Last night’s Duke-Kentucky game featured a plethora of 2019 NBA Draft prospects. How did they perform in Duke’s blowout win?
From a competitive standpoint, Duke’s 118-84 win over Kentucky in the State Farm Champions Classic was incredibly boring. Duke jumped out to a massive early lead, and the Wildcats looked overmatched from the jump. If you wanted an entertaining contest to start your college basketball season, the earlier Michigan State-Kansas game was the better option.
However, this game was very important for NBA fans tuning in to see what might be as many as eight or nine 2019 NBA Draft prospects. These two teams are the deepest in the nation in terms of talent that will play at the next level, and despite Duke’s dominance, we still got some valuable information. This game offered our first real answers to some major questions. How would Duke manage the ball-handling load between R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish? What skill improvements would Keldon Johnson show? And who would assert themselves in Kentucky’s backcourt between Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, and Tyler Herro?
Below are some initial notes on what happened during last night’s bludgeoning. I tried to hit everyone, although certain players, particularly Barrett and Reddish, stole the show. This was our first chance to see several high-profile matchups that will help gauge the 2019 NBA Draft class, and it delivered, even if the game did not.
R.J. Barrett had 20 points in the first half and finished with 33. He hinted at the possibility of the number one scorer potential that he’s had for years. His craft around the basket is phenomenal – on several occasions, he was contested by Keldon Johnson or one of Kentucky’s bigs at the rim, and was able to sneak the ball into the basket with a crafty finishing angle. He also connected well from outside, finishing 3-of-7 from 3, and the improvements to his shot mechanics from this summer are beginning to manifest.
However, Barrett’s offensive role felt largely detached from Duke’s overall offensive output. Outside of a few spot-up jumpers and transition looks, a majority of Barrett’s looks were on isolation or simple pick-and-roll opportunities, and there were stretches where Barrett took a one-on-five or two-on-five approach, which felt clunky. We didn’t really get to see much of the passing that was so promising for his NBA projection, and his role felt very similar to Jayson Tatum’s on the 2016-17 team. That’s not ideal for Barrett if it continues.
Cameron Reddish, meanwhile, did a nice job of working to undo some of the negative vibes surrounding his pre-high school film. The theme of the night for Reddish was opportunity, as he did a great job of taking what the Kentucky defense gave him — which was plenty. He hit a pair of early 3s that were open catch-and-shoots that came early in the shot clock but went in easily. Then, late in the first half, Reddish had a flurry of points that came off secondary actions with a huge size advantage against Herro, getting six points off drives where he easily turned the corner and got into the lane. This was a nice reprieve from the questionable shot selection we saw from him as a number one option — he was very assertive and took the easy opportunities that came to him.
Keldon Johnson, meanwhile was the clear star for Kentucky in the first half — when the team got down early, Johnson appeared to be the only one asserting himself. His defense was decent throughout, although he had some difficulty impacting the game in Kentucky’s zone looks. Offensively, he was able to get to the line consistently, and did a good job creating downhill off secondary actions, something he improved on over the course of the game. There weren’t a lot of primary initiation opportunities, which looked like it was by design. Either way, he rightly looked like a top-10 pick and Kentucky’s best pro prospect.
A large problem for Kentucky’s offense seemed to be the insistence on running the offense through their fours, Reid Travis and P.J. Washington. Washington was tasked with this a lot last year, and looked mostly lost at it. This year, he looks much more confident in his decision making, and Travis certainly is capable of facing up and getting a bucket from the elbow. However, that didn’t translate into offensive value. Washington in particular doesn’t appear threatening enough as a scorer or passer to bend the defense in a productive way, and his jumper isn’t all the to the point where defenders have to press up on him.
It probably didn’t help Washington that he was stuck defending Zion Williamson, which was not an enviable task. Williamson’s production came with a lot of transition looks, but he did do a nice job of scoring off the dribble in the halfcourt, particularly on a pair of first half drives against Washington where he displayed some good touch against contact.
The most impressive part of Williamson’s game continues to be his athleticism, which created both his highlight dunk in transition in the first half and an early highlight steal where he broke up a cross-court transition pass by leaping at the ball-handler and tipping the pass with his reach. Williamson’s technique on defense isn’t the best right now, but his transition defense and weakside rim protection figures to be pretty strong, as he has the catch radius of an NFL tight end. His prospects of playing the four or five defensively get higher with every data point that suggests that hand-wringing about his height was probably overblown.
But that wasn’t all. Williamson impressed with his passing too, particularly on the break, where he hit two nice go-ahead passes to Tre Jones and Barrett to create easy baskets. That is certainly something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Williamson wasn’t the only one showing off good court vision — Tre Jones had six assists, and was particularly strong with his ability to pick apart Kentucky’s zone looks in the first half. He played up to his billing as a top-two point guard in the class with his handle in the open floor and cutting ability. He did struggle to score at the rim, though, so that will be a focus point as we head into the season, if an ankle injury that occurred in the second half isn’t a big deal.
Jones looked to be a step ahead of Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans, who both struggled in defensive assignments against Reddish and Barrett, and didn’t seem to be trusted by John Calipari to take much creation load. Whenever Quade Green and Tyler Herro were on the floor, it felt like these two took a back seat, and that’s pretty concerning, given than neither Herro nor Green looked very capable. Hagans did a better job of creating off secondary actions, but this was a good demonstration of why I had Quickley in the 60s and Hagans unranked on my preseason big board despite lofty recruiting rankings.
The one other Kentucky player I did come away impressed with was E.J. Montgomery, who did a solid job on the glass in his bench role, pulling down six rebounds to go with eight points. Montgomery doesn’t appear to be much more than an energy big, but he did a nice job of getting seals on Marques Bolden and Williamson under the basket, and was the most engaged defender of any of Kentucky’s big men.
Overall, Reddish, Williamson, and Jack White (Who had an excellent game as far as Duke bench guys go — he’s going to be a terror in the German League for years) were the players who exceeded my expectations tonight. If Reddish can be this judicious as a scorer and this locked in on the defensive end, he has a definite shot at a top-three selection. Williamson, meanwhile, showed that his skill level is much higher than the consensus appears to think, and is going to be very difficult to keep from the top ranking for very long.
Barrett, Johnson, Washington, Jones, and the Kentucky guards all played to expectations, for the most part. It was great to see Barrett put up points at such a high clip with ease, but he did show some worrying tendencies. Meanwhile, Kentucky showed flashes, but they have a fundamental problem with where their offensive initiation comes from, and that’s going to haunt them if they don’t get better point guard play. Travis and Washington may be able to operate as hubs against lesser teams, but they need one of Herro, Quickley, or Hagans to assert themselves. Otherwise, this offense is going to be quite boring, predictable, and ineffective.