It's the second-to-last game in Cameron Indoor Stadium for Cam Reddish, and the star freshman strides to the court. On the way, he smiles at the never more appropriately named Cameron Crazies, many of whom have painted "CamFam" on their shirts and on their skin. He hugs a middle-aged female security guard. Then he takes a pass from a student manager and steps to the free-throw line. Ten minutes before any other Duke starter emerges from the locker room, Reddish is already at work.
This is the Cam Reddish critics either don't see or choose to ignore. Since his sophomore year of high school, Reddish has been considered one of the country's best basketball players. He looks the part of a modern NBA star, standing at 6'7" and with a 7'1" wingspan and 8'9" standing reach. He plays the part, too, with the way he defends multiple positions and scores from almost anywhere on the floor. His shooting stroke is as smooth as it is precise, and his ability to get into the lane at times appears effortless. Coach Mike Krzyzewski once called him "a beautiful player."
But an ugly reputation has followed him for years. Critics say he coasts on his natural talent. They say he should be more productive. Worst of all, they say he lacks that vague but vital trait all NBA teams look for in their stars—a "killer instinct."
"Cam Reddish is the big enigma at the top of this year's draft," said one NBA scout. "People try to make all these comparisons: Is he Paul George? Is he Rudy Gay? I start with something more basic: Who is this kid?"
With the NCAA tournament just weeks away and Zion Williamson's status still uncertain, Duke needs to be able to rely more on Reddish. And with the NBA draft just months away, Reddish still needs to show that he is that reliable game-changing force. So is Reddish ready?
"I'm really still trying to get back to who I really, really am and to get back to my game, get back to making my moves and everything like that," Reddish said. "Every day I'm getting more comfortable with being who I am."
Since high school, Reddish has been surrounded by talent. At Westtown (Pennsylvania) School, he was the primary ball-handler on teams that featured Mohamed Bamba and Brandon Randolph. In AAU he played alongside Oregon Ducks freshman Louis King, another highly touted recruit. "That's just kind of how it happened," Reddish said. "It's nothing I've really asked for, but it's been nothing but a blessing."
Duke was one of the most persistent pursuers of Reddish. Assistant coach Jon Scheyer even called him in the hours after the Blue Devils' 2015 national championship victory to tell him they could win another title if he committed. Eventually, Reddish decided the best way to do that would be to pair with his close friend Tre Jones. But neither of them knew then that the class would eventually include three more 5-star prospects in RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Joey Baker.
While Williamson and Barrett have been Duke's through-and-through stars, Reddish has had a less consistent season. He's averaging 14.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night, but his KenPom.com offensive rating of 97.7 doesn't square with his skills. (By contrast, Williamson and Barrett boast offensive ratings of 130.0 and 110.3, respectively.) He dominated the early part of the schedule, including putting up 22 points on 14 shots in Duke's dismantling of Kentucky in November. But he struggled through much of December, averaging only 11 points per night on 31.6 percent shooting and turning the ball over 17 times in five games.
By February, he appeared to be approaching his potential. In a run of five games beginning against Notre Dame and up through Duke's dramatic win over Louisville, he posted an offensive rating of 100 or better every night. But in Williamson's absence, his performances have been inconsistent. In his last two games, he put up 19 points on Miami but then picked up three early offensive fouls and only managed six points against Wake Forest. In comparison with Williamson, who is an unstoppable force, and Barrett, who is a downhill driver, Reddish can often appear passive.
"I just don't have a good feel for him," said another scout. "Is he going to be a second or third fiddle like he is now, or can he be a leading actor? In the top 10, NBA teams want a player who's going to be the guy and who's going to kick every opponent in the teeth."
Reddish is widely regarded as a top-five prospect, but a March push by him could mean that Duke players end up being picked 1-2-3 in the draft. It could also mean that the Blue Devils take home their sixth NCAA tournament title. If Williamson doesn't return, Reddish will need to show off his leading man skills. And if Williamson does—as he is expected to—Duke and NBA teams alike will want to see Reddish rack up big numbers against inferior defenders.
Either way, Krzyzewski remains confident. "You know, he's been able to explore everything with or without Zion," Krzyzewski told reporters after the Miami game. "I just think he's getting better. What we're trying to have him do is drive the ball more, not just shoot it, because then he can get fouled. And when he gets fouled, he's usually a really good free-throw shooter."
Duke's coaches repeat a mantra regularly around their young players: "Trust your work." What it means is that by practicing and putting in time in the gym, you create habits that you can count on come game time. Reddish's work ethic has never been a problem. In high school, he'd regularly work out for an hour before breakfast at 7 a.m. When asked, he couldn't even estimate how many hours he's putting in outside of practice this late in the season.
"It's a lot," he said. "I'm staying in the gym. I'm always working. Coach says you have to trust your work, so if you're not working, you don't have anything to trust. I always try to work as hard as I can every day, so I always have something to trust."
For Reddish, the month of March will be about proving that Duke and NBA teams alike can truly trust him. From those early morning workouts in high school to his rigorous pregame routine at Duke, starting strong has never been a problem for Reddish. Now the only question that matters is how well he can finish.