Brace Yourself: Next Season, Duke Is Going to Have All the Country’s Best Players

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 26:  Zion Williamson of Spartanburg Day School attempts a dunk during the 2018 McDonald's All American Game POWERADE Jam Fest at Forbes Arena on March 26, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson at the McDonald’s All-American high school dunk contest in Atlanta.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Duke’s season-ending defeat in the NCAA Tournament was so agonizing, one could almost get in the neighborhood of maybe getting an approximation of what it would be like to feel bad for the Blue Devils. Their nail-biting overtime loss to Kansas in the Elite Eight on Sunday was a teeter-totter of questionable foul calls and squandered opportunities, complete with a torturous missed buzzer-beater for the ages. It was kind of sad. Kind of.

What makes all this (theoretically) sadder is that Duke will lose a large chunk of its starting five this summer, and maybe the entire quintet. Star freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. will almost certainly be high picks in the NBA draft, fellow first-year players Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. might go pro too, and the irascible Grayson Allen’s college eligibility expired with Sunday’s buzzer.

So who will poor Mike Krzyzewski have suiting up for him next season? Let’s take a look at the old recruiting rankings. It appears Duke has signed the best high school basketball player in the country. Well, that should help alleviate some of the pain of 2018. It also seems that Duke has signed the second-best high school basketball player in the country. Kudos to Coach K. Finally, Duke has a commitment from … the third-best high school basketball player in the country. Dammit.

The No. 1 guy is R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 swingman who is already considered a near lock to be the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Even more impressive is the fact that he seems poised to turn Canada into a basketball superpower. The Ontario-born Barrett led his national team to a first-place finish at the 2017 FIBA Under-19 World Cup, the country’s first medal at that event.

Joining Barrett in Durham will be fellow wing Cam Reddish. At 6 feet 8 inches, Reddish is a superb defender who’s also capable of playing point guard. He’s exactly the kind of guy you would use to counter R.J. Barrett, but, unfortunately for the 350 Division I teams that aren’t Duke, Reddish and Barrett will be playing on the same team.

And then there’s Zion Williamson, the greatest player in the history of Instagram. On Monday, Williamson won the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest, meaning it took only 24 hours for Duke to start winning things again after its heartbreaking loss to Kansas.

Oh, and there’s also Tre Jones (the younger brother of former Duke point guard Tyus Jones), who happens to be the ninth-ranked high schooler in the country. Were he to commit to your favorite school, Jones would instantly make them a contender. But he’s not going to your favorite school. He’s going to Duke.

Before this year, no team had ever brought in a recruiting class that included the country’s top three recruits. If anyone was going to pull off such a feat, it seemed like it was going to be Kentucky’s John Calipari, who pioneered and mastered the one-and-done approach to college basketball team building. For decades, Krzyzewski built the country’s most successful program on the backs of four-year players. Now, Duke attracts more NBA talent than the New York Knicks.

This transformation happened rather quickly. In a 2010 Atlantic article titled, “In Defense of Duke,” Chris Good wrote that “Coach K hasn’t gone after all-world talent” and “Coach K doesn’t recruit NBA-bound, one-and-done players.” What was the secret to Duke’s success? Krzyzewski “does it by getting his players to play hard, and play together.”

While that was a silly argument eight years ago, it’s downright ludicrous now. Until 2011, there were only two one-and-done players in the history of Duke basketball, Corey Maggette and Luol Deng. Since then, there have been 10, not including the group that just got bounced from the tournament. Almost overnight, the school has become the de facto destination for top prospects to have a cup of coffee.

As Sunday’s defeat suggests, a good recruiting class hardly guarantees a national championship. Sure, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones won a title in 2015, but we shouldn’t forget that Austin Rivers and Co. lost to No. 15 seed Lehigh in 2012*. (How could we?) Duke’s successes and failures next year will either be credited to or blamed on its freshman class. Given recent trends in Durham, it seems likely that will also be the case in 2020, 2021, and beyond.

Duke’s new status as One-and-Done U comes with some weird side effects, not least being the queasy sensation brought on by the sight of the nation’s coolest and most exciting players wearing Duke uniforms. Zion Williamson playing a season in Cameron Indoor Stadium will be like the time Miles Davis filmed ads for Honda scooters. Sure, it was a little confusing, but it almost made scooters seem cool. Almost.

*Correction, March 28, 2018: This post originally misstated that Duke lost to Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. The game actually took place in 2012.