He has missed six games now, and yet, as each one passed, Zion Williamson’s stature as a college basketball player somehow grew even more profound. With him, the Duke Blue Devils were an overwhelming force that blew out Kentucky, swept Virginia and frightened Louisville into surrendering a 23-point lead. Without him, they have been a .500 team.
It’s not often a player who misses 16 percent of his team’s season is considered for an honor as prestigious as Sporting News Player of the Year. An award that dates back 76 years — and that has been the property of George Mikan, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Jalen Brunson — ordinarily is presented to a player who has dominated a season with his presence.
Williamson, oddly, also reigned over this one with his absence.
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“He’s always meant a lot, both on the court and off the court,” Duke junior forward Jack White told Sporting News. “Off the court, he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, funny guys, and just a great teammate. As good of a player as he is on the court, he’s just as good off the court. Obviously we miss him and what he brings on the court.
“He’s an unbelievable player. What he does for us, just his versatility, his relentlessness, his willingness to fight and win is pretty tough to match.”
Williamson also is the Sporting News Freshman of the Year, an honor won last season by Oklahoma’s Trae Young. It was not terribly difficult to reach this conclusion, given Williamson also was superior to all the seniors, juniors and sophomores.
“He’s better than I thought he would be,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski told Fox Sports’ Evan Daniels. “This guy is an amazing kid. He’s upbeat all the time, and he’s been a great worker. Everyone sees him as a dunker and how high he can jump, but he’s an incredible athlete in lateral quickness. His feet, great hands, his ability to second jump and move side to side. I didn’t know all those things. I knew he could really jump, and he was going to be really good.”
When he played — from the night he stormed into the nation’s basketball consciousness in Duke’s destruction of Kentucky with 28 points, seven rebounds and a court-length bounce pass that looked like something out of an “Avengers” movie to the moment he burst through his shoe like the Incredible Hulk — Zion presented himself as a force never before seen at the Division I level. He produced numbers that seemed impossible, such as his 75 percent shooting on 2-point attempts. He produced moments that seemed inhuman, such as his flying close-out to reject a long-distance jumper from Virginia star De’Andre Hunter.
He scored 18 points, passed for five assists, grabbed three steals and three blocks in that win at UVA. He didn’t foul once. In the first meeting, it was 27 points, nine rebounds, two steals and a block. He was 10-of-16 from the field against the nation’s No. 3 defense. He scored 32 against N.C. State. He had 17 rebounds against Boston College.
In short, he has been at the heart of Duke’s success on both offense and defense. When the Devils recovered from 23 points down inside the final 10 minutes at Louisville, Cardinals players actively turned away from challenging him even though he was wearing four personal fouls at the time.
Zion has played with a captivating, infectious zeal that endeared him not only to coaches, teammates and Duke fans, but also to professional scouts eager to employ him and agency representatives who flocked to his games.
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Honestly, even his opponents speak of Zion with reverence.
“His ability to rebound, to carve out space is what jumps off the page,” Pitt assistant coach Jason Capel told SN. “But the kid competes. He plays with a passion. When you see him in person, just how big he is, how fast he is and how explosive he is, and the fact he has a motor, that’s a scary combination in college basketball.”
We hope you’re impressed we made it this far without reminding you just how big he is. For the record, Zion is listed at 6-7, 285 pounds. It never has seemed possible that someone built like an NFL defensive end should be able to play the game as though he’d borrowed David Thompson’s hops, Dominique Wilkins’ flair and Blake Griffin’s manic intensity. This is what we’ve seen, though.
He has averaged 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds. Those numbers are depressed by the fact that his appearance in the first North Carolina game, Feb. 20, counts against him, even though he lasted a half-minute before his injury occurred. That cost Zion nearly a point off his scoring average and almost half a rebound.
It hardly matters. As impressive as the numbers can be — oh, yeah, one more: Duke has lost only twice when he made a full appearance — the story of Zion is one told through accounts of his uncommon feats. If he were born a half-century earlier, he would have inspired some sort of unforgettable nickname like Clyde, Pearl or Pistol. His exploits would be discussed on playgrounds and over beers and would gradually grow more extravagant as the stories were repeated.
Instead, he arrived on this earth in July 2000 (my goodness, he won’t turn 19 until his freshman year at Duke is complete) and his parents wisely gave him his own unforgettable first name that need not be usurped. And his fame does not broaden through worth of mouth. He has Instagram and YouTube to spread the gospel of his wondrous deeds. Video does not romanticize his many feats, but the reality inherent in the medium somehow accentuates the anomaly that is Zion.
“Obviously we miss him,” teammate Cam Reddish told SN. “He’s one of the best players in the world right now.”
OK, so maybe Zion’s legend is enhanced by the spoken word.
Sporting News’ Blair Berry contributed to this report.
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