Luke DeCock

As time ticks on Zion Williamson’s Duke career, he’s already a topic of NBA conversation

Zion Williamson breaks down win over N.C. State

Williamson scores 32 points as Duke rolls past N.C. State 94-78
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Williamson scores 32 points as Duke rolls past N.C. State 94-78

After all the attention paid to where Zion Williamson is this season, the night arrived where all the attention was paid to where he wasn’t.

He wasn’t in Charlotte for the NBA All-Star Game, where he was as much a topic of conversation Saturday as any of the actual all-stars, LeBron James in particular singling him out for praise. Nor did was he at the dunk contest Saturday night. He said might not even watch that competition, one he might have a chance to win if he was allowed to participate and will be a top contender to win next year.

“If they even put me in the dunk contest,” Williamson said. “They might not, you never know.”

Yeah, they might not.

“I think he’d hold his own now,” said Duke guard Mike Buckmire, Williamson’s postgame sidekick.

And even on a night when Williamson had 19 first-half points, mostly on over-the-top post feeds from R.J. Barrett that accounted for a healthy portion of Barrett’s triple-double, the fourth in Duke history, the nine minutes Williamson spent on the bench in foul trouble in the second half helped N.C. State keep things dangerously close until the final minutes of a 94-78 Duke win.

Duke isn’t exactly short of weapons without Williamson on the floor, but it was an interesting window into Duke without him. Which, in a more permanent sense, isn’t all that far away. Williamson’s Duke career is already almost two-thirds over, with a maximum of 15 and minimum of eight games left on the schedule, and only four of those at home. The clock on his college career is ticking, the NBA dunk contest nearer than it seems, the praise from James – who attended Duke’s win at Virginia – and others deflected like an opposing shot.

“It’s definitely an honor he thinks I’m a decent player,” Williamson said. “At the same time, hopefully I’ll be competing against him next year, so I can’t really be too starstruck.”

But it’s the variety of weapons, Williamson and Barrett and Cam Reddish – ineffective Saturday after a run of good games – and Tre Jones that makes Duke so dangerous. And the way they all came in together, recruiting each other as a package deal, is reminiscent of the freshmen on the 2015 team and the way their cohesion created a bond that subsumed the transiency of their one-and-done status.

That’s a dangerous comparison to make, but not only has this Duke team earned at this point, the timing is precipitous. Thanks to the All-Star break, there was a veritable Duke basketball reunion, but the only alumni who made it into the locker room after the game were all on the 2015 team: Tyus Jones posted up next to his brother’s locker, Amile Jefferson and Quinn Cook and Grayson Allen mingling.

They watched Duke win its ninth straight game, closing in on the 11 straight that 2015 team won to finish out the season, although this team still has to play North Carolina twice, the first only four days away. But the comeback at Louisville wasn’t easy, nor did N.C. State go quietly, hanging within single digits for most of the second half. Williamson’s foul trouble was the common thread in both games, a recent development.

“If we’re going to win something big,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “your best player’s got to learn to play with, have the discipline of playing with fouls.”

The Wolfpack was able to hold serve during the time Williamson spent on the bench, and Torin Dorn was all over the court all night long, but Williamson scored 11 of his 32 after returning as Duke pulled away, the last two with a minute to go to get Barrett the 10th assist he needed to fill out his bingo card.

Williamson was asked to rate the triple-double, Barrett being a notoriously stingy grader of Williamson’s dunks. Buckmire gave it a 8.5. Williamson gave it a tepid 7.5.

“I do cool dunks and it’s a 4,” Willamson said. “Until he pulls out something I’ve never seen – if he gets a quadruple-double, then I’ll give him a 10.”

There’s still room for this Duke team to grow, so much of this season left, and at the same time, so little.

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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.