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Freshmen rule the NBA draft with five more coming from Duke and UNC on Thursday

The crowd is mesmerized as Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) goes in for a thunderous dunk in the second half of play. Duke defeated Eastern Michigan 84-46 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
The crowd is mesmerized as Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) goes in for a thunderous dunk in the second half of play. Duke defeated Eastern Michigan 84-46 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Jay Bilas was talking about the struggles of a freshman who is a potential lottery pick in the NBA draft and he stopped himself.

“It’s one year,” said Bilas, who is ESPN’s top college basketball analyst and will work his 17th NBA draft on Thursday night.

One year is just about all the NBA gets to judge the top talent in college basketball. There are five freshmen, from Duke and North Carolina, who could go in the lottery on Thursday night.

Duke’s Zion Williamson will almost certainly be the No. 1 overall pick, by the New Orleans Pelicans, and will be followed in some order by Duke teammates R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish and UNC’s freshmen stars Coby White and Nassir Little.

The NBA created the “one-and-done” rule in 2006, but the number of freshmen taken in the lottery (the first 14 picks) has exploded the past two years and likely will be in a similar numerical range this year.

Twenty-one of the 28, or 75 percent, of the lottery picks in the 2017 and ‘18 drafts spent one season in college basketball. There were 10 last year and 11 in ‘17, the only two years (out of 13) with double-digit freshmen in the lottery.

There were five freshmen taken in the lottery in 2016 and eight in ‘15. There were fewer than five freshmen taken in the lottery in six of the first eight years of the rule.

A one-and-done player has been the No. 1 overall pick for the past nine years (and 11 of the 13) and Williamson would continue the streak. Bilas, who had a conference call Monday ahead of the draft, had high praise for the Duke supernova.

Zion Williamson weighs in on whether he would still play for Duke if the one-and-done rule didn't exist, and he talks about the difference between playing in college and the NBA.

“There’s never been a player like him that’s ever played basketball at any level,” Bilas said, noting Williamson’s combination of size (6-7 and 285 pounds) and explosive athletic ability. “Nobody.”

Williamson averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game in 33 games for the Blue Devils. The defensive numbers and effort impressed Bilas as much — if not more — as the incredible highlight dunks.

“I haven’t seen anybody play harder than he does,” Bilas said. “He doesn’t take plays off.”

Williamson would be the fourth Duke player to go No. 1 overall and first since Kyrie Irving in 2011. Bilas is confident Williamson will be a game-changer in the NBA.

“I don’t think it will take him long to adjust to being a big-time player in the NBA,” Bilas said.

In most NBA draft projections, Barrett is slated to go No. 3 to the New York Knicks. Barrett, who averaged 22.6 points and 7.6 rebounds last season, had some shooting struggles (30.8 percent from the 3-point line, 66.5 percent from the free-throw line) but Bilas wasn’t too concerned about how that would translate at the next level.

“It’s not like he has a broken shot or needs a complete overhaul,” Bilas said. “He just needs to refine it. He needs to improve there but I think he will.”

Bilas projected Barrett to be an “all-star caliber” player in the NBA. He had more questions about Reddish, who was inconsistent in his lone season at Duke. Reddish averaged 13.5 points per game, and made 89 3-pointers (on 267 attempts), but ran hot and cold. He followed up a 20-point game with a single-digit game six times.

Duke's Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett react to a photo of Williamson celebrating a dunk by teammate and roomie Barrett against North Dakota State. The photo was taken by News & Observer photojournalist Ethan Hyman.

“He’s a little bit difficult to figure out,” Bilas said. “There were times when overall he was a disappointing last year in his productivity.”

Bilas complimented Reddish’s shooting stroke but also pointed out that he struggled in catch-and-shoot situations, which is unusual for a pure shooter. Reddish also turned the ball over (96 times) too much for Bilas.

“It’s one year,” Bilas said. “I think he’s got more in him than he showed.”

The one main complaint Bilas had about Reddish was about the two games he missed during the season — a home loss to Syracuse in January and an NCAA tournament win over Virginia Tech.

“There were two games that he kind of checked out of just as the game was about to start,” Bilas said.

Reddish was sick and did not play in the first game against Syracuse on Jan. 14, and he sat out the Virginia Tech game in the Sweet 16 with knee tendonitis.

“He was slated to start the (Virginia Tech) game and then tendonitis in his knee was sort of the report,” Bilas said. “I don’t think tendonitis in your knee keeps you from playing. It’s not my knee, but I don’t know. That surprised me. It certainly made me question things.”

Like Reddish, Little was inconsistent at UNC but Bilas was bullish on the UNC forward’s NBA potential.

“He’s super athletic, just a terrific athlete,” Bilas said. “I think he can be good defensively, with his length and athleticism.”

Little averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.2 minutes per game. Bilas said Little “probably played the fewest amount of minutes of any lottery pick.” Bilas noted that Little was playing behind a guy “older and more prepared” in Cam Johnson, a graduate transfer.

“He improved off the ball a lot,” Bilas said. “I think he can improve as a shooter. I think he’s a got a chance to be really, really good.”

Duke and UNC have produced four lottery picks in the same draft (in 2012 and ‘05) but if all five go in the first 14 picks this year, that would be a first.

Bilas also mentioned Johnson (“One of the best shooters in the draft, if not the best shooter,” he said) as a first-round possibility.

N.C. State recruit Jalen Lecque, Wake Forest wing Jaylen Hoard and Boston College guard Ky Bowman (from Havelock) are other players with North Carolina connections who could go in the second round.

The Blue Devil freshman talks about his dunking prowess and the energy it provides the already hyper Cameron Crazies.

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