Duke Basketball: Defensive POY award may return to Durham in 2019

(Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
(Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images) /

If Duke basketball freshmen Tre Jones and Zion Williamson keep doing what they’ve been doing on defense, they may end up sharing a national award that used to routinely call Durham home.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches began naming the top defensive player in the country each season back in 1987. And the first name was Tommy Amaker, a Duke basketball senior point guard that year who used his textbook stance and footwork — not to mention his dogged determination — to set a new defensive standard for the program.

The following year, the award went to another Blue Devil, senior forward Billy King.

But the list of Dukies to wear the crown of best defender in the land didn’t end there.

There was small forward Grant Hill in ’93 and point guard Steve Wojciechowski in ’98. Power forward Shane Battier did it three times: ’99, ’00 (shared with Cincinnati’s Kenyon Martin, the only time there have been co-winners), and ’01. And big man Shelden “The Landlord” Williams took home the honor in back-to-back seasons: ’05 and ’06.

That’s nine times — Connecticut is second all-time with four — across the first 20 years of the award’s existence that the recipient was a Blue Devil.

Yet zero ever since.

Well, the drought may end in ’19 thanks to two freshmen who make playing defense look like child’s play. Not only do point guard Tre Jones and power forward Zion Williamson make it look as if it’s in their blood to excel at bringing out the worst in their opponents, but while doing so, they make it look like they’re having a blast — a welcome sight following a string of lackluster Duke defenses in recent years.

Jones has been a tone-setter for the young Blue Devils during an 11-1 start that has them ranked No. 1 in the country entering the new year.

While the 6-foot-2, 185-pounder out of Apple Valley, Minn., has often flirted with flawlessness while directing the nation’s No. 6 scoring offense (91.6 points per game), much of that offense has come as a result of a relentless defensive effort by the team.

An effort that Jones inspires.

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Every time an opponent tries to advance the ball down the floor, he uses his pesky hands, keen awareness, and willingness to get down and dirty to make every inch of advancement a living nightmare.

And although he isn’t always the one to get credit for a takeaway — he does, however, average 2.0 steals next to his name on the box score — his ball-hawking pressure is often the root of the reason that the other team turns the ball over.

As a whole, the Blue Devils have the second-most steals in the country to date (138) and have forced their opponents into averaging 17.7 turnovers per game (ranks 18th).

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Williamson, who is essentially the equivalent of adding about 30 pounds of muscle and more than a foot of vertical leap to Battier, does his part by snagging steals, which typically lead to transition dunks, and adding blocks, which typically lead to an amazed crowd and an embarrassed opponent.

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Like Battier during his heyday in Durham, Williamson appears to be a rare player with the necessary tools to average about two of both defensive stats per game — he currently averages 1.9 steals and 2.1 blocks.

The 6-foot-7, 285-pound freak of nature from Spartanburg, S.C., has a motor that never sputters. A level of athleticism that is unmatched. A commanding presence on both ends of the floor that is talked about often — yet not nearly often enough.

Now, it should also be mentioned that fellow freshman forward Cam Reddish actually leads the team in steals (2.2 per game) due to his 7-foot-1 wingspan and knack for knowing where the ball is going to end up next; however, not to knock Reddish, but his defense is more one-dimensional than that of Jones and Williamson.

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So who is the overall better defender between Jones and Williamson?

Considering they have distinct styles, it’s tough to pick one over the other. But one thing’s for sure: it would be tough to find anyone else in the country playing defense better than either of them.

And that means, come spring, the NABC may have no option but to do something it hasn’t done since ’00:

Just have two guys — this time two teammates — share the award.

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Those two guys and the rest of the Blue Devils next play on Jan. 5 when the Clemson Tigers come to town with a borderline-unrealistic hope to not allow the Duke defense to bring out their worst.