How Duke’s New Devils Came Together
Zion Williamson was sitting in the Knicks locker room after a game at Madison Square Garden in late December, surrounded by a deep lake of reporters peppering him with a dozen variations on the same question: How would you feel about sitting in this exact same spot a year from now? Duke had won tonight's game against 12th-ranked Texas Tech, and even though Zion had fouled out late in the second half, and even though, if we're being honest, the game was kind of a drag—a sludgy, rim-clang-y grind—the vibe afterward was boisterous. The Garden! National TV! The Knicks locker room was so lush and spacious, it was almost as nice as the one they have back at Duke. Zion is a mortal lock to be the top pick in this summer's NBA draft, and there's a solid chance that that pick will belong to the Knicks. So how about it, Zion? How does playing 41 games a year here sound?
Zion is only 18, but he is more media-savvy than the media. He had over a million Instagram followers before he got to Duke. He's a natural at this. So he answered their question with a question.
“RJ!” he called out over the scrum to teammate RJ Barrett, Duke's other NBA-ready freshman stud. “You wanna play for the Knicks?”
Twenty heads turned. Barrett, a lithe six-foot-seven slasher from near Toronto, has been Duke's leading scorer all season; at this second, he is averaging nearly 24 points a game, a school record for a freshman. But so far on this night, only one lonely reporter had broken from the pack to talk to him. It was a tiny kindness by Zion, who'd watched all of us make a beeline past RJ to get to him. Barrett looked up and smiled.
“If they draft me, hell yeah!” he called back.
Once upon a time, five or six years ago, this topic was a third rail in college basketball. If a reporter dared to ask a college freshman about the NBA, that freshman was required to get annoyed or robotically demur. The player was required, in other words, to lie. “It's more transparent now,” coach Mike Krzyzewski told me a few weeks later back on campus in Durham. K's office, a cube-shaped crow's nest perched atop a stone tower overlooking Cameron Indoor Stadium, on a floor accessible only by fingerprint keypad, is both ludicrous and homey. Sunlight pours in through 25-foot floor-to-ceiling glass windows, filling the air with rich, life-affirming vitamin D. “I'm okay with it. It's okay to talk about it. You are that good, you do have those goals—we understand. Now, while you're here, fulfill all the requirements. This is not an extended-stay motel.”
Central to Duke’s identity is now the brotherhood—the vast latticework of NBA stars who pass through.
Williamson has been compared to LeBron James, and it's a little crazy that this is not a crazy comparison. But it's imprecise. For one thing, Zion is bigger than LeBron. He's 285 pounds right now (LeBron is 250) and nearly half James's age. What has NBA people so excited about him, though, is his LeBronian feel for the game. He can dominate without scoring. He's not just a dunker. He's a passer, he's a shot-blocker, he's a pickpocket.
Williamson has almost certainly dislodged Barrett as the top pick in this summer's NBA draft, and he's turned his other two lottery-caliber classmates, six-foot-eight wing Cam Reddish (the No. 3-rated freshman in the country by ESPN) and point guard Tre Jones (No. 17), into the hoop equivalent of a rhythm section. Against Texas Tech in the Garden, Tre saved Duke's ass time and again with his floor game—five assists, six steals, just one turnover. Cam hit the game-icing three-pointer. But Zion was still the story, because of how much he didn't play. It'd only be natural for that to cause some friction. This group, though, and Zion and RJ in particular, appear to like one another far too much for that.
“Those two guys are like brothers,” Krzyzewski said. “If you're around Zion, you're happy. He's upbeat all the time. I'm telling you, he's very unique.”
“He's just—he's the funniest guy ever,” Barrett said. “He's a people person. He can talk to anyone. He has so many friends around campus—everybody loves him. When you see him, you wouldn't think that he's the softest and nicest guy off the court.”
Even RJ has to rub his eyes sometimes when he watches Zion. They're roommates now, best friends now, pretty much inseparable now. And this is a big part of their bond: mutual amazement. When I told Barrett that I had to force myself not to stare at Zion, like he's a physics equation I'm too dumb to grasp, Barrett laughed. “It's okay, we've all done it. It's an everyday thing.” Zion is like a basketball centaur—LeBron from the waist up, Charles Barkley from the waist down. It's not that there's something wrong with his build, I start to say, it just—Barrett cut me off. “It makes no sense, right?” Yes. It makes no sense. Exactly. “I tell him that all the time. Sometimes we're just chilling in our room. I'm like, ‘Bro, you make absolutely no sense.’ He's like, ‘What?’ I'm like, ‘Look at you! How are you as fast as me, but you weigh like 70 pounds more than I do?’ ”
He shook his head.
