Ten minutes in, Zion Williamson had dunked twice and made all his field-goal tries. This prompted the Duke pep band to chant, “Zion’s winning!” Which, if you went by the scoreboard, he was. Ten minutes in, it was Zion 13, Syracuse 11.
Even by the hyperventilated standards of the ACC tournament, Thursday was almost too big for words. The great Zion returned from the sneaker-induced absence that caused him to miss five full games, plus 39 minutes and 24 seconds on that night at Cameron Indoor Stadium when, to borrow the description of a former U.S. President, his shoe broke. Zion had new shoes for this night, and the story behind those was, in keeping with the occasion, massive.
Said Mike Krzyzewski, speaking of Nike: “We have a very close relationship with them. We think it's the best shoe or else we wouldn't be with them. Right after the event, they sent their top people out here to figure out what went wrong – the next day. Then those people went to China to actually look at the making of a shoe that would be very supportive, and then they came back within a week with different alternatives to make sure that it was done right.”
Got that? Zion blows a shoe. Nike, based in Oregon, scrambles all jets and flies its footwear engineers first to North Carolina and then to China.
Said Williamson, asked what was different about his new sneakers: “I couldn't really specifically tell you if I wanted to. I just know they're a little stronger than the regular Kyrie 4s, so I want to thank Nike for making these. They felt very comfortable.”
Krzyzewski: “Also he alternates the shoes quicker, so you're not wearing them in too many games. The wear and tear, I think, contributed to that blowout.”
Got that? One of the things the greatest brains at Nike and Duke University – and apparently in China – decided was for Zion to change shoes more often. Genius!
But enough about shoes. Zion, as the watching world saw, authored one of the greatest performances in the history of this venerated event. He scored 29 points, making all 13 of his floor shots. He dunked five times. (A breakdown: First with his right hand, then with his left – he’s a lefty – then three times with both.) He took 14 rebounds. He made five steals. He had two assists.
The nation’s best collegiate player was as good as ever, maybe better. Those first 10 minutes were akin to seeing Hercules unchained, assuming Hercules could also fly.
The neat thing about seeing Williamson in person – this was my first look – is that you immediately search for antecedents, and you think for a while before finally deciding there might not be any. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, 50 years a coach, mentioned Charles Barkley, who was the first guy I considered. But I saw Barkley as an Auburn freshman, and there are similarities but also differences. Not for nothing was the collegiate Charles known as the Round Mound of Rebound. He was both shorter than Zion and, shall we say, rather less chiseled.
LeBron James never graced a college, but – I caught him as a St. Vincent-St. Mary senior – he played a different game. Zion is power. LeBron was both ridiculously strong and ridiculously skilled. The belief in 2003 was that he’d be the next Magic Johnson, meaning a giant-sized point guard, and not the next Michael Jordan, which is what he became.
Having begun this little exercise, Boeheim essentially ended it. Of Zion, he said: “He’s a crazy different type of player. There’s not guys like him.”
I wouldn’t disagree. Still, I found myself wondering how Williamson’s skills will translate to the Pace & Space NBA. He’s 6-foot-7, which means height-wise he’s a wing, but he’s a power forward if ever there was one. But even undersized PFs like Barkley (barely 6-5) and Larry Johnson (6-7) had jump shots they could trust.
Williamson is the world’s most outrageous jumper, but he’s not a jump shooter. He’s not a stretch-4. Were the Atlanta Hawks to luck up and win the lottery, they’d be crazy not to take him, but would a forward combo of John Collins and Williamson be a fit? (Then again, think of Trae Young hoisting lobs to this guy.)
As if Thursday wasn’t overstuffed enough, Boeheim also was impelled to defend Frank Howard, the Syracuse player who, in a weird bit of reverse-Grayson-Allen, appeared to try to trip Williamson early in the game. “Trying to manufacture something out of nothing,” Boeheim said, apparently speaking of ESPN’s #FakeNews cameras. His final word as he left the podium: “Joke.”
Said Howard, who scored 28 points: “I'm not going to wait four years to get to this stage to start tripping people.” That was a nice line, and it made sense – until you watched the video again. Howard’s foot movement really did look like something the odious Allen would have tried.
Zion being Zion, he brushed past Howard’s foot as if it weren’t there, which is pretty much the way he plays basketball. He’s Zion and you’re not, so there’s no chance of you stopping him. He seemed greatly relieved to be playing again, though he was dismissive when asked about his “perfect night.”
“I couldn’t throw a tennis ball in the ocean with my free throws (he missed seven of nine),” he said. “I wouldn’t consider that perfect.”
Thus ended “Zion Williamson, the comeback.” Next up: A Friday semifinal against North Carolina, to which Duke has lost twice, having been without Zion for all but 36 seconds of Game No. 1. Carolina has a really good team, but it doesn’t have Zion, which is what tonight and the next three weeks will be about. There’s no Zion but Zion, and Duke has him back.
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