In almost any other NCAA basketball season, Duke freshmen RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish would be all over the headlines. They were two of the top five players in the 2018 high school class, according to recruiting website Rivals, and ESPN projects them to be two of the top four picks in the upcoming NBA Draft. But these teenage stars have been overshadowed by their own teammate, Zion Williamson.
You’ve likely heard of Williamson, perhaps the most hyped freshman in the history of college basketball. He’s a 6-foot-7, 285-pound force of nature, a player the size of an NFL defensive lineman who routinely throws down insane alley-oops and 360-degree windmill jams during games. The 18-year-old forward has an Instagram following of more than 2 million, and he’s sure to be the top pick in the 2019 draft. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose past teams have included future NBA superstars such as Grant Hill and Kyrie Irving, called Williamson “the best athlete that I’ve had a chance to coach at Duke.”
In addition to starting three top draft prospects, the Blue Devils also have freshman point guard Tre Jones, whose older brother, Minnesota Timberwolves guard Tyus, led Duke to the national title in his only college season, 2014-15. “Jones may be the most important player of that whole group,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “He’s not as flashy, but he may be the best on-ball defender in the country. His defense at the point guard position keys everything.”
Taken together, this Duke squad might have the best collection of first-year talent ever. But obstacles—such as the January shoulder injury that put Jones out for two weeks of conference play—have a way of arising. The Blue Devils are the favorite entering March Madness, but will they cruise to a National Championship?
“If Duke shoots it well, I don’t see many teams having a chance to beat them,” Bilas says. “But if they don’t, then there are a number of teams that can beat them.”
How a few freshmen-led squads from the past have fared in March Madness
The famed Fab Five—featuring future NBA stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard, as well as Jimmy King and Ray Jackson—made it to back-to-back National Championship games but lost both, to Duke in ’92 and North Carolina in ’93.
John Calipari’s Wildcats boasted four one-and-done first-round NBA draft picks, including future all-stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Kentucky finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll but was upset in the Elite Eight by West Virginia.
This Wildcats team started the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the draft (freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and very much lived up to the hype, going 38-2 and winning the national title.