Luke DeCock

Being Zion: The Duke freshman is as comfortable in the spotlight as he is above the rim

Duke’s Zion Williamson: A dunking monster

Duke freshman Zion Williamson has an arsenal full of acrobatic dunks and photojournalist Chuck Liddy has been there for many of them. We take a closer look at a few from this season.
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Duke freshman Zion Williamson has an arsenal full of acrobatic dunks and photojournalist Chuck Liddy has been there for many of them. We take a closer look at a few from this season.

The chair next to Zion Williamson’s in Duke’s locker room belongs to Joey Baker, a freshman from Fayetteville who is redshirting this season. That’s probably a good thing, in one very narrow perspective. After games, when the media swarms around Williamson to ask about his latest high-flying exploits, no one is trying to squeeze through the mob to choke down a protein shake or get dressed.

Baker’s chair went understandably unused until one early season game, when Williamson invited sophomore walk-on Mike Buckmire to slide over from two lockers down. Buckmire has slid over there every home game since, sitting in Baker’s chair at the heart of the storm to Williamson’s left, nodding at Williamson’s answers, occasionally being asked (by Williamson) to rate one of his dunks or blocks on a scale of 10 or chime in otherwise.

Zion Williamson, left, listens as Duke teammate Mike Buckmire offers an opinion after Duke’s win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Early in the season, Williamson invited the sophomore walk-on to sit next to him during postgame media interviews. Luke DeCock

Somehow, these postgame availabilities migrated tropes, from “media hype machine” to “late-night talk show.” Williamson is the host, turning the gathered would-be interviewers into his studio audience. Buckmire, whose media guide biography notes his “attitude and work ethic” in the absence of any on-court accomplishments to chronicle in the 17 minutes he has played over the past two years, is the sidekick: Ed McMahon for an older generation, Andy Richter for a younger one, offering support and playing the straight man for Williamson’s jokes.

“His hype man,” Buckmire said. “Something like that.”

Around the corner sits the bandleader, Williamson’s roommate and fellow freshman star, R.J. Barrett, playing the role of Paul Shaffer or Questlove, invited to weigh in with an opinion as needed. Because of the geography of Duke’s L-shaped locker room, neither Williamson nor Barrett can see each other, but they can definitely hear each other.

A typical exchange might involve a media question about a dunk, Williamson asking Buckmire for a rating, Williamson scoffing at Buckmire’s rating, Williamson yelling around the corner to Barrett for a second opinion, Williamson scoffing at Barrett’s rating, general laughter. There’s a lot of smiling in Williamson’s corner of the locker room, most of it from him.

“The spotlight,” Williamson said, “does not bother me at all.”

Jay-Z attended Duke's 79-64 win at Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. Zion Williamson scored 25 points and said he listens to a Jay-Z song before every game.

That this all feels effortlessly choreographed is a tribute to Williamson’s lesser known but equally generational ability to bask in the spotlight without hogging it. Few 18-year-olds have the ease in the public sphere that Williamson has, even basketball prospects whose moves have been followed by a horde of baseline cell phones since they were preteens. College teams, at Duke and elsewhere, have so often been riven by quiet dissension over who takes the shots, who gets the attention, and Duke might yet. It hasn’t been an issue so far, in part because of the vaporous but deliberate way Williamson has managed to reflect some of the bright light onto his teammates.

It’s easy to draw too many conclusions from how players deal with the media, since that’s the only real interaction the players have with anyone outside the university in these days of closed practices and sequestered existences, but it’s not invalid, either. In Williamson’s case, he has an innate ease in that environment that some NBA stars – in much brighter spotlights – only develop over time.

After the Virginia win, when one writer asked him a series of questions, Williamson interrupted to chide the other four or five writers who were still gathered around him long after the television cameras had moved along.

“Before I answer that question, he has asked like four or five questions,” Williamson joked. “No one else has a question?”

The really skilled NBA players, like Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony, make eye contact with the person asking the question (which has the side benefit of picking one questioner when multiple questions are shouted out) and they answer the question directly to that person rather than to the group. It’s a finely honed social intelligence that creates a sense of professional intimacy between interviewer and interviewee in the most impersonal of settings, and they make it seem effortless. Williamson has some of that, certainly more than most players his age.

Zion Williamson steals the ball from Clemson and does a 360 degree dunk as the Tigers trail the play

There’s substance to go with that kind of banter. Barrett is just as polished and honest, but Williamson is also curiously unguarded, whether talking frankly about his vulnerability after a loss or his (difficult, last-minute) decision to choose Duke over hometown Clemson without hiding behind platitudes.

Williamson, athletically, may be unique in the annals of college basketball. At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, he has the body of an all-pro tight end, or maybe even a first-round left tackle, but the jumping ability of a skinny 6-5 swingman and the dexterity and body control of a 5-9 point guard. He’s a dancer as much as a bulldozer on the court, although he’s certainly capable of the latter, as Syracuse’s Marek Dolezaj can attest after he attempted to take a Wililamson charge and ended up with little cartoon birds circling his head. The ACC should create a one-off bravery award for Dolezaj.

It was easy to dismiss Williamson as a YouTube creation when he committed to Duke and wonder what the Blue Devils were going to do with three one-and-done freshmen who all played the same position – Williamson, Barrett and Cam Reddish – but he’s so much better an all-around player than even his devotees argued. And productive: 22.0 points per game, 9.2 rebounds, nearly averaging a double-double.