“It just makes no sense. But I'm happy he's on our side.”
The best recruiting class in NCAA men's basketball history appeared to blow apart on national television in February, less than one minute into the biggest sporting event of the year thus far. You've seen the clip. You'll be seeing it forever. Leave it to Zion Williamson to injury himself in such an astonishing, super-human way that even President Obama will remember where he was when it happened. (Sitting baseline, where his voice could be heard giving Adidas a soundbite for the ages: "His shoe broke!")
It was the second frightening injury of the year for the foursome, following close on the heels of Tre Jones's shoulder sprain in the opening minutes of a game against Syracuse in January, when his joint appeared to do (but thankfully didn't) the same thing that Zion's shoe would do one month later.
So just in case disaster strikes again before the NCAA tournament this month, let's commit to history how this freshman class got together in the first place. And like so many post-millennial origin stories do, it began with a group text.
Tre Jones was the first commit. It was an easy call—Tre's elder brother Tyus, now a key reserve for the Minnesota Timberwolves, won a title at Duke in 2015. Tre worships Tyus. He plays like Tyus, looks like Tyus, frequently gets called “Tyus.” He committed in August 2017, giving the 2018 class a blue chip with blue bloodlines.
The moment that a high school star signs up with an elite college program, he becomes his freshman class's lead recruiter. Excessive thirst from a would-be coach can easily drive away a recruit. So after Tre signed with Duke, Coach K told him the three targets he wanted help with: RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish. The top-rated high school players in the country—one, two, and three. Go get 'em, Tre.
So Tre started a group text.
The four kids were scattered across the country—Tre outside Minneapolis, Cam outside Philly, RJ from frigging Canada (international rates may apply), and Zion in tiny Spartanburg, South Carolina. The text thread was filled with the same stuff everyone's group texts are filled with. Jokes, GIFs, recruiting updates, videos of Zion's most recent windmill-backflip-triple-Salchow dunk, videos of RJ getting buckets buckets buckets from all over the floor, family stuff, teenager stuff, unprintable stuff. Normal stuff. “Just being kids,” Barrett says now.
They all take turns telling me their versions of the story—how they all got here, as in literally right here, in Section 2 of Cameron, looking out over Coach K Court from the worst seats they've ever had in this building. They all know it's a little silly to immortalize a stupid group text—it's still going, in fact, because that's how phones work—but now that they're all here, it's become like the minutes to their Constitutional Convention. They were a team before they were teammates.
Anyway: Reddish was next to sign on. He already had one foot in the door, and also one name: Cam is short for, yes, Cameron. He'd been praying on it for three weeks—Cam is soft-spoken, sensitive, a bit melancholy; he's also a blowtorch shooter—and God answered “Duke” every time. Cam was in.
Next came RJ Barrett, Gatorade National Player of the Year—creative, merciless, and always on the attack, a little Dwyane Wade, a little James Harden. His father, Rowan, was a starter at St. John's. His godfather is Steve Nash. In a class full of gifted question marks, he was an exclamation point engraved in stone. Every school in the country was after him, but when he was 14, he got to watch Duke's 2015 title team practice at Cameron. “Sat over there,” he said, pointing to a spot in the student risers. “This has always been my dream school.”
The most exciting young college player in forever talks about why he chose Duke, being perceived as a dunker, and that time he gained 100 pounds in two years.
Three down, one to go.
Early last year, Zion Williamson was one of the country's last remaining undecided blue-chip recruits. He reportedly had six schools on his list, and no one thought Duke was a prime contender. Some theorized that the presence of Barrett and Reddish and Jones might actually hurt Duke's chances. Zion's a showboat, this dumb idea went, so he's gonna want his own stage. What if the other stars turned out to be better than him? What if he lost playing time? What if his draft status tumbled? What if he had to stay in college for a sophomore year??
That's not how Zion thinks. “People try to apply the human nature that they might have into that situation,” Coach K said, “and that's why they're not in that situation.”
