In the unenviable position of replacing the nation’s most visible — not to mention talented — college basketball player, Alex O’Connell allowed himself time for good thoughts.
It was Feb. 21, the day after Zion Williamson sprained his right knee during Duke’s loss to North Carolina.
When Williamson’s left shoe ripped, causing his right knee injury in the 88-72 loss to UNC, O’Connell’s role instantly changed 36 seconds into that intense game.
When told he’d be entering the starting lineup with Williamson out the following day, he was glad to have time to mentally prepare.
“I had some time to talk to myself in my head, positively,” O’Connell said.
The 6-7, 285-pound Williamson is a national player of the year candidate for his dominant play on offense and defense this season. He’s projected as the No. 1 pick in the June NBA Draft.
O’Connell, a 6-6, 183-pound sophomore guard, had started one game at Duke prior to Williamson’s injury.
The Blue Devils (24-4, 12-3 ACC) still held the nation’s No. 1 ranking when O’Connell got his first start of this season last Saturday at Syracuse.
He produced 20 points, hitting five of eight 3-point attempts, leading the Blue Devils to a 75-65 win on Feb. 23 at the Carrier Dome.
O’Connell hit his only two 3-pointers last Tuesday, playing 20 turnover-free minutes as the No. 3 Blue Devils lost 77-72 at No. 20 Virginia Tech.
With Williamson improving steadily toward a return but still not practicing, O’Connell finds himself still a big part of Duke’s plans for Saturday’s ACC game with Miami at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
He doesn’t see extra pressure in replacing Williamson in Duke’s lineup. Rather, he welcomes the opportunity and keeps thinking good thoughts.
“It challenges me more to step up and have to do more, which is something that I completely embrace and something that I really want to do,” O’Connell said. “With Zion being out, it changes the dynamic of our team. So just being another threat out there on the offensive end. I don’t want to just be another guy out there, spacing the floor. I want to be a threat. I want to be someone that my teammates can trust to get the ball to and score or penetrate and help them create shots for themselves.”
Despite the team’s loss at Virginia Tech, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski praised O’Connell for “putting together two solid games in a row.”
That’s not been easy for O’Connell given his role with the team. His minutes have fluctuated wildly this season.
In the three games prior to Williamson’s injury, he played 10 minutes total. That included no playing time in an 81-71 win at Virginia on Feb. 9.
“There are obviously more talented guys on our team who need those minutes and can help us get the ball in the basket at a really high rate,” O’Connell said. “But it’s been tough. I’ve tried to make sure every time I’m on the bench I try to be in to the game and be mentally ready when my name is called. Just try to be somewhat of an energy guy off the bench, whether it’s hitting shots or just trying to play tough defense or grabbing a rebound.”
Williamson’s injury led to O’Connell playing 17 minutes against UNC. Duke’s coaches, Krzyzewski most notably, feel comfortable with his play the last two games, and that means plenty to O’Connell.
“I just feel like my teammates have more trust in me and I feel like coach has more trust in me right now at this moment of the season, which is a big factor,” O’Connell said. “Because if coach trusts you, he’ll put you in there and he’ll leave you in there.”
O’Connell and the Blue Devils eagerly anticipate Williamson’s return, even if it’s not likely to be against Miami (12-15, 4-11 ACC) on Saturday.
“We’re going to try to become the best team we can be, whether Zion is with us or not, even though we want him to be back as soon as possible,” O’Connell said.
Even after Williamson returns, the Blue Devils who have played without him have gained experience O’Connell believes can only help in the season’s most important games -- in the NCAA tournament.
“I think with our play these last few games we’ve learned some stuff about our team,” O’Connell said. “A lot of us have stepped up and grown. So it just shows that when Zion comes back we’ll have more depth and rotation off the bench which is really a key thing come March at tournament time.”
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