Luke DeCock

Zion crashes the Final Four, not exactly as planned

Zion Williamson sat where players and coaches have spent the past two days discussing their chances to win a national title, a place Williamson imagined himself doing the same until last Sunday afternoon, when he watched R.J. Barrett take the final shot of Duke’s season.

His college career is over. All that’s left is to collect the awards, in this case the Oscar Robertson Trophy from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the Associated Press’ player-of-the-year award.

“I am a competitor,” Williamson said Friday. “I wish I was here under different circumstances. You win some, you lose some. You’ve just got to move on.”

Duke freshman Zion Williamson sits behind the Oscar Robertson Trophy at a news conference where he was awarded the U.S. Basketball Writers Association College Player of the Year award at the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, April 5, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Associated Press

He said that as Robertson himself sat to Willamson’s left, another player who destroyed his generation’s conventional notions or expectations of what a player of their size is supposed to do on the basketball court. And yet, in Williamson’s case, his one year of college basketball had such an unsatisfying conclusion.

These national awards – and Williamson is expected to win them all – is, in many ways, the beginning of what will be a many-years-long assessment of Williamson’s Duke legacy, a shooting star across the basketball landscape that went from blindingly bright to snuffed out in 8.4 seconds.

Can his exceptional individual season be distilled from the context of his team’s failure to live up to its considerable potential, especially given his lack of agency in what turned out to be the most pivotal moment of the season?

And as he continues to collect the game’s biggest awards like trading cards, will Duke follow past precedent and retire his No. 1 jersey – as it has with other national players of the year – only after Williamson has his degree?

If the jump from college to the NBA goes as well for Williamson as the jump from high school to college, that could be a while.

There are bigger issues to assess from Duke’s season, from the shocking inability to get the ball in Williamson’s hands with the season on the line to the continuing inability to turn No. 1 recruiting rankings and No. 1 poll positions into actual titles, although two ACC titles in three years is nothing to disregard.

But watching Williamson collect these awards amid all the trappings of the Final Four only highlighted how large a void his absence from the court here leaves, and how truly missed an opportunity his one college season was for Duke, not making it this far.

Instead, there were questions about his NBA future, even though Williamson technically has yet to declare for the draft.

“Whatever NBA team I land on, that’s where I want to be,” Williamson said. “Whoever drafts me, that’s where I want to be.”

Even the New York Knicks?

“If they draft me, I would love to play for them,” he said, launching a thousand tabloid headlines.

So began a long weekend for Williamson of not playing at the Final Four. He will participate in a day of service tomorrow with the other Naismith Award nominees, almost certainly receive the Naismith Award on Sunday morning and attend the National Association of Basketball Coaches banquet Sunday night to accept their player of the year award. There are trips to Los Angeles (Wooden Award) and St. Louis (USBWA banquet) scheduled for next week.

But he will not attend the games Saturday night.

He arrived. He dominated. He showed up at the Final Four. The games will go on without him Saturday, but his presence was felt. After Williamson landed in Minneapolis on Friday, Ralph Sampson was also standing in the same baggage claim. The crowd ignored Sampson and mobbed Williamson as he waited for his bags.

The NBA beckons, soon, but college basketball hasn’t moved on yet.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, 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.