By Norm Elrod
(CBS New York/CBS Local) — Zion Williamson is probably the biggest story in college basketball this season, and among the biggest stories in sports. Even the casual sports fan can readily recall his impressive highlight reel, from the monster dunks, to the elevating blocks, to the shoe-destroying injury that sidelined him three weeks ago. (And let’s not forget his seeming to deflate a basketball with his hand.) The 6’8″ 285-pound 18-year-old plays with a power and fluidity not usually seen in a player of his age and experience. And he is expected to return Thursday night for Duke’s first game of the ACC Tournament.
Sometimes lost in all the buzz was that his third-ranked Blue Devils, before his injury, looked poised for another deep NCAA Tournament run. The team has struggled a little in Williamson’s absence, and the loss of junior center Marques Bolden for at least the near future raises even more questions. Still, coach Mike Krzyzewski deserves credit for corralling all his young talent in the super-competitive ACC, which boasts three of the country’s top five teams.
Williamson arrived at Duke with a long resume of accomplishments — McDonald’s All-American, All-USA first team, runner-up for Mr. Basketball USA. And the highly touted small/power forward from South Carolina has not disappointed in his first and probably only season as a Blue Devil. Williamson is averaging 21.6 points and 8.8 rebounds, while playing only 28.2 minutes per game. He is shooting an incredibly efficient 68.3% from the field, slightly better than his 66.9% from the line. Much of his scoring, unsurprisingly, comes in and around the paint.
This is also where he shines on defense. The freshman’s athleticism has led to quite a few jaw-dropping blocks, including a back-side rejection against Princeton, in which he hit his head on the backboard. But Williamson’s most impressive block came in a win over Virginia, when he closed from the opposite side of the lane to swat a three-pointer into the crowd. Williamson averages 1.8 blocks per game.
While the highlight-worthy moments attract the attention, his game involves so much more. Williamson plays dogged defense, using size and quickness to match up with pretty much anyone the opposition throws at him. He’s strong on the glass, at both ends of the court. The freshman is unselfish on offense, willing to pass and create opportunities for teammates. No matter the situation, he plays with energy yet under control, and with a basketball intelligence that belies his age and experience.
This season’s Duke team includes at least two other likely one-and-done players: R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish. The trio could conceivably be the top three picks in the NBA Draft, with Williamson the clear favorite to go number one. Williamson is probably the most valuable to this Duke team team as well. Look no further than the Blue Devils’ recent struggles. They’re 3-3 during his injury, losing to all of their ranked opponents, including Virginia Tech and North Carolina twice (including the game that Zion exited after just 34 seconds).
Williamson is scheduled to return Thursday night in Duke’s ACC Tournament opener. With a healthy Zion, the Blue Devils are a legitimate threat to win the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after that. And then talk will turn to the NBA Draft.