As you might have heard, the 2018 Duke men’s basketball team is loaded with generational talent. It is possible, perhaps likely, that the first three picks in next year’s NBA draft currently number among their starting five. That’s a good thing, certainly, but it makes for some strange news stories.
Take six days ago, for instance, when ESPN, Bleacher Report, and others had a minor field day breathlessly reporting that All-Universe freshman Zion Williamson had missed two dunks in one half against Hartford.
“Duke’s Williamson Baffled By Missed Dunks vs. Hartford” read the headline of the ESPN story, which was then supported by distressed-sounding quotes from the player himself. “I don’t know what was going on with me,” Williamson conceded. “I’ve never missed dunks like that, not even messing around. It gets very frustrating.”
Dunking is kind of Williamson’s thing, so this made as much sense as anything else, I suppose, except that this was the sole notable takeaway from an 84–54 blowout of an overmatched opponent in which Williamson’s stat line was a completely acceptable 8–14 for 18 points. Williamson’s much-reported “off night” cost his team precisely nothing. This is the bonkers prism through which this team will be viewed all year, and we’d all better get used to it.
Setting aside the peculiar case of the missed slams, Duke’s early December has proceeded as expected. Following a tough slate of contests in late November, which included the team’s sole loss to Gonzaga at the Maui Classic, a light bit of scheduling has allowed Coach K to tinker with the best possible methods for integrating his individual talents into a coherent unit.
Everybody got minutes in a glorified home scrimmage against the Stetson Hatters, who deserve praise for showing up and for their nickname, but not so much for their basketball acumen. In a game practically begging for a mercy rule, the Hats fell behind 59–24 at the half and would fare no better in the second frame, eventually falling 113–49. After that was the Hartford business and a 91–58 home win over Yale.
To the extent that there is a pattern emerging in any of these games, it is that teams can slow Duke for a half and sometimes even longer, but ultimately the sheer welter of the Blue Devils’ athleticism is too much to contain. Even against Gonzaga, when weary legs and missed calls doomed the Blue Devils to an 89–87 defeat, the culminating action saw Williamson, Cam Reddish, and RJ Barrett imposing their agency at will.
The Blue Devils will rely on their big three for scoring through much of the season, but attrition and a brutal ACC schedule will eventually require contributions from others, and junior forward Jack White is emerging as a potentially significant sixth man. Guard Tre Jones has given the Blue Devils a defensive identity with high-energy and high-IQ basketball and is emerging as a leader on the floor. In addition, the soft recent schedule has allowed Coach K to experiment with his bench and try different starting lineups, with Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier exchanging starts. All of the things that should be happening are happening, save for those catastrophic missed jams against Hartford.
A week from tonight, Duke dips into the Ivies again with a matchup against Princeton, where Williamson can miss twenty dunks and Duke will still win. The schedule gets hard again two nights later night when the Blue Devils tangle with unbeaten, eleventh-ranked Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden. The first two months of the season are all about getting ready for conference play. The Red Raiders will provide the first true measuring stick in some time for how far along Coach K’s wunderkinds are.
The Record: 9–1
The Ranking: #2
What To Watch For: Continued growth from Marques Bolden’s offense and continued excellence from Tre Jones’s defense