from a lock to win the national championship.
Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”