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Duke remains an unfinished product, which is a scary thought

Duke’s Zion Williamson slams in two in victory over UNC

Watch a time-lapse as Duke's Zion Williamson slams in two in the Blue Devils' victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament semifinals in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 15, 2019.
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Watch a time-lapse as Duke's Zion Williamson slams in two in the Blue Devils' victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament semifinals in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 15, 2019.

Hard to believe at this stage of the season that Duke, despite its starpower and shiny ACC title, is still very much an unfinished product. Just when the Blue Devils were getting rolling, Zion Williamson’s shoe slew put a pause on things. And even when he returned in Charlotte, Marques Bolden’s injury left a hole to fill.

Duke will enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed Friday still trying to figure out exactly what it is and who it wants to be, and while for some teams that might be a fatal flaw, it hasn’t been for Duke because of the firepower of Williamson and Barrett.

For the Blue Devils, seeking the right balance between those two is a feature, not a bug.

It’s a completely different team than it was early in the season. Whether it was intentional or just the result of Williamson becoming an unstoppable force, the focal point of the offense shifted from Barrett to Williamson, slowly and inexorably. It’s hard to imagine the situation at the end of the Gonzaga loss, when Barrett took every shot, repeated now. The ball would have to touch Williamson’s hands at some point, as it did near the end of Friday’s ACC semifinal against North Carolina, when Williamson scored the game-winner off the rebound of his own miss.

Barrett may be the leading scorer, but it’s increasingly Williamson’s team, a dynamic that has shifted over the course of the season but is firmly leaning toward the latter now. And that process – paused during the five-plus games Williamson missed, a stretch in which Duke went 3-3 – is still ongoing.

Watch an excerpt of the Duke press conference after the ACC Tournament win over UNC when a reporter ask Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett to rate Zion's dunks.

The kind of team-building process that used to happen over the course of three or four seasons plays out over one these days at Duke, unavoidably rushed and hurried, and this season in fits and starts thanks to all the injuries, not just to Williamson but Tre Jones and Cam Reddish as well.

Two years ago, the Blue Devils won four games in four days to win the ACC championship but still never did seem to figure it out. This team is way ahead of that curve, but there’s still so much uncharted territory to explore, so much uncertainty ahead.

And with that comes the realization that as good as Duke looked in Charlotte, there may be an entire world of potential that remains untapped.

“You know, it’s tough to determine what our potential is, and I try not to do that,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I just want to have us play as good as we possibly can play right now. Half the conference season we played without our full complement of players. So to play these three games was so important because we learned – we remembered many of the things that we did when we played together before, but we learned some new things.”

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski discusses RJ Barrett's aggressive play and playmaking, which helped him be the ACC's leading scorer for the 2018-19 season.

Bolden is expected back soon from a sprained knee, if not Friday, then Sunday if Duke advances. He’s hardly a secret weapon, but his return would get Duke the final step closer to full strength.

“If we can get Marques back – I hope some time during this tournament, I hope we’re in this tournament for a long time – that will make us even better,” Krzyzewski said. “But they played and competed better and harder than I thought they would be capable of doing right now.”

It’s a fair question to ask whether Duke needs to get that much better to make the Final Four. The Blue Devils have only one loss at full strength this season, and they have undergone a not-so-subtle metamorphosis since that game against Gonzaga in the light and heat of the Zion supernova.

With him, at the ACC tournament, Duke again looked like the team it expected to be. Over these next three weeks, what could it yet become?

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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