The guys in the group chat claim they had no idea what Williamson was going to say when he finally announced his choice on January 20, 2018, during a press conference in his high school gym. They had warned him earlier that his failure to choose Duke would result in immediate ejection from the thread. His silence in the days leading up to his big reveal was disconcerting. Is he dumping us before we can dump him? Nope. The cameras rolled, and Williamson put on a Duke cap. Durham rejoiced. A nation mourned. Zion was in.
And just like that, Duke had landed the nation's top-ranked recruits. One, two, and three.
As you may know, most people hate Duke. It's time for me to confess that I went there, too, a long time ago, before anyone in the class of 2018 was born. People hate us for myriad reasons, but chiefly it's because we win so much more frequently than all of you, and because of our insufferable tendency to point this out.
Zion, though, has done the impossible: He's made people like Duke. Or at least he's made people temporarily root for Duke so they can keep watching Zion play. We'll take it. His classmates have helped by being so likable in their own right, especially RJ, who has warded off every attempt to cast him as the ball-hogging foil by being too damn good and too obviously delighted by his bunkmate. Someday Duke will retire both their numbers, and hopefully their dorm room.
Fortunately, you can still hate our coach, whose pinched face bears an eerie resemblance to the Blue Devils mascot, all the more so when he snarls at referees. It's so uncanny that it's hard to believe his resting, off-court personality just isn't that guy. Krzyzewski is funny and genial, particularly by hard-ass-coach standards, and he's way more culturally fluent than you'd expect—somewhere on the scale between Fortnite, yes, and drip, no—for a man who's had so many of his joints replaced with titanium that his lower body at this point is basically a network of golf clubs.
Coach K is half a century older than these kids, and yet he keeps reeling in Fab Five–level recruiting classes. That doesn't happen if you're a tone-deaf asshole, no matter how many of your former players blossom into NBA All-Stars. And it's not like K's batting average is perfect. He's won five titles, but lots of people think he should have more with the talent he's had, probably because they underestimate the combustion risk of teenage boys who join a program for ten months and then vanish. In recent years, K has recalibrated his sales pitch for this new era of pre-packaged, pre-branded high school star. His closing argument is no longer about Duke as the destination—come here because we're the best and you'll love it. Too many riches await. Duke isn't a four-year sanctuary from the adult world anymore. That Duke is gone. It's a center of gravity now—the home that everyone comes back to. You know, like Zion (the one from the Bible).
Now all anyone associated with the Duke program talks about is the Brotherhood—the vast latticework of NBA superstars who passed through Cameron, however briefly, and return every summer to help run Coach K's fantasy camp and to scrimmage against the new kids. It's the sort of hokey self-mythologizing barf that adds to America's collective hatred for Duke, but, hoo boy, does that shit work.
“I think our fans now are following the pro careers of our guys more, because they didn't get enough of them here,” Krzyzewski said. “Like with Kyrie.” Irving, a Duke freshman in 2010 and now a charter member of the Brotherhood, spent most of his brief stay in Durham out of the lineup with a foot injury. “We're 8 and 0, and then he gets hurt. We were on our way to having a really unbelievable, like, special year.”
This team will probably get upset in the tournament, too. I've never seen a Duke class like this one, and we've had some doozies, but you should still bet the field. It's too easy to lose once. Our outside shooting is, to be polite, dubious. K has warned Zion, often, that his implausible frame is bound to baffle refs and land him in foul trouble. It happened that night at the Garden against Texas Tech. If it happens even once in the tournament, that could do the trick. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler lost, twice. Boogie Cousins and John Wall lost. The Fab Five lost (to Duke, and then again the next season to North Carolina, though nothing especially memorable happened in that one).
And no matter what happens during the tournament in March, all four of these freshmen are gone. It's a bummer, I guess? It's starting to feel like a series of blips, and every season, it gets harder to cherish a blip. On the other hand, Coach K is counting on it. He needs to reload on the fly, yet again, and he's already got a pair of McDonald's All-Americans signed up, including No. 3 overall prospect Vernon Carey Jr., a rim-rocking six-foot-ten center from South Florida. But he needs the Class of 2018 to cycle out and start tearing up the NBA. He's counting on them to help him to close the deal.
Devin Gordon, a former executive editor at GQ, is a freelance writer in New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2019 issue with the title "New Devils."
Photographs by Tom Keelan
Styled by Kelly McCabe
Grooming by Danielle Mitchell