While four freshmen have Duke No. 1, a pair of juniors helped them handle it

Duke co-captains talk about freshman Zion Williamson

Duke will test out their freshmen laden squad as they open the regular season against perennial power Kentucky Tuesday night
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Duke will test out their freshmen laden squad as they open the regular season against perennial power Kentucky Tuesday night

When the game is on the line, No. 1 Duke turns to freshmen Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett.

They’re two of the nation’s top players and they’ll be NBA-bound millionaires in a matter of weeks.

Their baskets three seconds apart last Sunday allowed the Blue Devils to beat Central Florida 77-76 and keep their NCAA championship hopes alive.

A week earlier, it was Williamson’s rebound basket in the final minute that lifted Duke past North Carolina 74-73 in the ACC tournament semifinals.

Big stars, big personalities, big plays.

Behind the scenes, though, those two stars and fellow freshmen starters Tre Jones and Cam Reddish needed guidance while new to college last summer.

“For us freshmen coming in,” Jones said, “we don’t really know what it’s like because it’s our first time around.”

Duke’s Javin DeLaurier (12) celebrates after Duke’s 77-76 victory over UCF in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. Ethan Hyman

The Blue Devils needed captains. Unlike previous teams that had established starters like Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson and Quinn Cook stay until their senior seasons, this year’s Blue Devils were devoid of such personnel.

Though juniors Javin DeLaurier and Jack White had yet to be star players, and wouldn’t be this season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski decided they were best equipped to lead this talented but green team.

Inside and outside the program, the move could only be viewed as a gamble.

Watch a time-lapse video from the final seconds of Duke's one point victory over UCF in the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019.

“When they were given the captaincy,” Duke associate head coach Nate James said, “and I say given because up to that point they hadn’t really done anything to earn it, (Krzyzewski) took a leap of faith and said, `Hey we need these two guys to step up.’ It would not only help the group but it would help them. And it did.”

Things have certainly worked out well for the Blue Devils, who carry a 31-5 record and No. 1 overall seed into their NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal game with Virginia Tech on Friday night in Washington.

DeLaurier has joined the four freshmen in the starting lineup 14 times. White has started just three games. Yet the four freshmen starters, along with the rest of Duke’s roster, accepted their advice to help navigate not only the season but their first and likely only year on campus.

Williamson, Barrett, Reddish and Jones came to Duke to win. Listening to DeLaurier and White became part of accomplishing that.

“They’re great kids, and they’re very secure about who they are,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re really all about winning, and they’ve been terrific. And our upperclassmen have been good with them, and you would not know class on our team -- who eats together, who’s hanging with one another. But those four kids are very special, and they’ve been parented extremely well and prepared well for something bigger than them. They’re always involved with something bigger than them. It’s a pretty cool thing.”

Duke's Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett react to a photo of Williamson celebrating a dunk by teammate and roomie Barrett against North Dakota State. The photo was taken by News & Observer photojournalist Ethan Hyman.

Duke’s incoming recruiting class drew praise as perhaps the best ever with Barrett, Williamson and Reddish all rated among the top five players in the 2018 class. Jones, also a five-star player, wasn’t far behind them.

DeLaurier, a 6-foot-10 forward, knew the freshmen would take the Blue Devils to any success they found. But he knew they would need help.

“Looking around the locker room, somebody had to do that,” DeLaurier said. “I was blessed with the opportunity to be in that position.”

White and DeLaurier are quick to say the team has leaders up and down the roster. Yet their voices have meant plenty to the newcomers.

“Ever since the first day when we stepped on to campus,” Jones said, “they have shown us what it’s like around here. They led by example with everything. They are always on time, always saying or doing the right things. Always leading in workouts, practices, whatever it is. Them leading like that helps us a lot knowing that we can trust in those guys to always lead us in the right direction.”

Even though the freshmen provide the bulk of Duke’s scoring, rebounding, assists and steals during games, they’ve been willing to listen to their elders.

“They have been amazing,” DeLaurier said. “It’s more than half the battle. They’ve been great.”

James helped captain Duke along with Shane Battier over his final two seasons as a player, including the 2001 NCAA championship team.

Battier was one of the nation’s top players while James was an established starter. So James appreciates how difficult this year’s situation was for DeLaurier and White.

Duke has had recent teams that lacked strong internal leadership. The 2012 and 2014 teams that were first-round NCAA tournament upset victims to Lehigh and Mercer come to mind.

This year’s team faced being ousted last Sunday night against No. 9 seed Central Florida. Those baskets by Williamson and Barrett provided the winning points.

Behind the scenes, DeLaurier and White set the tone that so the talented but young Blue Devils don’t crumble when things get dicey.

“For those two to do the job that they are doing, I commend them because it’s not easy,” James said. “Unfortunately for us, we’ve had some teams where the leadership was lacking. That really affects the overall closeness and unity of your group when you don’t have the leadership This year, it’s been a complete buy in. I think that’s a testament to not just the freshmen and their character and willingness to accept, but also the growth of Javin and Jack.”

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.