CHARLOTTE, N.C.— In the final minute of Duke’s 84-72 win against Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament—an event more appropriately marked as Zion Williamson’s Return—the ACC Player of the Year sauntered along the baseline to “Go To Hell Carolina” chants.
In less than 24 hours he will be back on this Spectrum Center floor facing North Carolina for basically the first time in his career after being robbed of the two regular-season contests. More on that later. But as the Blue Devils were salting away the final minute, the shot clock was winding down. Williamson found himself holding the ball with 3 seconds left on the shot clock and about 4 feet behind the three-point line.
He looked up at the clock, looked down at his feet, raised his head, shook it quickly and hilariously passed the hot potato to teammate R.J. Barrett, who rushed a failed deep three at the buzzer.
Williamson, a perfect 13-for-13 from the field Thursday night, kept his unblemished record in what has to be considered his most complete game of the season. In 35 minutes of work—what minutes restriction?—Williamson posted 29 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and tallied five steals in his first action since Feb. 20.
“I wouldn’t say perfect night. I couldn’t really throw a tennis ball into the ocean with my free throws,” Williamson said, remarking on his 2-for-9 day from the stripe when he entered the game a 67% free throw shooter. “I knew I was ready to come back a few days ago (when) I got some reps in with the team.”
Then, the phenom issued a PSA to all.
“But I would like to say this: there was never any pressure for me to rush back when I wasn’t ready,” Williamson said. “I thank Coach, all the assistant coaches and my teammates for that. They always told me come back when I’m ready and I felt ready a few days ago. It was good to get back.”
His feeling the need to declare this was clear. For nearly a month, the conversation about Williamson has revolved around what’s on his feet and what’s in his head sticking around playing for free in college when the NBA’s lottery-winning team will be willing to hand him more millions than a local politician dealing with a billionaire owner asking for stadium upgrades.
“There was no question about it. I knew I was going to be back,” Williamson said. “Everybody has the right to their own opinion but I knew I was coming back the whole time.”
Williamson missed the past five games due to the grade 1 MCL sprain he suffered in the first Carolina-Duke contest. The ACC Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year, Williamson never seemed to be a threat to return in the regular season with Duke still in control of a potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seed with a good showing here in Charlotte.
Williamson suffered the injury wearing the now infamous Nike Paul George 2.5s (a future SI Where Are They Now feature on the blown shoe should be penciled in for the summer of 2034). What Williamson would wear upon his return to the court was highly debated. The general consensus among sneakerheads was that Williamson would wear LeBron James’s signature shoe, something more hefty-duty—if you will—for a 6’7”, 285-pound player like Williamson.
Duke posted a photo of Williamson lacing up Kyrie Irving’s signature sneaker in a Duke colorway on Thursday afternoon at the Blue Devils’ practice at nearby Johnson C. Smith. He went with those—and no wrap on his right knee—against Syracuse, surely after great testing and deliberation with experts and Duke’s friends at Nike.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski explained it this way: the day after the blowout, Nike sent some of its best people to Durham to figure out the why. Then those people went to China where they oversaw the making of a stronger, more supportive sneaker for the world’s most important college student. Within a week, Nike officials were back at Duke with several options, and Williamson went with a specially modified Kyrie 4 shoe Thursday. Nike also had a polite tip. The wear-and-tear on the PG 2.5s probably contributed to the blowout, so, Zion, if you don’t mind, alternate your shoes more quickly.
Make no mistake that Williamson is and has been deserving of the hype. He is the far-and-away No. 1 overall pick in this summer’s draft and ran away with the conference player of the year award (despite missing nearly a third of the ACC regular season, which was one of those coldly debated topics we in sports media contrive in order to have a take.)
But the Zion Effect has been very real. Ratings for ESPN broadcasts of Duke games were up 30% this year over last season, according to the network. What’s also helped is ESPN pushing All Things Zion on seemingly every platform, breaking into NFL coverage last week to notify viewers he wouldn’t play in the second Carolina game and leading the 6 p.m. SportsCenter Thursday night with multiple live hits with the tip-off still three-plus hours away.
Two minutes in, it was all worth it. He rose up for a relatively tame tomahawk slam on a fastbreak that gave an energy to the arena—home of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets—it hasn’t felt since UMBC’s upset over Virginia last March. After that dunk, every Williamson leap mattered.
A great quick-bounce entry pass from Barrett to Williamson turned into a left-handed dunk. Then he attempted and made his only three of the game. Then, after a timeout, he got on the floor for a loose ball after showing some hesitancy to do so on two loose balls in the game’s first minute. When he finished an alley from Barrett with two hands, even Tar Heel fans in Gov. Roy Cooper’s section stood in awe.
Finally, Friday night, we get the Duke vs. UNC matchup we were all promised last month. Ticket prices won’t be as high as they were at Cameron, and Barack Obama probably won’t be courtside in a monogrammed bomber jacket. But it’s a healthy Williamson coming off his best game of the season against a Tar Heels squad that’s won 14 of its past 15 and arguably playing the best basketball of any team in the country.
The greatest college basketball player today gets his shot in the greatest rivalry in college basketball on a neutral floor. Just make sure he wears the right shoes.