R.J. Barrett is back in his native land, joining his new Duke basketball teammates on the court to start what they hope is a journey that ends in Minneapolis.
The No. 1-ranked player and part of the nation’s top recruiting class, Barrett and the Blue Devils will play three exhibition games against Canadian university teams this week.
The three games and the 10 practices Duke was allowed to go through in conjunction with this foreign trip this summer give the young Blue Devils much-needed time on the court together.
Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Zion Williamson are the nation’s top three incoming freshmen. Guard Tre Jones was a top-10 player in his class.
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All four will play major roles in any success Duke has this season as the Blue Devils seek a berth in the Final Four, which will be helped at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in April.
After practicing together on Tuesday, the Blue Devils will play Ryerson on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto.
“It gives us an opportunity to work with our guys and get to know our guys better,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. I couldn’t be more pleased with the chemistry that has developed. These guys have really been fun to coach.”
Achieving that quick chemistry is Duke’s annual challenge. All five starters from last season’s 29-8 team are gone to the NBA. The freshmen are here to take their places in a one-year cycle that goes on and on.
“It will give us time to just be together,” Duke junior center Marques Bolden said. “We really don’t know each other’s games right now and we just all got here since it’s the summertime. So it’s really good to just come out and play against some competition other than just ourselves in practice every day. This trip should be fun and we should grow a lot over these next couple of weeks.”
Bolden and fellow junior Javin DeLaurier are Duke’s most experienced players returning. So far, they feel comfortable with the newcomers.
“Every freshman class that has been here since I’ve been here has been tremendously talented,” DeLaurier said. “These guys are especially close I would say as a group. They work really hard and they’re really willing to listen. I think that’s been their biggest attribute so far. They’re just soaking everything in, from coaches to players, they’re just wanting to get better.”
The bad news for Duke is two of the newcomers, Jones (hip) and Reddish (groin), won’t play in games as they let nagging injuries heal.
They’ve been limited, at best, in practices so far. They are along on the trip to Canada, though, and able to spend time with their new teammates.
In the time he has spent on the court with his fellow freshmen, the 6-7 Barrett anticipates cohesion will occur quickly this season.
“It’s very good to play with them,” Barrett said. “We all just make the right play and make the right pass. That’s just how we play, so it’s very easy to play with them.”
Fellow freshman Williamson wowed the Canadian crowd who attended Duke’s open practice on Tuesday. When the practice was over, the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson ran from the opposite end of the court before leaping at the free-throw line and completing a monster slam dunk.
Barrett had tried a similar move minutes before but started his jump from a foot or so inside the free-throw line.
Williamson is happy with how the team is feeling togetherness.
“It’s been a very easy adjustment,” Williamson said. “We all like playing with each other. We all are very unselfish. Thank Coach K for that. He kind of changes the offense each year to fit the style of how we play. We have a wide (open) offense. Just a lot of ball movement.”
Duke’s games are 7 p.m on Wednesday against Ryerson, 6 p.m. Friday against the University of Toronto and 3 p.m. on Sunday against McGill. All will be televised on ESPN+, an online subscription-only service.