Two years ago, Nate James returned from Spartanburg, S.C., to Duke after one of his many visits with Zion Williamson during the recruiting process.
The report the Duke assistant would deliver to head coach Mike Krzyzewski would be as unique as Williamson’s game is on the court, as strong as one of Williamson’s tomahawk dunks.
“If we get this kid,” James told Krzyzewski, “it’s going to change not just our program, but no one in college basketball is going to see anything like this kid.”
The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson, armed with ball-handling skills, superior leaping ability and a hunger to defend, lived up to James’ projection by winning ACC player of the year honors.
He followed that up by scoring 81 points during a three-games-in-three-nights run in Charlotte that culminated with Duke winning the ACC championship and Williamson being the easy choice for most valuable player.
At that point, he’d already experienced something so many other one-year stars at Duke had failed to achieve.
Still sweaty from his 21-point performance while playing all 40 minutes of a 73-63 win over Florida State, Williamson climbed a ladder and snipped off a piece of the net in celebration.
The Blue Devils (29-5) were ACC champions. This, James said, is why Williamson chose Duke over all this other suitors in recruiting.
“When I was recruiting him, that’s what we talked about,” James said. “Being a part of something special. Having an opportunity to show the world just exactly who Zion was. He’s more than just this crazy, freaky athlete. He’s a basketball player. He has an amazing appetite to win.”
Williamson fulfilled one goal with two more accomplishments left, two more nets to cut, two more banners to earn.
“It’s even better in reality because when you’re a little kid watching Duke on TV cut down nets, championship nets, and you say you want to be a part of it,” Williamson said. “You say it as a little kid, but when you actually grow up and get to be a part of it, I mean that’s why we come to Duke, win championships and try to get banners.”
The Blue Devils (29-5) enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, the first time they’ve been a No. 1 seed since 2015. That’s the last time Duke won a national championship, the only time it has done it since it began building its roster around one-and-done players every season.
It’s certainly not been for lack of talent.
During this decade, Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter all played one season at Duke without winning a championship or reaching the Final Four before becoming NBA Draft lottery picks. (Irving’s 2011 team won the ACC title but injuries prevented him from playing in any ACC games that season).
Only two teams during Duke’s one-and-done era have won the ACC title, and that doesn’t include the 2015 national champions.
The 2016-17 Blue Devils featured Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, freshmen who were both first round NBA Draft picks a few months later. With sophomore Luke Kennard, another 2017 first-round pick, on the team as well, the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament to add a new banner to Cameron. A week later, the Blue Devils were sent home from the NCAA tournament after an upset loss to South Carolina.
That’s the legacy Duke freshman starters Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones look to overcome in his NCAA tournament.
As the ACC player of the year, Williamson looks to emulate what Jahlil Okafor did in 2015. The 6-11 Okafor was the first player to sweep ACC rookie and player of the year honors before that Blue Devil team reached the Final Four and beat Wisconsin for the national championship.
Unlike Okafor, Williamson already has one championship experience before entering the NCAA tournament.
As Duke’s lead recruiter for Williamson, James knows the superstar as well as anyone. He knows
“We’ve had some outstanding, outstanding players,” James said. “Jabari Parkers, the Marvin Bagleys. Jayson Tatum. Big-time players. But there’s only one Zion. What he’s doing. What he’s done. For his story, he wants to win a national championship. If he doesn’t win it, he’s going to feel like this year was kind of a flop for him because that’s his goal. He wants to accomplish his goal and that’s to win a national championship.”
Williamson missed Duke’s last five games, and all but 36 seconds of a sixth, due to a sprained right knee. Returning to the lineup for the ACC tournament, it was like the freshman phenom was never gone.
The 81 points he scored are the most scored by any Duke player in three ACC tournament games and broke Phil Ford’s 1975 record for an ACC freshman in a three-game run.
“Just trying to win a national championship,” Williamson said. “That’s why you come to Duke.”
Williamson’s willingness to join a team with other star players is something he told James about early in the recruiting process. With Barrett, Reddish and Jones also projected as NBA first-round picks, it’s what made Duke the right choice.
“He knows the game,” James said. “His thing to me was, `Coach, I don’t want to be the only good player. I don’t want to go to a state school. I don’t want to be the guy. Really, I have that in high school. It’s not that fun. Everyone is loading up on me. I want to throw somebody a lob pass and they’ll be able to catch it.’”
This week, Williamson returns to his home state as Duke begins its quest for an NCAA championship with a first-round game at Columbia, S.C, on Friday. The Blue Devils need two wins before moving on to the East Regional in Washington, D.C.
Minneapolis is the final destination for the Final Four. This is what Williamson came to Duke to win and what will determine his - and his classmates’ -- legacy.