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How Duke men's basketball built one of the best recruiting classes ever

<p>Tre Jones took it upon himself to fulfill Coach K’s recruiting vision from the get-go.</p>

Tre Jones took it upon himself to fulfill Coach K’s recruiting vision from the get-go.

Once again, Duke boasts the No. 1 freshman class in the nation. The 2018-19 Blue Devils, after reeling in the nation’s top three recruits and No. 17 Tre Jones, are reloaded, with a talented core that should rival almost any in the country.

R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish, along with Jones, have already taken over the national spotlight despite not yet playing in a regular season game. Barrett and Williamson electrified the crowds north of the border this August with numerous alley-oop connections, and the Blue Devils then dominated their exhibition slate—outscoring their two opponents by 126 combined points—with Reddish and Jones back in the picture after recovering from minor injuries.

And Wednesday, the star rookies and classmate Joey Baker were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, dubbed the "Fabbest Five."

People around the team will tell you that its chemistry is already special, but how could this group have found its rhythm so quickly? 

The answer: Constant communication throughout the recruiting process, in order to make the dream class a reality, and a shared vision of future success.  

“They not only knew each other before they got here, but they respected one another,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke media day last month. “To get a class like that, you have to have those qualities, but you also have to be secure about who you are, and then be confident in me and my staff to know that we would know what to do with them, that they would get better being together."

"They’ve communicated almost all of senior year, they’ve played against one another, and they love Duke. They love being students, they want a college experience, and it’s just worked out.” 

'We were going to go to college together'

The idea of the four freshmen—Baker didn't decide to reclassify and come to college a year early until May—playing together was at the center of the Blue Devils' most recent recruiting cycle. Krzyzewski pitched the idea from the outset, and throughout the process, each of the incoming freshmen worked hard to sell the rest of the group on the concept, hoping to bring the vision to life.  

Duke’s first commitment of the Class of 2018 came Aug. 13, 2017 when Tre Jones—younger brother of Tyus, a key contributor for the 2015 national championship squad—announced his commitment. Jones, the second-best point guard in his class per ESPN, gave the team a pass-first ball-handler. 

The Apple Valley, Minn., native then made it his mission to surround himself with the best players and build his class. 

“When coach was recruiting me, he told me some of the guys he wanted to recruit and bring together to play on this team,” Jones said. “Cam, R.J. and Zion are the main guys he said, so I was going into it when I was ready to make my decision here knowing he wanted those guys to come here for a reason. I reached out to those guys and then we just started talking more and more, building a really strong bond before we even got here.”

Nearly three weeks after Jones became the Blue Devils’ first commit, on Sept. 2, the incoming freshman class doubled in size as 6-foot-7 forward Reddish decided to join Jones. Reddish—the No. 3 recruit in the nation—brought perimeter shooting to Duke in addition to excellent ball-handling skills.

Reddish should be the Blue Devils’ secondary ball-handler alongside Jones, and his passing abilities have been on full display throughout Duke’s exhibition slate, averaging six assists per game.  In high school, Reddish was often slotted as the team’s primary distributor playing alongside a pair of prolific scorers in current NBA center Mo Bamba and Arizona sophomore guard Brandon Randolph.

“We had similar schools on our list, and at camps and from watching each other play we really liked each other’s games,” Jones said of his relationship with Reddish. “So we reached out to each other and decided we were going to go to college together.”

'We built a brotherhood'

With Reddish and Jones locked in, the duo looked ready to build on what was already shaping up to be a strong class. Jones and Reddish created a group chat with Barrett and Williamson, allowing for both constant communication and bonding well before the freshmen would step foot on campus this past July. 

The quartet became close friends, with conversations remaining mostly casual rather than focused on recruiting decisions. Talk of the recruits playing together came up enough during the process that the four freshmen decided to focus on getting to know one another off the court.

“No pressure, we were just friends. That was really it,” Barrett said of the group chat. “We didn’t really talk about recruiting too much. We just talked about what was going on in our daily lives and we built a brotherhood before we even knew we were coming to Duke.”

The Mississauga, Ontario, native gave the Blue Devils the nation’s top recruit for the third straight season when he announced he’d be joining Jones and Reddish on Nov. 10, minutes before the Blue Devils 2017-18 home opener against Elon. Barrett’s primary strength is lockdown defense, using his length, but has shown promise with both his ball-handling and shooting abilities like Reddish.

With 75 percent of Krzyzewski’s initial vision set in stone, the trio turned their focus to the player with the most uncertainty—second-ranked Williamson—in order to seal the deal.

‘I think I can become a whole new player’

“Cam and I knew we were going to college together in the fall and had been talking to R.J. pretty hard, and had an idea he was going to come when he made his decision,” Jones said. “But when Zion made his decision, nobody really had a clue."

Prior to his commitment, Williamson had generated by far the most national attention of the freshmen. His highlight dunks were plastered all over YouTube and Twitter, and at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, Williamson's size alone made fans gawk. The Spartanburg, S.C., native had also accrued a massive social media following, with more than 1.8 million subscribed to his Instagram account.

Williamson then shocked the college basketball world Jan. 21, 2018, when he announced his intentions to join the Blue Devils. 247 Sports' crystal ball projections gave Duke just a 4 percent chance of landing Williamson at the time, with in-state Clemson the overwhelming favorite destination at 87 percent. 

The athletic forward attributed Krzyzewski’s elite coaching ability as the difference maker in his decision to come to Durham.

“I mean [Barrett, Reddish and Jones] were a good part of it, because I wanna play with good players, but it was just The Brotherhood and Coach K,” Williamson said. “I consider him the greatest coach of all time and if I could have him break down my game and tell me what I need to work on then, I think I can become a whole new player.”

Williamson’s commitment clinched the top recruiting class in the nation for the Blue Devils, and the first time that a single program signed the nation’s top three players. 

Now a unit, Duke's freshman foursome will look to make headlines together, starting Nov. 6 against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. And if they have any say, the Blue Devil rookies hope to be doing more of the same six months from now in Minneapolis.

"That’s what we’re working toward," Barrett said. "I’d be crazy if I said that’s not what we want to do."

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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