NBA fans think Zion Williamson could save their team. He's just trying to have fun at Duke
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
(Originally published Feb. 15, 2019 on NBC Sports Washington)
CHARLOTTESVILLE - Zion Williamson knows they’re watching.
Fans. Haters. NBA scouts. Reporters. Madison Avenue. LeBron James.
The attention won’t impair Duke’s freshman force from pursuing the primary goals during his likely one on-campus year: a national title and enjoying the ride.
Already part of the rare first-name-only-required fraternity, Zion puts the power in power forward. The good-natured 18-year-old with a staggering athleticism and size combination generates seismic buzz even for a basketball program with six national Player of the Year winners and 33 NBA first-round selections since 1986.
Imagine trying to stop future NFL Hall of Fame Adrian Peterson with a rulebook outlawing tackling and the already jacked Peterson built like a linebacker. That’s the dilemma defenders face when the athletically fierce 6-foot-7, 285-pounder comes charging in the open court or rises at the rim.
“I’ve never seen a player that size, that strong that can move and jump that high,” Duke assistant coach and lead Williamson recruiter Nate James told NBC Sports Washington. “Right away I was like we have to get this kid.”
That's the mindset for lottery-bound NBA teams and their beleaguered fan bases desperate for a franchise-altering talent and a box office bonanza and putting their faith in a teenager.
Barring the unforeseen, Williamson will become the first selection in the 2019 NBA Draft this June.
The all-eyes attention began during the Spartanburg, South Carolina native’s prep career when his soaring dunks became the stuff of YouTube legend, and only intensified playing for one of college basketball’s national powers.
Perhaps that explains why Williamson appeared immune to the chaotic scene following no. 2 Duke’s 81-71 road win over third-ranked Virginia Saturday. As hurried adults holding audio recorders and video cameras rushed into the visitor’s locker room inside John Paul Jones Arena, the teenager displayed chill and cracked wise.
Williamson calmly sat on a bench next to teammate Mike Buckmire, a rarely used sophomore guard. He respectfully answered perfunctory questions about the big win (“Great feeling.”) and the scorching Blue Devils draining 13 of 21 three-point attempts (“That really opened the game for us.”).
Folks also wanted to know what he thought of LeBron James, one of the most famous people on the planet, seated courtside.
“LeBron was out there? Nah, I didn’t see LeBron,” Williamson feigned without any winking mannerisms.
*** Nobody jokes about the level of prospect we’re witnessing, and the damage Williamson might inflict on the next level.
“He’s an explosive guy, a lot like I was,” Basketball Hall of Famer and fabled dunker for the Atlanta Hawks Dominique Wilkins told NBC Sports Washington.
There are other intriguing 2019 draft prospects on Duke’s roster. R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are projected among the top four selections in June’s draft. NBA front-office executives and fans covet them.
With rare exceptions, those dreamers unflinching crave Williamson.
The only ACC player ranked top five in scoring, rebounds, blocks, steals, and field goal percentage deftly handles the commotion.
“I just try to give the media what they want,” Williamson said of the avalanche of attention. “It is a little odd at times.”
Thousands have been selected over the decades since the inaugural 1947 draft. Only a select few can appreciate Williamson’s odd feeling: The nearly universal top pick whose shoulders carry the fate - or at least hope - of an unknown franchise.
“It’s a mind-blowing experience you go through,” said Wilkins, the third overall selection in 1982 by the Atlanta Hawks.
Few players received more notoriety during their college career than Patrick Ewing. The centerpiece of Georgetown’s 1984 national title team was no. 1 overall selection in the 1985 NBA Draft.
“The hype was insane,” Ewing told NBC Sports Washington.
Ewing reached three national title games during his legendary four-year career with the Hoyas. His selection by the Knicks started the draft lottery era and created a frozen envelope frenzy. New York did not enter the lottery with the best odds, but it lucked into the top selection, which meant the rights to select Ewing and dream big
“[We] didn't have the internet,” Ewing said of the early 80’s era, “but I was out there enough.”
Part of Ewing’s college lore occurred in a “Game of the Century” matchup against another storied big man, one who was part of the packed crowd for Saturday’s clash.
“I had the pressure every year to go out or not go out,” former UVa star Ralph Sampson, the first pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, told NBC Sports Washington.
