Zion Williamson’s ACC days are ending fast, the sensation from Spartanburg passing before our eyes from player to personage, a one-name as well as a one-year wonder.
Video highlights feature “Zion’s Dunks” and we know he’s the star, even as the 18-year-old squirms to have his game so simply stereotyped. Basketball Hall of Famer Scotty Pippen advised Williamson in apparent seriousness to quit playing college ball, to “shut it down” lest he risk injury -- like the eye-poke he suffered at Florida State on Jan. 12 -- that might compromise his NBA worth. But the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson seems unfazed, to the point he casually assures courtside photographers he’s mindful of not running into them, preferring a more dangerous vault over their heads.
The worth Williamson might jeopardize is figured by several experts in the $1-billion range over his career. Speculation about this June’s NBA draft already assumes Williamson, not teammate R.J. Barrett, the preseason favorite, will be the top pick.
Duke allows media members to interview players at their lockers following games rather than at a remove, an ACC rarity, and Williamson is routinely swarmed by a covey of questioners. “It’s fun,” he says easily of the attention. “It’s part of the lifestyle of coming to Duke.”
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Yet even had he gone to Clemson, a final possibility during his recruitment, Williamson, who arrived in college with millions of social media followers, would have drawn a crowd.
Grace and power
Summon a flood of adjectives and clichés to describe Williamson’s play. Make comparisons to any standout ACC performer you choose. Apply every statistical measure, every nuance of analysis to gauge his skills and you’ll still fall shy of capturing the electricity and sense of fun he can generate on the court.
The fascination is as much with Williamson’s improbable blends of grace and power, precision and agility, explosiveness and discipline, unselfishness and aggression in a very large frame, as it is with his personal stats. He’s the only Division I player averaging 20 or more points on better than 60 percent shooting.
“It’s almost like you don’t have words anymore,” commentator Jay Bilas said after gushing on-air about Williamson’s basketball attributes. “There’s never been anybody like him to play basketball.”
Other ACC performers have been the NBA’s putative top draft pick, and 10 went on to be taken first since Duke’s Art Heyman in 1963. The league has had numerous lionized players, but a precious few were known by their first name as freshmen. Even fewer captured popular imagination by thoroughly defying either the game’s conventions, like 5-3 Wake Forest guard Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues (1984-87), or gravity’s edicts, like N.C. State’s David Thompson (1973-75).
Arguably only Thompson engendered wonder to match Williamson, whose prospects for acclaim and riches are almost unimaginable in a culture with an insatiable appetite for anointing, celebrating and critiquing the latest stars, superstars, greats, sensations, hits, heroes and legends.
“When you see something unique you can’t take your eyes off of it because you’re wondering what it’s going to do next,” Mike Krzyzewski told me last month. Keep in mind the Blue Devil coach has worked with many of the modern NBA’s best players during 11 years directing the U.S. Olympic squad.
A special occasion
Krzyzewski experienced another up-close instance of popular fascination with his 1992 Duke team featuring Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner. The squad, which went on to repeat as national champions, the only ACC program ever to do so, attracted thousands of young girls screaming their adoration during open NCAA tournament workouts at Greensboro and Philadelphia. The frenzy reminded older observers of the reception The Beatles commanded upon first appearing in the U.S. three decades earlier.
“Even when you see talent you love the performance but you’re not sitting towards the edge of your seat in anticipation. You’re excited, but when you see unique talent the anticipation makes the excitement even greater,” Krzyzewski explained regarding the appeal of the player with a “Z” carved in the hair above his left ear like the mark of Zorro. “You know you’re not going to see it tomorrow. You have to wait until the next time you see unique. It’s a special occasion, it’s a special occasion and this kid’s got that.”
Watching Williamson with the ball in isolated moments is reminiscent of seeing a great slugger step to the plate, even his batting practice cuts accompanied by an air of expectation. Attention is riveted by the promise of grand swings or arresting home runs. Each homer struck builds anticipation the feat will be repeated, and soon.
Williamson is a show in himself despite being as content to wait for a good shot or to deftly feed teammates as to create highlight dunks – some testaments to simplicity, others simply spectacular. As large as most NFL lineman but without needless poundage, Williamson challenges the way we expect big-bodied men to move. Somehow, despite his size, he pounces.
Never is the sense of his explosive, lurking presence more acute than when a loose ball rolls toward mid-court. With players from both teams scrambling to gain possession, the prospect of Williamson getting there first is almost delicious to contemplate.
There’s little that can stop Williamson except a very hard foul once he applies his surprising speed and ballhandler’s control to seize an open-court opportunity. Defenders are reduced to the status of animated traffic cones around whom he swiftly maneuvers, creative foils for the next memorable scene in his ongoing drama, a basketball gift too rich to care what team he represents or whether he has yet mastered an outside shot.