No. 1 Duke’s freshmen: College hoops’ must-see attraction
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Drake has already been spotted wearing Zion Williamson’s high school jersey.
Let that be proof: Duke’s season is just starting, and the Blue Devils‘ freshmen have already arrived.
Just three games into their college careers, the youngsters have made top-ranked Duke the top story in college basketball. But Williamson said it’s not all about the freshmen.
“This is a team, and there are other players — there are upperclassmen, and they lead us, because they’ve been through this,” said the 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson who wows fans with his athletic ability and acrobatic dunks. “We can sit here and say we know what away games will be like, but we really don’t until we experience it.”
Everyone seems to want to take that journey with them.
It’s early, but the youngsters are becoming a must-see phenomenon while their highlights take social media by storm and even their pregame layup lines draw oohs and aahs.
“They’re so much more than just highlight plays and dunks,” co-captain Jack White said. “These guys are great basketball players.”
It all started, of course, with that season-opening 118-84 rout of then-No. 2 Kentucky, turning the Champions Classic into their personal and collective showcase.
A group that showed up on campus as the consensus No. 1 recruiting class in the nation has done nothing to disprove that evaluation. Tre Jones, at 6-2, runs the point. The 6-8 Cameron Reddish spots up for 3-pointers. Then there’s 6-7 RJ Barrett, the top-rated player in the class, does a little bit of everything. And Williamson runs the floor and finishes strong at the rim — often dazzling the crowd in the process.
“As long as we play unselfish and play together,” Reddish said, “we’re pretty good.”
According to Duke officials, the team’s Instagram videos during the first week of the season were viewed more than 2 million times — more than fellow blueblood programs Kentucky (412,000) and North Carolina (172,000).
The highlights kept coming throughout an 84-46 beatdown of Eastern Michigan on Wednesday night.
One in particular — perhaps Williamson’s signature dunk , at least so far — stood out.
Reddish lofted an alley-oop pass that at first seemed headed for the Duke pep band. Williamson leaped so high to grab it that his armpits and eyes were level with the rim, and he slammed it home. By that point, Williamson had more dunks (four) than Eastern Michigan had field goals (three).
Williamson acknowledged that he even surprises himself sometimes.
In the locker room after Wednesday night’s game, he broke into a hearty laugh when teammate Joey Baker pulled out his cellphone to show a photo proving that Williamson did, in fact, soar to eye-level with the rim.
“I wanted to get super-hyped,” he quipped, “but I had to get back on defense.”
Having one-and-done players roll through the program has become commonplace in recent years — Duke replaced four one-year players from last season with this group — and Barrett and Williamson are popular projections as the first two picks in next June’s NBA draft. Both of them have scored at least 20 points in all three games.
Nor is Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski a stranger to the spotlight that always glares on the Duke program he’s led to five national championships.
But college stardom is a new experience for these freshmen, and what Krzyzewski has described as “exceptional noise” surrounding the team became exponentially louder after the 34-point rout of Kentucky — now arguably no longer the capital of one-and-done.
In the days after that victory, Scott paid the freshmen a visit , and they learned to come to grips with just how their accomplishments resonated throughout the sport. Reddish said that putting the Kentucky win in the past and moving on was “definitely tough” but that “we can’t dwell on any win.
“We’ve got to keep getting better every day,” he added.
If that happens, it may be impossible to drown out that “exceptional noise.”