“Social media [makes it] totally different,” Sampson said of his experience compared to Williamson’s. “But he’s a great athlete. We’ll see what happens. He just has to deal with [the expectations] every day.”
In the one-and-done era, there’s no doubting Williamson’s mindset. Asked if there’s a specific part of his game that needs improvement over the remainder of the season, Williamson replied, “Not really. I’m going to let Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski) and hopefully whatever NBA team I go to really tell me what I need to work on.”
Those that have walked in Williamson’s shoes offered advice and insight.
“You can’t think about [the next step],” said Ewing, now in his second season coaching his alma mater. “All you can do is think about finishing this season. Your play in this season will prepare you for the future. The things that you’re going through is what will make you better for what lies ahead.”
Wizards forward Jabari Parker, another Duke product and the second pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, believes finding a proper balance with school and basketball helps ballyhoo prospects prepare for the next step. “It keeps you busy mentally. It doesn’t get you sidetracked.”
There’s also nothing wrong with occasionally embracing the spotlight.
“I guarantee he’s a little nervous too. If you’re not a little nervous, something’s wrong,” said the 59-year-old Wilkins, now a Hawks television analyst. “That’s a great experience. Man, when you’re a young kid coming out of college, and you know you’re going to be one of the top players in the draft, probably number one. Man, there is no better feeling in the world than that.”
The physical display is why we watch Zion. That alone does not draw in the masses. Not everyone has the “It” factor.
“You may watch a player and recruit. You may say he has intangibles, he has the size, talent, everything, but he doesn’t have ‘It,' ” James, the Duke assistant, said. Those guys who really embrace the moment. Want the ball in their hands. Can make the play, who can affect the game in so many ways. [Zion is] the ultimate winner.”
The “It” factor and poise showed Tuesday. Williamson brushed aside foul trouble and No. 16 Louisville to finish with 27 points and 12 rebounds in Duke’s 71-69 road win after trailing by 23 points.
Williamson's impact extends beyond the court.
“Kinda of reminds of a Shaquille O’Neal type if personality,” James continued. “Just very affectionate knows who he is. People are drawn to him. He just embraces it. He’s like an everyday kid.”
Duke freshman Tre Jones witnesses Williamson’s balancing act daily.
“[Zion] handles it tremendously,” Duke’s point guard said. “You hear it all. Whether they’re fans or haters, you hear both sides of it."
The wow factor popped at Virginia. Williamson’s supernatural block of Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter’s attempted corner 3-pointer dropped jaws coast-to-coast.
Those electrifying plays explain the hype. As draft day nears, scouts and internet thinkers will begin picking nits.
Some already fear his joints may struggle to handle his massive frame over the course of long NBA seasons. Williamson’s physical gifts will not overwhelm the league’s professional skywalkers or intimidate men a decade older.
There is also room for growth, and game beyond those viral highlights.
“What he has that a lot of college players don’t have is footwork on the block. He knows how to post up down there and force you to foul him, and he makes plays from the block,” said Wilkins, the 13th all-time leading scorer in NBA history. “He’s going to be a problem for that position.”
Scouts ascend upon Duke games to make their observations. Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk and Wizards vice president of player personnel Frank Ross were among the talent evaluators in Charlottesville Saturday.
“I don’t even pay attention to none of that,” said Williamson. “Coach K told us to live in the moment. Enjoy this because you only get this once so just try to make a run toward the national championship.”
Tony Robbins created a self-improvement empire because many people struggle to live in the moment. Somehow this teenager existing in a fishbowl existence figured out the formula.
“It’s not easy for some people, but I find it easy,” Williamson said. “I don’t want to look back on my college career saying, ‘Oh, I was thinking about the NBA Draft the whole time. I’m living each moment.”
Even for a kid focused on focus, some moments grab him, like an all-time NBA legend seated in the front row.
“Yeah, I saw [LeBron],” Williamson finally admitted. “It really caught me off guard. It was dope.”
When the game ended and the media rushed his way, the NBA’s next big thing maintained composure and focused on the current ride.
Amid the locker room chaos, a reporter asked Williamson if he was enjoying himself despite all eyes on him.
Williamson turned his head, and massive torso left in the direction of Buckmire and smiled.
“Are we enjoying this, Buck?” Williamson asked semi-rhetorically. “Yeah, we are. Having a lot of fun here.”