It’s easy to lose yourself in the continuous highlight reel that is the Duke show. And why shouldn't you?
It seems as though freshman Zion Williamson has an SportsCenter top-10 worthy dunk every single night, and with three players on the same team projected to get drafted in the top five in this year’s NBA Draft, it’s no wonder that fast-break alley-oops and monster blocks are all anybody can talk about after the Blue Devils’ games.
But there are two downsides to this—first, to ignore the brilliance of Williamson’s partner in crime, freshman R.J. Barrett, and second, to underappreciate the excellence of the team as a whole.
With 55 seconds left in the game, Barrett tossed it up to Williamson to set him up for a tough layup through contact near the rim. With that, Barrett notched his 10th assist of the game and the first triple-double of his young career, just the fourth in program history. A sensational game by Barrett seemed overshadowed by the theatrics of the rest of the contest, with Floyd Mayweather and several NBA players in the building. But with so many assists and zero turnovers, no one should deny how essential Barrett is to Duke's success.
“Sometimes when people have a high number of assists, some of those get tipped or some of those don’t complete it to the guy, so for [Barrett] to have zero turnovers the whole game is real impressive,” junior Marques Bolden said. “It was something that I feel like more people need to talk about, but it was real impressive.”
Throughout the season, Barrett has proven that he will do whatever it takes to win, whether it's through high-volume shooting totals—something he has taken heat for from the public—or sharing the ball, a skill he put on full display against the Wolfpack. Duke scored 58 out of its 94 points in the paint, and Williamson and Bolden had Barrett to thank for those buckets, as he continuously put them in good positions to score at the rim. Barrett was a playmaker against N.C. State, consistently showing his ability to find cutters to the paint, as shown by a quick toss to a slashing Williamson for an alley-oop in Duke’s halfcourt set.
Reminiscent of his freshman teammate Tre Jones, Barrett shared the ball without forcing it or making poor decisions. Completing a triple-double without coughing it up made it clear that at such a young age, Barrett’s knowledge and feel for the game is far more superior than most of his peers.
“He’s very advanced and he’s very young and he’s going to be here a very short time,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Remember, he came in early. He could have still been in high school, but he’s a sensational kid and player.”
Barrett also got it done from the field, scoring 23 points on 8-of-17 shooting, going perfect at the charity stripe with a 3-pointer to boot. Throughout the season, Barrett has gotten better at taking the right shots and making his time with the ball count. Barrett made his smaller defender, Jericole Hellems, pay with continuous drives to the rim and a relentless will to score. He also showed his ability to score off the pick-and-roll, as evidenced by a one-handed slam with two minutes left in the game.
To top it all off, Barrett led his team in rebounds with 11, making sure N.C. State had few opportunities for second-chance points. Instead of running out on the break after stops, Barrett made it a habit to secure the rebound and start the break himself. The main beneficiary of Barrett's unselfishness was Williamson, who had a couple of wide-open dunks on breaks started by Barrett.
“He had a complete game today. He dominated the game everywhere possible,” Jones said. “He was rebounding, he was scoring like always, but he was finding guys when guys were helping off of us and guys were able to make plays.”
The Cameron Crazies love to see Williamson’s high flying acrobatic maneuvers, but Duke needs Barrett’s consistency and all-around solid game just as much to beat teams the way it has this season. Barrett, a frequent unsung hero, showed up for the Blue Devils in a big way against N.C. State and made his presence felt, whether people noticed or not.
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