“Brotherhood” — this, according to South Carolina high school phenom Zion Williamson, was what he sought to join when making his college decision.
The second-ranked player and top-ranked power forward of the 2018 high school class, Williamson had plenty of options.
He could’ve stayed in-state, opting to accept the role of “hometown hero” for either the University of South Carolina or Clemson.
He could’ve chosen Kansas or Kentucky, two blue-bloods that feature successful coaches (Bill Self and John Calipari, respectively) and strong track records of recruiting and grooming top one-and-done prospects.
He could’ve chosen this one university in Chapel Hill that is coming off of a championship run, that is going to retain most of its current roster heading into next season, that is bringing in two other 5-star recruits, and that is revered for promoting the concept of a “Carolina family” ever since the days of Dean Smith. (That last option seems pretty compelling, right?)
Instead, he chose none of those five schools: he chose Duke.
And I can’t fault him for making this decision, either. Not at all. It just makes sense when considering his playstyle, his career aspirations and what roster and coaching staff would benefit him the most during his (suspected) short stint in college.
Standing at 6 feet 6 inches and 272 pounds, Williamson offers a rare combination of strength and athleticism that has led him to become a viral sensation for his explosive finishes around the basket. He does much more than just dunk, though.
Adept at driving to the hoop, he uses his large frame and nimble footwork to navigate through crowded lanes, typically ending possessions with highlight-worthy slams. Although he is relatively short for his position, he uses his length and well-managed strength to gain position on rebounds and hold his own in the post, both on offense and defense.
Showcasing a tight, low dribble, along with great court vision, Williamson’s best-kept secret may be his playmaking potential as a small-ball center whenever Duke opts to play small. He’s already unstoppable in the open court; great vision only adds to his ability to get his team easy buckets, whether he’s taking it to the hoop or making a smart pass.
His only noticeable weakness is his questionable outside shooting. His form isn’t necessarily poor, but he has a ways to go before becoming a consistent perimeter threat. Normally, a marquee combo-forward lacking a perimeter shot would be a reason for concern for some teams.
Under the command of head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke is bringing in a loaded recruiting class of immense talent, featuring No. 1 R.J. Barrett, No. 2 Zion Williamson, No. 3 Cam Reddish and No. 12 Tre Jones.
Never before has a team successfully recruited all top-three prospects in one high school class and never before has such an assortment of talent been coached by a Hall-of-Famer like Coach K.
Barrett (6-foot-7, 200 pounds, small forward) brings a diverse set of skills, as his elite athleticism and scoring instincts allow him to get to the basket at will, both in transition and in the halfcourt.
Reddish (6-foot-7, 203 pounds, small forward) is a fluid athlete that plays with good pace, showing off a smooth offensive game that enables him to score from all over the floor, much like recent Duke alum Jayson Tatum.
Jones (6-foot-2, 183 pounds, point guard), much like his older brother Tyus Jones (who helped lead Duke to a championship in 2015), is a shifty playmaker who’s always looking to set up his teammates with open looks, thus giving Coach K. a consistent floor general to rely on.
All three recruits also showcase strong capabilities on the defensive end, an area that Duke’s current squad is struggling in. Despite his average height and lateral quickness, Jones stays engaged on defense, pestering opposing point guards with active hands and smart decision-making. Both long and agile, Barrett and Reddish are able to switch and defend multiple positions, capable of keeping up with quicker guards and occasionally smaller bigs.
Under Coach K., Barrett, Reddish and Jones should flourish, and will undoubtedly display their NBA-ready talent while en route to a potentially deep tournament run come March of next year.
This is why Williamson chose Duke. Not because of “brotherhood” or family, but so he could partake in a college journey with some of the best young players in the country; a journey that has led many players to NCAA championships and successful professional careers.
There are no guarantees, of course.
Just ask last year’s highly-touted recruiting class that featured Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden. Boasting four players ranked in the top-16 of ESPN’s Top 100 ranking, along with a sharpshooter (and expert tripper) in Grayson Allen, Duke was expected to have a real shot at winning a championship.
Instead, Duke dealt with multiple injuries and locker room drama, eventually finishing the season 28-9 with a disappointing second round loss to South Carolina.
But, this 2018 quartet could potentially see the success that the 2014 Duke recruiting class saw, a class that featured Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and the aforementioned Allen. That squad ultimately won a title, showing that Coach K. is able to lead a top-heavy team to the promised land under the right circumstances.
UNC offers family, a rich history of successful college and NBA players (see: Jordan, Michael), and an even deeper roster — but its top-tier talent simply pales in comparison with Duke’s, which ultimately makes Duke the premier destination for a recruit such as Williamson.
In theory, Williamson wasn’t wrong for committing to Duke, and UNC fans and fans of college basketball in general can’t really argue against the merit of joining such a prestigious program.
They can be mad and bitter, of course, but denying Duke’s advantageous position in the current recruiting climate would be disingenuous. Duke has top recruits, an elite coach, a special history and a passionate fanbase — that’s appealing to any recruit looking for a good college career.
Yes, the rich just got richer by securing the Spartanburg Day School star. Yes, Duke is likely to head into next season as the pre-season No. 1 team and championship favorite. Yes, the buzz around Duke is going to get obnoxious and irritating pretty quickly (hell, it already is). Yes, Williamson picking the Blue Devils is a bummer and, yes, many people are unsurprisingly upset with him over his college selection.
But don’t hate a high school teenager for making a crucial decision that will affect him and his family for years to come.
Don’t hate Williamson — hate Duke. They’re used to it by now, anyway.
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