For the second season in a row, Duke is counting on a lineup featuring four freshmen as it aims for its usually lofty goals of ACC and national championship contention.
A year ago, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent were joined by senior Grayson Allen. Duke went 29-8 and made the NCAA tournament’s final eight. Along the way, the Blue Devils went through ups and downs -- remember the losses at Boston College and St John’s? -- before falling just short of the Final Four.
This year’s freshman quartet in the starting lineup includes R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish. Junior big men Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier have split time as the fifth starter.
This year’s Blue Devils are 11-1, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and are the Las Vegas favorite to win the NCAA championship.
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Duke has won a single title during its era of relying on freshmen stars. The 2014-15 Blue Devils used three freshmen starters -- Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones -- while going 35-4 and winning the 2015 NCAA tournament.
With Barrett (23.8 points) and Williamson (19.8 points) currently Duke’s leading scorers, the Blue Devils are on their way to having at least one freshmen among their top two scorers for the sixth consecutive season.
In addition to the 2015 title team, which was led by Okafor’s 17.3 points per game, that list includes Jabari Parker (19.1), Brandon Ingram (17.3), Jayson Tatum (16.8) and Bagley (21.0).
Here’s a look at how Duke’s current freshmen stack up to the program’s top freshmen of recent seasons:
R.J. Barrett, 6-7, forward
He already established a new Duke record for most points scored over the first 10 games of his career. Barrett’s 242 points surpassed the 220 Parker scored in 2013-14.
The ACC’s leading scorer, Barrett is a volume shooter, having taken a team-high 233 shots. That’s 92 more shots than Williamson. But Barrett is also second on the Blue Devils in assists (46) and third in rebounds (81).
At this point, Barrett compares favorably to Parker, Ingram and Tatum, who were all taken among the top three picks in the NBA Draft following their freshmen seasons.
Barrett’s effective field goal shooting percentage, a KenPom compilation that takes into account the added value of 3-point shots, is 51.5. That’s just behind the 52.5 percent Ingram posted during his lone season at Duke in 2015-16. Parker (51.1) and Tatum (50.7) are behind Barrett although by small margins.
Barrett also shows an affinity for sharing the basketball, even though people who watched the end of the Gonzaga game, where Barrett had his shots blocked repeatedly in the final minute, may disagree.
KenPom.com lists a player’s assist rate, which is his assists divided by the field goals made by the player’s teammates while he is on the court. Barrett is currently at 22.6. By comparison, Parker finished at 8.6, Ingram 11.3 and Tatum 12.4. Last season, Bagley’s assist rate was 8.7.
Zion Williamson, 6-7, forward
The Blue Devils have two alpha scorers this season and they happen to be roommates. They look tough to beat.
Like Barrett, Williamson is producing at an all-America level. In addition to his 19.8 points per game, Williamson leads Duke in rebounding (9.4 per game) while making 65.2 percent of his shots overall.
Even though he’s not a good 3-point shooter (3 of 18), Williamson’s effective field goal percentage is a staggering 66.3. He’s made 72.4 percent of his 2-point shot attempts.
But for all his high-flying dunks, Williamson’s production on defense is just as impressive as what he does on offense.
He’s second on the team in steals (25) and his 23 blocked shots are second to Marques Bolden’s 27.
KenPom compiles block percentage, which is the percentage of opponents’ 2-point shots that are blocked by the player while he is on the court. Williamson is at 7.1, which trails the 7.6 Carter posted last season. But Williamson is better than Okafor (4.5), Parker (4.0), Ingram (3.6) and Bagley (2.6).
Tre Jones, 6-2, guard
Duke hasn’t had a true point guard as effective as Jones since his older brother, Tyus, led the 2015 Blue Devils to the championship.
Tre Jones averages 5.6 assists per game while contributing 8.7 points. His 24 steals are third on the team behind Reddish (26) and Williamson (25).
KenPom allows a direct comparison to Tyus Jones.
Tre Jones’ assist rate is 26.3. Tyus Jones finished 2014-15 at 27.5.
Tre Jones’ steal percentage is 3.5, while Tyus Jones’ was 2.7.
Ken Pom’s offensive rating measures overall efficiency on offense. Tre Jones is currently 121.4 while Tyus Jones posted 121.8.
Cam Reddish, 6-7, forward
NBA Draft projections have Reddish among the top-five prospects along with Williamson and Barrett.
Reddish, though, hasn’t been as productive through his first 12 games. His scoring average (13.5 points) is acceptable. He leads the team in steals so he’s contributing mightily on defense.
But he’s struggling to make shots consistently. He’s only made 37 percent of his shots overall and 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers.
He’s committed 32 turnovers, tied with Barrett for most on the team. But Reddish touches the ball less than Barrett, so he turns it over a higher percentage of the time, according to KenPom.
After Duke’s 91-58 win over Yale on Dec. 8, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski complimented Reddish for his good play during the second half of that game. But he also said Reddish hasn’t been playing well lately. Reddish made just 2 of 12 shots when Duke beat Hartford, 84-54, on Dec. 5.
He made just 3 of 9 shots when Duke suffered its lone defeat, 89-87 to Gonzaga in Maui.
Reddish was 1 of 7 from the field in Duke’s 69-58 win over Texas Tech on Dec. 20 at New York.
Reddish has the ability to provide Duke a strong third scorer. He poured in 22 points when Duke blasted Kentucky 118-84. He hit 7 of 13 3-point attempts, scoring 25 points, when Duke beat Army, 94-72.
When Duke beat Auburn, 78-72, in Maui, Reddish had 18 points by making four of 10 3-point attempts.
For Duke to reach its full potential, which means contending for an NCAA championship, it needs Reddish to play at that level more consistently.