Who Is Duke's Best NBA Prospect? Scouts Already Have a Favorite

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterNovember 9, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 06: Cam Reddish #2 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates with RJ Barrett #5, Zion Williamson #1 and Marques Bolden #20 during the State Farm Champions Classic against the Kentucky Wildcats at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 6, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Duke defeated Kentucky 118-84. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

It took one game for Duke's Big Three to elevate the NBA draft discussion.

Freshmen RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish are already changing the feeling of the projected 2019 class, just weeks after one NBA executive told Bleacher Report it was looking "really weak."

Scouts' preseason favorite to go No. 1 in the 2019 draft, Barrett backed up the love by erupting for 33 points and six assists against No. 2 Kentucky, demonstrating the relentless scoring and fierce competitiveness that's fueled his distinguished image since 2015.

But most of the buzz following the game didn't revolve around Barrett; for years, scouts have seen him execute the moves, finishes and shots he buried Kentucky with.

Williamson was the player who generated the most reaction among scouts.

"Opinion definitely changed on Zion," said one scout. "His ability to use the right hand and hit jumpers showed fast improvement."

"I'm all in on Zion," said a second scout.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 06:  Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles the ball against the kentucky Wildcats during the State Farm Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 6, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Ly
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Evaluators seemed to learn the most about Williamson during his debut, when he totaled 28 points with only two missed shots.

The 6'7", 285-pound UFO had always been polarizing. He has a unique mix of power and extraordinary bounce but faced questions over his skill set and future position.

Williamson only strengthened his case Tuesday night as one of the most physically gifted prospects college basketball has seen. His remarkable explosiveness and quickness, which came to life in transition and on post-ups, slashes and offensive rebounds, create an advantage on par with the one Russell Westbrook has at guard.

After watching Williamson cross over into drives, inside-out dribble through traffic, and create separation with a step-back and drill a three, questioning his fit suddenly seems like overthinking.

"I wouldn't worry about fit at all," said the first scout. "He also has the body girth and bounce to defend 4s and the quicks to defend 3s."

Even if the face-up moves and shooting aren't there every game, this early it's about capability, as opposed to proficiency. The fact that he has these maneuvers and the shot-making in his bag is the key takeaway, considering how much he leaned on strength and athleticism over skill throughout high school.

Most notably, his improving handle continues to enhance the threat he poses away from the basket. He's developed a tight command of the ball, able to keep it low, shake with it, sneak through small windows and maintain control during his gather and delivery of the shot or finish.

Though expectations varied—a third scout said nothing he saw was surprising—Williamson couldn't have done more to answer questions about a future NBA fit or whether his athleticism would be equally as effective against Kentucky as it was in high school.

Meanwhile, Reddish also opened eyes with 22 points in 24 minutes, working as a third option, point forward and spot-up shooter.

AJ Mast/Associated Press

While scouts always acknowledged the upside tied to his 6'8" size, playmaking potential and three-ball, it wasn't clear how he'd handle playing alongside bigger stars at Duke. The second scout still worries that Reddish will be "too asleep all season" playing behind Barrett and Williamson.

Based on the role he took on opening night, when eight of his 14 field-goal attempts came from behind the arc, Reddish could wind up doing more standing around and spot-up shooting than he's used to, leaving him vulnerable to inconsistency and flickering impact.

However, he did an admirable job against Kentucky of moving the ball, not forcing and then capitalizing opportunistically on catch-and-shoot attempts, and driving lanes.

A fourth scout mentioned that it is a matter of time before Reddish takes his turn carrying the team.

His NBA fit is easy to picture based on his tools and the versatility to play and defend multiple positions.

As for Barrett, he looked as good as advertised by the scouts B/R polled last month. His ability to improvise in the paint with counter footwork and midair adjustments sets him apart. He even hit three triples and exploited the extra attention he received from Kentucky's defense to set up teammates, showcasing an entire arsenal of offense.

Multiple scouts we contacted sounded reluctant to alter their rankings after one game and still see the Canadian wing as the top prospect.

But from an NBA draft perspective, it's becoming clearer that Duke may have two No. 1 overall talents as Williamson gains steam. And though Reddish isn't in the same discussion, his first performance suggests he's in position to finish atop the follow-up tier of prospects.

The top three of our latest mock draft is all Duke, and it could take overachieving from outside prospects to prevent history from occurring in June 2019.