Food for thought: What could Duke look like defensively with Zion Williamson

The college basketball world is still spinning: How did Duke land 5-star dunk-bot Zion Williamson? The pledge gave the Blue Devils four commitments from the top 10 of the 2018 class; that development spawned an infinite supply of gleeful Duke fans, angry Carolina/Kentucky supporters and a rainbow of Internet think pieces.

Williamson’s commitment certainly caught a lot of people off guard — myself included. I was at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday for the Duke-Pitt game, and while there, I didn’t hear a word of Williamson mentioned. This took place mere hours before his televised decision.

However, now that Duke has Williamson in the fold for next season, it’s fun to envision what the Blue Devils could look like — on both sides of the floor. One of the thoughts that popped into my head dealt with defense: What could Duke


The Personnel

Mike Krzyzewski has long eschewed the notion of defining players with positions. As the game of basketball has evolved into more of a positionless ameba, perhaps this adds to the appeal of Duke and Coach K. One-and-done studs that know they will be in the NBA in nine months may want to play in a system that cares more about production and versatility, than fitting players into rigid positions.

It’s a bit of an obvious example, but I don’t it’s by happenstance that rookie forward Jayson Tatum, 19, has fit so smoothly into the switch-heavy defense of the Boston Celtics.

For the purpose of this exercise, though, let’s work under the assumption that all five Duke starters from this season will be in the NBA next year, although there’s a shot Gary Trent — currently projected as a second round pick — could return.

Regardless, joining Williamson in Durham will be three more 5-star prospects: R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones. That trio looks like it will be Duke’s perimeter in 2018-19. (However, if Trent returns he fits easily into this paradigm, too.)

Barrett and Reddish are notable here; with those two as the wings, Duke will have the ability to get really creative with how it wants to defend opponent teams.


The Wildcard

For Duke to maximize its athleticism next season, I want to throw out the idea of starting Javin DeLaurier as the team’s nominal center.

DeLaurier, Williamson, Reddish and Barrett would give the Blue Devils four players between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-10 in the lineup — all of whom are ridiculously athletic. Duke could switch with the ease, trap and just generally create havoc with that lineup.

At 230 pounds, DeLaurier may be a bit thin to bang against some traditional centers — not by much, though. Plus, how many bruising centers still exist — even in the ACC? Back-to-the-basket bully Elijah Thomas at Clemson is mostly a man on an island. And whatever Duke lacks in bulk, they can make up for with a defense that can fly around and make plays.

The future of basketball looks a lot like DeLaurier. The sophomore has yet to figure out a jumper, but his positional versatility and athleticism are at the forefront of what coaches what from defenders. He can switch, closeout on shooters and defend just about anyone, regardless of position. That’s a rare combination, and just because you haven’t seen a lot from him yet doesn’t mean it’s not lurking.

The springy DeLaurier can make plays all over the floor. DeLaurier is one of only four ACC players with at least 200 minutes played, a steal rate of at least three percent and a block rate above five percent. The other three players are Bonzie Colson, and two of the league’s premier defenders — Isaiah Wilkins and Ray Spalding.

According to Synergy Sports, opponents are just 9-of-32 (28.1 percent) on jump shots defended by DeLaurier this season.


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