Duke Basketball: Zion vs. R.J. debate will prove beneficial to Blue Devils

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

The day after the Duke basketball team’s 118-84 win over Kentucky on Tuesday night, the headlines and social media were split as to who was the best player on the court and which will have the brightest future.

It seems about half of the population of college basketball writers and fans believe Duke basketball freshman R.J. Barrett is the Blue Devils’ most talented player — on this team and potentially all-time (yes, the hype being thrown around by Duke fans, and even some Duke haters, is unapologetically through the roof at the moment). Almost all the rest seem to side with fellow first-year phenom Zion Williamson.

Meanwhile, a minute fraction hangs onto the notion that Cam Reddish will soon step out of their shadow — scary to consider that it’s like finding a needle in a haystack when scrolling for tweets or headlines that specifically hype the future potential of a freshman the day after that freshman scored 22 points in his first college game, which happened to be against a team ranked No. 2 in the country.

As it stands right now, though, Barrett and Williamson are the top two stars of the show following said show’s record-setting opening night. Both topped the previous scoring record for a Blue Devil during a debut. And although Barrett ended up with slightly more points (33 in 32 minutes), Williamson averaged slightly more points per minute (28 in 23 minutes).

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And both scored in spectacular fashion, albeit different. Barrett did it more with finesse. Williamson did it more with brute force.

Also, both showed off beyond-their-years court awareness, ball handles, and passing skills — not to mention their out-of-this-world athleticism.

As for which specific style is more fun to watch, that just depends on your personal preference.

So take your pick. Or pick them both. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the two are likely to continue a friendly competition to be the squad’s top talent and the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — at this point, it’s tough to imagine them not going one and two. At the same time, though, they differentiate themselves from the most recent one-and-done players at Duke by the way that they genuinely root for one another and the amount of joy they seem to draw from setting one another up to succeed.

And that’s scary for Duke’s future opponents.

But which one is actually better?

Right now, the answer appears to be neither — let’s just call it a tie (and Reddish isn’t far behind, if at all). What’s most important is that they’re at their best when grinning, chest-bumping, flying, dunking, swishing, and dominating together — while still having that friendly competition to one-up the other without letting it show or get in the way of the team’s goal.

Yes, Williamson and Barrett are pure competitors. Again, unlike some of the previous freshmen in Durham in the past few years, these two display a determination to do more than just show off the beauty of their games. They are determined to win, recognizing that is how the best of times are to be had.

And they have a swagger about them that indicates they are not threatened by the existence of one another. Rather, each seems to embrace the challenge of matching or exceeding the highlights of the other while amazingly being more than willing to help one another do exactly that. It’s unusual and a bit crazy.

It’s just a unique relationship that they appear to share. It was evident in preseason episodes of Duke Blue Planet; instead of bragging about themselves, each showed humility by hyping up the game of the other — yet, deep down, viewers knew they must each desire to possess the title of the most feared basketball player on the planet.

It’s just awesome. It seems perfect. And it’s what made the blowout over the Wildcats such a pleasure to watch.

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Also, it’s what could be the driving force to propel the squad deep into March and possibly into April — with, of course, the help of Reddish, a freshman point guard named Tre Jones who thus far seems incapable of looking like a freshman or turning the ball over with any regularity, a junior big man named Marques Bolden who appears to finally be figuring out how to maximize his role, a junior forward named Jack White who loves to take care of all the dirty work while displaying skills that many fans never realized he possessed, and the rest of the gang.

But in terms of headlines, the names of Zion and R.J. — or R.J. and Zion, whichever order you prefer — are going to appear the most. The other Blue Devils are obviously aware of this by now, and it sure hasn’t seemed to dampen their spirits. In fact, it’s been the opposite: the other guys seem to embrace the opportunity to play alongside two guys who are being hyped as potentially the greatest specimens to ever step foot on a basketball court.

Sure, they have a long way to go to achieve a label as the GOAT. Plus, the thing about the GOAT is there can’t be more than one.

Actually, maybe there can. And when there is, it’s called a HERD.

And maybe that’s how it will turn out with Zion and R.J. (and possibly even Cam). By not getting caught up in an argument over which has the most potential to be the GOAT, they will realize (if they haven’t already) the power of forming an unstoppable DUKE HERD together.

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It certainly doesn’t hurt that their SHEPHERD is also widely considered as the GOAT coach.