The final image of Zion Williamson wearing a Duke uniform was a sequence of dejection, an 18-year-old plodding off a dais and away from the proverbial and literal spotlight for a while.
Just an hour earlier, the freshman sensation was shouldering the Blue Devils’ offense in the second half against Michigan State. He muscled around emerald green jerseys to secure offensive rebounds and tough layups. He got to the free throw line. He sank two 3-pointers. None of those plays were arena-disintegrating dunks, but they all had the same highlight-reel flair as his dunks because, well, it was Zion.
Williamson’s game was far from perfect — he had five turnovers and went 2-for-5 on free throws — but he posted 24 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and three blocks in the 68-67 loss to Michigan State in the East Regional final Sunday in the District.
And with that, his Duke career surely ended. Scouts consider Williamson a lock to be the No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. But he wasn’t eager to announce he was taking his talents to the pros, where tens of millions of dollars in salary and shoe deals await him.
He hinted at it, but the hint was wrapped inside the genuine disappointment of failing to make the Final Four — a goal many observers suggested he shouldn’t prioritize after an injury scare in February.
“Looking around our locker room, you see, like, your teammates, your brothers, and you just think this group probably never will play together again,” Williamson said.
There’s an element of the Zion Phenomenon that’s gotten more play lately because he suited up for college basketball’s most reviled superpower. It’s not his unique size and talents, his thunderous dunks or his future in the pros. It’s that he’s just so likeable.
From Christian Laettner to J.J. Redick, from Bobby Hurley to Grayson Allen, most Blue Devils stars were hated by fans outside Durham, North Carolina. Williamson is the polar opposite; not all of his 2.9 million Instagram followers could be Duke loyalists, after all.
Jimmy Patsos, the former head coach at Loyola of Maryland and Siena and now an analyst for NBC Sports Washington, was an assistant coach at Maryland for 13 seasons. The Terrapins’ old ACC rivalry with Duke at that time meant Patsos saw the Blue Devils year after year in person.
“Battier had some fans. You had to respect Shane Battier, but he was still a 50-50 guy” in terms of popularity, said Patsos. “This guy (Williamson) is like 90-10. Everyone I know loves him … He’s got a real positive energy around him. The average fan and even people who don’t like Duke, which I’ve never seen before, to be honest.”
It’s had more to do than how unfailingly fun Williamson is to watch. Throughout the tournament, when a reporter would ask him a question, three times out of four his square, stocky face grew a smile and he chuckled before answering — laughing not out of condescension or stupidity, but out of camaraderie with his brothers seated next to him, and perhaps an innocent sense of, “I can’t believe where I am right now.”
One endearing example needed no chuckle. CBS focused one camera exclusively on Williamson during Duke’s first-round game, and someone postured whether it was unfair the network could profit off the “Zion-Cam” while Williamson couldn’t make a dime off his own likeness. His response was smooth and mature: “Like my mom taught me, worry about the things you can control.”
It’s also his aggressive humility. He’s put no thought into the national following he’s attracted. The most exciting college player in a generation thinks that would be selfish.
“I’m not going to let basketball define who I am,” he said this weekend. “I could easily not be in this position, so I’m always grateful that I’m in this position. I don’t see no need to change because I was the same person before I got the notoriety, and I’m going to be the same person, so I don’t see no reason to change.”
“Having the opportunity not just to coach him but to get to know him, he is such a genuine young man and well, and well advanced maturity-wise,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s extremely intelligent book-wise (and) people-wise. And he’s humble. He’s really got everything. This is not a phony guy.”
Rank-and-file basketball fans will like Williamson just as much in the NBA as in a Duke uniform. Washington Wizards fans are praying for an upset victory in the draft lottery; New York Knicks fans are simply salivating.
But will Williamson dominate in the NBA? Patsos thinks people should pump the brakes on talk of him being “the next LeBron” — it’s hard enough to crack the small, elite crew of perennial All-Stars. Still, Patsos said Williamson grew a lot over the course of the season, and for someone his size, it’s a good sign his passing is so strong.
“The more I watch him, he makes winning plays,” Patsos said. “That’s an underrated skill today, winning plays. When you’re double-teamed, do you pass? He makes winning plays. There’s a lot to be said for guys that make winning plays.”
He didn’t create a winning play against Michigan State. He struggled to swallow the one-point loss, just as any teenager would. But a rising star like him, one who had an unquantifiable impact on this basketball season, won’t be out of that spotlight for long.