Luke DeCock

In Duke’s practices, no one stands in Zion’s way

Only a few players over the course of the entire season have dared to stand in Zion Williamson’s way and attempt to draw a charge – most famously Syracuse’s Marek Dolezaj, who got the call but got up slowly.

Among the players on the Duke bench who have to guard Williamson in practice every day, Dolezaj gained their immediate respect. In large part because none of them have, or ever would, get in the way of Williamson’s 285 pounds of extremely mobile muscle unless they had no other choice.

“Not in a practice, I don’t think,” said Duke reserve big man Justin Robinson, who most often ends up guarding Williamson. “It wouldn’t be worth it. Maybe in a game.”

In Duke’s practices, behind closed doors, when the “blue team” of walk-ons and bench players and reserves serves as the scout team and defensive foil for the “white team” or stars and starters, no one has yet dared.

Certainly not Antonio Vrankovic, who as the help-side defender in practice would be the one expected to jump in Williamson’s way when Robinson, or anyone else, is beaten. He has studiously avoided that kind of contact.

“I either go to the side or foul him or something,” Vrankovic said. “I feel like just standing there and taking a straight-on blow by him would not be the best thing ever.”

And then Vrankovic said that the closest anyone has come was the one time Alex O’Connell tried to jump in Williamson’s way, “believe it or not” – something the skinny, 183-pound O’Connell, denied.

“Like a half charge, maybe, where you make some contact, and then the rest of the way I’m falling,” O’Connell said. “I’m not taking a full charge from him. None of us are. No way.”

This is perhaps one element of the most curious aspect of the Zion phenomenon: the way his teammates are as in awe of him at times as everyone else. Whether on the bench or in practice, they are seeing things they have never seen before, and many of them have been close observers of the game, both in their age groups and at the highest level.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) reacts after a dunk in the first half against North Carolina on Friday, March 15, 2019 during the semi-finals of the ACC Tournament at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett

What’s gone on during the NCAA tournament – Williamson’s second-half takeover against North Dakota State, the final encounter with Tacko Fall to help stave off the Central Florida upset – has only added to that.

They’d willingly take a scrimmage charge from anyone else, but not him. Which is what, for them, made Dolezaj’s bravery so impressive. He willingly did something – at 6-foot-10 and just 180 pounds – they figured out long ago was not in their best interests to do, even if Dolezaj stayed down for a while afterward.

“I was checking it out like, is he going to get up?” Vrankovic said “So yeah, I was a little shocked, a little shocked. Great play by him, he got the charge.”

Syracuse also won that game, coincidence or otherwise.

Duke’s survival against Central Florida meant another week of practice ahead of Friday’s regional semifinal against Virginia Tech, another series of Williamson charges avoided, which is less of an issue during the tournament when most teams are taking it easy than in full-contact midseason practices.

Duke’s Zion Williamson (1) walks off the court with RJ Barrett (5) after Duke’s 77-76 victory over UCF in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Columbia, S.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. Ethan Hyman

For Robinson, whether it’s full contact or not, it meant another few days of head-to-head collisions with Williamson whether he tries to take a charge or not. Which, compared to the rest of the challenges guarding Williamson, isn’t really a consideration.

“There are other problems,” Robinson said. “That’s not really one of my concerns. There are plenty of other things I’m worried about.”

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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.