The article first appeared in The Ringer
By Paolo Uggetti
The college basketball season is still 81 days away, but through the highlights that have emerged from ESPN’s smothering coverage of Duke’s trip to Canada this month, it’s already pretty clear that this is not your grandfather’s Duke team. It may not even your father’s Duke team, or your own Duke team from a few years back. This is shaping up to be the Duke team of Generation Z—fast, high-flying, and engineered to create viral videos.
Just take a look at this:
Stitching together a class with four five-stars, including three of the top five recruits in the country, isn’t novel for Coach K, who has, over time, given in to the one-and-done culture of the sport. What is notable about this particular group of Blue Devils is not just that it’s star-studded, but that it could and should be one of the most entertaining units in college basketball. The past five Duke teams ranked by adjusted tempo have placed 179th, 104th, 194th, 175th, and 93rd, according to Kenpom. This team should play faster than all of them. In Canada, without two of its best players— no. 2 overall prospect Cam Reddish and point guard Tre Jones—it showed tantalizing hints of what is to come.
First, there’s R.J. Barrett, a Canadian who is the reason the Blue Devils are spending their summer up north, and the no. 1 recruit in this year’s class. Barrett is a dynamic perimeter player with a penchant to do it all on the court—our own Jonathan Tjarks posited he could be the best Canadian prospect ever. He’s already exhibiting why he’s the early favorite for the no. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft:
But where the real hype begins is with Zion Williamson—a player who was made by the internet generation, seen in highlight videos on Twitter and YouTube well before he even committed to playing at Duke. Williamson is already a cult figure: He’s 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, built like a tank and can fly like a helicopter. To him, jumping is like breathing; dunking, since he’s been doing it to awe fans and earn likes and retweets for so long, is second nature.
Marvin Bagley III was an athletic marvel, but Williamson brings a whole other dimension to the table. Because he’s not as tall as Bagley, his athleticism leaps off the screen in a way that it didn’t for Bagley. But where the true difference lies is that Williamson’s low center of gravity and handles also allow him to put it on the floor and navigate the court instead of just waiting at the rim to finish. His surprising shiftiness and hops allow him to be a slasher too.
Williamson averaged 30 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists over the three games Duke dominated and won against Canadian colleges. Sure, the competition up north may not be up to par with some of the top teams in the States, but that didn’t matter—there were highlight videos to be made. And, of course, when Zion wasn’t playing in a game dunking over and around defenders who had no answer for him, he was doing what he does best: still dunking. There was the warm-up line flex, the full-extension slo-mo in front of a small crowd, and, of course, the attempt from the free throw line:
Watch the free throw line dunk again and see the Duke staff and players lose their minds in a way the collective internet did for years while Zion played high school ball and shined in the AAU circuit. Soon enough, those will be college basketball fans across the country, and eventually, NBA fans, too. Even if there’s a lot Zion still has to improve on—namely his jumper—the hype train is only going to gain steam from here.
Start getting used to it. This is Duke basketball in 2018.