The Other Guys: How Duke’s juniors will be the key to a potential title run
On paper, this year’s Duke team is Mike Krzyzewski’s best shot at a title since the 2014–15 season.
By now you’ve already seen the jaw dropping highlights from #1 freshman RJ Barrett and #2 Zion Williamson across their Canadian exhibition tour, but the best is yet to come, as the two other headliners of their fab freshman class, #3 Cam Reddish and #17 Tre Jones were both withheld from playing on the trip while rehabbing injuries.
Although the track record for freshmen heavy teams winning the title isn’t great, much like the 2014–15 team, this year’s Blue Devil roster has just the right mix of veterans to sprinkle in alongside their future NBA All-Stars to legitimately contend for a championship.
The similarities between the two teams are striking, as both featured a top ranked recruiting class, including the #1 player in their respective classes in R.J. Barrett and Jahlil Okafor, as well as a crop of top 20 recruits and a Jones’ brother running point.
While Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones got the headlines, without the leadership and energy of Amile Jefferson and Quinn Cook, there’s a very strong chance Wisconsin walks out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a title.
Luckily enough for Coach K, he has two guys taylormade to step into a similar role this year.
Javin DeLaurier already looks like a totally different player.
Having struggled through sporadic minutes in his freshman season and being buried on the depth chart behind Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. last season, you can see the renewed confidence in the eyes of the Charlottesville native as he’s taken over the senior role in the locker room.
“My job is really just to teach them our culture, how we do things, help them through the bumps that we go through…especially as an 18 year old,” DeLaurier told me. “College basketball is different than high school basketball, you’re going to have struggles at some point so my job is just to be here and help them through that.”
Whether it was busting the team out of a malaise of a start on Friday night against U of T, or scooping up loose balls and crashing the offensive glass against Ryerson, the former 5-star prospect’s relentless motor makes him a natural leader for this young group.
“That’s something I always pride myself on,” DeLaurier said of his constant energy on the floor. “When I leave the court, when I lose I just want to know I gave it everything that I had…that’s definitely what I’m focusing on this year.”
Jack White is working with R.J. Barrett pregame.
As Barrett cackles with laughter during their quiet conversation during a ball handling drill, you can see that the 21-year-old from Canberra, Australia has already formed a tight bond with the other international player on Duke’s roster.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been assigned to his mentor but I will say we get along really well,” White told me. “I think just being two international guys we get on and have some great banter between us. He’s just a clown, he hears me speak and he can’t stop laughing, not even on what I say just how I sound.”
“It’s ridiculous really we’ve been together seven weeks and he can’t get over it.”
As their big brother-little brother relationship continues to grow, White figures to play a meaningful role off the bench as a guy who can hit the spot up three and be a solid, if not spectacular, perimeter defender (Dollarama Joe Ingles comp’s sure to follow).
With his authentically Aussie easygoing demeanour , White’s voice in the room will be important when the team hits the mid season loss to a veteran ACC team they’re bound to have this season.
“Just trying to help them out in any way I can, having been around here for two years and into my third year now I’ve seen some stuff and been through adversity,” White said. “Stuff doesn’t always go smoothly around here so just trying to steer the new guys in the right direction and make our team the most successful.”
Following their final game of the tour against McGill, Krzyzewski raved about the play of his two upperclassmen to the assembled media in Montreal.
“Jack White in particular, has had a great tour,” he said. He’s played like a junior and has been solid. I think he’s probably averaged like 28 minutes a game and has been invaluable for us. Javin has solidified what we thought he’d be.”
As the Blue Devils embark on what will be the most watched (and most scrutinized) season in years, White and DeLaurier will be the anchors as Barrett, Reddish, Jones and Williamson soar to new heights.