There’s always the same clump of high-level college basketball programs competing for elite high school players: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona, Michigan State. ... You get the point.
Except in recent years, that clump has been thinning. Specifically, it’s almost gotten to the point where the best high school players can flip a coin – join Kentucky coach John Calipari’s NBA pipeline in Lexington, or head to Durham for a brief tutelage under legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
On Saturday night, arguably the most-hyped high school prospect since LeBron James had to make that same decision. Spartanburg native Zion Williamson, the No. 3 overall player in the Class of 2018, according to the ESPN 100, had narrowed his choices to powerhouses Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina, plus local favorites in Clemson and South Carolina.
Ultimately he chose Duke, giving the Blue Devils the No. 1 recruiting class for the fourth time in five years. The one time they didn’t? That was 2015, when they had the No. 2-ranked class and won the NCAA championship.
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Over that time, Duke has developed an impressive stable of NBA players who spent one season in college: from Kyrie Irving, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor to a younger group - Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Harry Giles.
So considering that NBA trajectory, was Giles – himself a one-and-done Blue Devil last season – still surprised by Williamson’s decision?
“A little bit,” Giles, a rookie with the Sacramento Kings, said Monday at Spectrum Center, where his team played the Hornets. “But it is Coach K, it’s Duke. It kind of sells itself. He was going to be good wherever he went, so why not go somewhere you can learn even more?”
The reason Giles and many others in the college basketball world were surprised by Williamson’s commitment was the strong connection he has to Clemson. His stepfather played there, and Clemson coach Brad Brownell sold Williamson on the fact that he could be the best player in program history. Still, the allure of playing at Duke proved too much.
Giles also noted that while he and Williamson aren’t necessarily close, they have spoken about Duke and what playing in Durham can do as far as moving one’s NBA career forward.
One of Giles’ teammates on the Kings, rookie Justin Jackson, played against several of those one-and-done players, and he too was surprised by Williamson’s choice.
“I was a little bit surprised, a little bit,” Jackson, who played at North Carolina, said Monday. “Obviously Coach K is doing a great job over there at Duke, and that’s appealing to people, I guess.”
And while Jackson chose to attend UNC instead of Duke, he said he understands why top recruits like Williamson would choose differently.
“I’m happy for him,” Giles said of Williamson. “That’s a big step in life, no matter where you pick, just doing what you’ve got to do to keep getting better. He’ll get his skill level up at Duke, though.”