The technical side of his game is evolving in front of us: Williamson started the season as a designated dunker and secondary shot-blocker before deploying an array of spin moves under the basket. Against Virginia, he became a threat attacking the rim from the perimeter. Williamson played point guard until middle school and keeps the ball low on his dribble, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski swears there’s a 3-point shooter in there somewhere, too.

“I’ve got to keep learning, so I can continue to give him opportunities as he grows,” Krzyzewski said.

Duke Blue Devils freshman star Zion Williamson said he needs to be a good 3-point shooter to round out his game. Williamson made three while scoring 30 points as Duke beat Wake Forest, 87-65, on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

All of that’s likely to make him the ACC player of the year and the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, ahead of his teammate Barrett, a more prototypical slasher-shooter-guard-in-a-forward’s-body player that both NBA teams and the Canadian national team have been drooling over since he his growth spurt. At 6-7 and Duke’s leading scorer at 23.6 points per game, Barrett looks and plays the part, and in any other year, he’d be an easy selection, a potential go-to scorer for a rebuilding team. Reddish, only slightly less talented or versatile and a better outside shooter, figures to go somewhere in the top 10; he would be the star almost anywhere else.

Williamson, though, is like nothing the NBA has ever seen – Charles Barkley, maybe, although as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim noted in typical Boeheim fashion, “not as fat” – which makes him even more desirable than Barrett. He’s a unicorn, and he’s also preternaturally marketable because of his outsized personality.

Elite athletic ability can be a kind of genius, as much as math or physics, painting or composing, and there’s often a spillover into other areas of the brain. Wayne Gretzky, in addition to being able to do things on a hockey rink no one before or after has been able, has the secondary talent to make everyone he meets believe that he remembers exactly who they are, not a skill that can be acquired at Toastmasters. Michael Jordan’s secondary genius was slightly more malignant, the ability to look inside someone and sense their greatest weaknesses and deepest vulnerabilities, something he used both for good, to spur his teammates to greater accomplishments, and for evil, sometimes also against his teammates.

Williamson isn’t a Gretzky or Jordan, but he appears to have that kind of secondary genius, and in his case it’s an ability to not only bring his teammates into this world that has been created around him but to thrive within it. Unlike many basketball stars who have been in the spotlight for years and, by the time they arrive in college, start to chafe at the attention, Williamson seems to bask in it without overtly craving it (although the latter may be true as well to some degree). In his short Duke career so far, admittedly one with very few setbacks, he has been typically cheerful, happy-go-lucky and at ease.

“He’s upbeat all the time, I’m telling you, man,” Krzyzewski said. “Everybody on our team loves him. He’s got a great sense of humor. And a little bop when he’s making some jokes and all that. As unique he is as a player, he’s unique in that way as a person,”

Williamson led the Blue Devils with 29 points and gives his thoughts on the exhibition contest

Part of that may be due to Williamson’s gift for reflecting attention onto others instead of absorbing it all himself; when ESPN was in town for GameDay a few weeks ago, the network proposed a video feature focused on Williamson. The player, not the school, declined.

So it’s hard to say definitively whether the postgame Zion Williamson Show is organic or contrived, but it has the same effect either way. His teammates would have every reason to resent him, but the opposite seems to be true. Buckmire would normally enter and exit the Duke locker room entirely unnoticed, but his presence is as much a regular fixture as Williamson’s. Barrett is the second-biggest media draw anyway, but he has become an important part of Williamson’s orbit.

“What’s different is, there’s a lot of love for this team, a lot of excitement for this team,” Buckmire said. “People don’t hate us as much. They want to see these guys play, these freshmen. He definitely handles it well.”

Duke will test out their freshmen laden squad as they open the regular season against perennial power Kentucky Tuesday night

With regard to his part in this performance, Buckmire is a team player. He knows his role.

“People are here to talk to him,” he said. “We just try and keep it light and not take it too hard, not take it too seriously. We’re here to play basketball and we’re here to win and everything, but you want to enjoy it, be happy with it.”

“You’re doing a great job,” Williamson joked with Buckmire. “Continue to be great. Don’t get complacent.”

As for the basketball, Williamson’s teammates seem to enjoy watching him dunk as much as the crowds that grumble when he settles for a layup in warmups. After one particularly impressive breakaway 360 dunk against Clemson, Barrett at midcourt jumped almost as high in celebration as Williamson did at the basket.

Still, because of what he sees in practice, Barrett can be a tough critic. (Asked what dunk would earn a 10 from him, Barrett said, “You’ll have to wait and find out one day.”) Against Virginia, Williamson went coast-to-coast and dunked with his right (off) hand through an attempted block by 7-footer Jay Huff. In the wake of the victory, one Barrett and Williamson celebrated with a prolonged hug, Williamson requested judgment.

“What’d you rate it, R.J.?” Williamson yelled around the blind corner.

“A five, bro.”

“A five?”

“You didn’t even really do anything. He barely touched you.”

Buckmire nodded. Williamson shook his head

“Man, if Cam or R.J. did that...”

He let the thought trail off, as if for one moment wondering what it would be like not to be Zion, then snapped back into the world only he occupies.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.