When North Carolina coach Roy Williams recruited Zion Williamson, he saw a player who was “off the charts athletically” and “explosive.”
He wanted Williamson to come to UNC, but the highly touted recruit ultimately chose Duke.
On Wednesday, No. 1 Duke and No. 8 UNC will face off in Durham, and one of the biggest challenges the Tar Heels will face is figuring out how to slow a player as unique and explosive as Williamson.
“Zion is a different bird,” Williams said . “There’s no question about that. We tried to recruit him very, very hard. He’s got a combination of skill-set that I’ve never seen before. There’s a lot of attention, but he deserves it. He’s backed it up.”
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Williamson, who is 6-7, 285 pounds, is one of the toughest players to defend in the ACC and very few teams have figured out how to slow him. He’s faster than most big men and stronger than those his height. Williamson is averaging 22.4 points per game with 9.2 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 1.9 blocks and is shooting 68.3 percent from the floor.
As a result, he’s helped Duke to a 23-2 record and No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim earlier this season compared Williamson to a more athletic version of Charles Barkley. On Monday, he chuckled when asked how to slow him, and joked that his team had no success in doing that when Syracuse beat Duke earlier this season 95-91 in overtime on Jan. 14.
“He can shoot, can get to the basket, he’s so strong physically,” Boeheim said. “I haven’t seen a player really like him in my coaching career.”
It’s unclear who will be the primary defender guarding Williamson on Wednesday, but there are a number of different options. If UNC uses its big lineup, the 6-9, 229-pound Garrison Brooks, who Williams said has graded higher on defense than any other player this season, could guard him.
If UNC goes small, either 6-9, 210-pound forward Cam Johnson or 6-6, 220-pound freshman forward Nassir Little could guard him. Little and Williamson matched up against each other in the McDonald’s All-American game and Jordan Brand Classic. Little won MVP in both games.
But Williamson has been on a tear since he got to college, and defending him and Duke’s other stars — R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones — will likely be by committee.
“I think the big thing to guarding him will be keeping him out of the lane, making him be a jump shooter and keeping him off the glass,” Johnson said. “And maybe getting him in foul trouble.”
Most of Williamson’s buckets have come in the paint where he is most effective. He is No. 2 in the country among all players in effective field goal percentage and No. 3 in true shooting percentage, according to kenpom.com.
Williams said even if you do manage to slow Williamson down, Duke’s other stars can beat you. Freshman guard R.J. Barrett, who is projected to be a top two pick in the NBA draft, is averaging 22.7 points per game and 7.4 rebounds.
Freshman wing Cam Reddish, who is 6-8, 218 pounds, is averaging 13.8 points per game.
And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has said freshman point guard Tre Jones is Duke’s most important player because of his defense and his ability to find his teammates.
“In a lot of ways this is the most gifted Duke team that I’ve seen in the 16 years I’ve been back,” Williams said. “It’s a unique team but I think it starts with the big guy.”