Does Duke’s BIG 3 actually make sense?

The better question at this point probably centers on when everyone will get tired of talking about this Duke team, but I digress. We’ve already written about the possibilities in terms of fit between lottery-caliber, ball-dominant freshmen R.J. Barrett (presently No. 1 on our board), Cam Reddish (No. 2) and Zion Williamson (No. 5). It will remain a hot topic until they prove it can work.

That’s not to say it can’t, but establishing a pecking order is generally challenging, and this is not a Blue Devils roster that returns much in the way of experience or talent. There’s also freshman point guard Tre Jones, who will have to be a quick study, but keep in mind that this was not a particularly deep freshman class to begin with. As we’ve seen with some past Duke teams (the Jabari Parker/Rodney Hood/Rasheed Sulaimon squad comes to mind), too many scorers and not enough of everything else can lead to some team-wide issues, regardless of how good your best players are.

Part of the problem is that all three of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are used to having the ball, and another part of it is that all three have yet to display consistency shooting three-pointers in games. Barrett was the highest-rated of the trio by recruiting experts and is generally billed as the alpha dog: he plays with a bit of an edge and won’t hesitate to seek his own shot.

He’s an athletic, score-first wing but is not really known as a ball-mover. Reddish has the best distribution skills and is arguably the most naturally gifted player on the team, but has thus far done little to shake his reputation for turning his effort on and off. It’s a habit that might prevent him from accessing his full potential. And Williamson is a positional enigma, and his ability to play on the interior might be the key to the entire thing, which conveniently brings us to …


There was a small-scale tremor on the internet last week when word trickled out that Duke officially listed Williamson at 6’7” and 285 pounds. This isn’t all that shocking if you’ve seen him in person, but it makes his aerodynamic prowess that much more impressive.

There’s never been a prospect quite like Williamson, with his rare blend of strength and power and an undersold amount of ball skills and feel. The central question is exactly what elements of his game are going to translate, particularly given that he’s a poor jump shooter. He’ll get away with some things at the college level by bullying defenders, but it’s still not clear what role he’ll best fit into as a pro.

One quality point of comparison is Julius Randle, who’s a bit taller but had some similar strengths at the same stage of his development. Williamson could end up as a faceup four-man in a similar vein, although it’s possible he never gets to the point where he can be classified as a stretch big. He might be a bit too hefty to defend NBA small forwards and better off sliding down onto taller players.

The optimal scenario might be Williamson as a small-ball big surrounded by shooters, with his explosiveness and instincts helping compensate for his lack of size. In high school, he played on the ball a lot and took over games with his athletic gifts, but if Duke can develop him into a more interior-focused player, it may benefit Williamson long term. The dunks will be great regardless.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *