The biggest star in college basketball emerged from a victorious post-game locker room all smiles. Zion Williamson was greeted with cheers from the crowd of mostly Duke fans. It was a hero’s welcome after the Blue Devils’ epic 23-point comeback at the University of Louisville. Sprinkled among the gawkers eager to snap a picture or get an autograph from Williamson were some Louisville fans.
Hard to imagine Duke players of the past receiving this kind of respect on the road by the opposition. Then again, nothing about Williamson is ordinary. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman might be slightly altering the common narrative surrounding Duke.
Every good drama needs a villain, especially in sports. For various reasons – often rooted in envy, cultural differences and sheer irrationality – we choose not to like Team X. Usually one team stands above all others. In college basketball nobody fits that description more than Duke. The Blue Devils have cornered the market on sports hate unlike any other.
In today’s polarized America, you rarely get consensus on anything. But if there’s one thing you can get fans of Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina and Indiana to all agree on: they all despise Duke.
— Laura Rutledge (@LauraRutledge) February 13, 2019
An annual rite of passage is for one Duke player to be anointed the focus of this animosity. You know the names: Grayson Allen, J.J. Reddick, Shane Battier, Cherokee Parks and college basketball’s all-time public enemy No.1 – Christian Laettner. But this season feels unlike others. You’re not hearing the same the vitriol surrounding the Blue Devils’ most luminous luminary.
He’s such a physical freak and unprecedented athlete. Williamson is built like a football player (He was recruited by LSU to play tight end). Except he flies around the court with the greatest of ease. We’ve never seen someone that large do the things Williamson does. He announced his presence to the world when Duke systematically destroyed Kentucky in the season-opener, 188-84.
Williamson collected 28 points on 11 of 13 shooting in 23 minutes. He also did this:
Williamson hasn’t slowed down. He’s shooting 68.2 percent because it’s virtually impossible to keep him away from the basket. He’s doing things like this:
Oh yeah. This too.
Good God, man. Williamson is the perfect basketball player for the modern age. He’s a walking YouTube channel. He just keeps producing highlight content and then asking if you want more. Who would want to boo that? Just keep the entertainment going.
Duke has had many great players, from national players of the year to No.1 draft choices. But they haven’t had this: a player who has captured America’s imagination for his acrobatic skill. Williamson has 2.3 million Instagram followers and 194,000 Twitter followers. In a growing social media world, these are not small things. ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla has already speculated that Williamson, a presumptive No.1 overall pick for the 2019 draft, could make $1 billion in career earnings.
You could make an argument that Williamson might be Duke’s most popular player ever.
“I’ve never seen a player like Zion Williamson,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas told Mike Greenberg on Get Up! “There’s never been anybody been one in basketball. That doesn’t mean he’s the best player. I’ve certainly seen better players. But there has never been this type of athleticism, agility, nimbleness of feet with this 45-inch vertical all in a package that’s 6-7, 285 pounds. You can’t take your eyes off him.”
Williamson didn’t produce any spectacular highlights against Louisville. But he was the only Duke player who was terrific from start to finish. The only thing that slowed him down was foul trouble (four second-half fouls). He muscled and twisted his way to 27 points, 12 rebounds, 3 steals in 32 minutes.
Phenoms are usually celebrated. So, when Duke steps on the court, they have someone who – home or away – people want to see put on a show. They want to say they were there when Williamson did something amazing. Opposing fans relished every missed shot, turnover and foul called upon Allen, Reddick and Christian Laettner.
Who wants to see Williamson foul out of a game? That did happen again against Texas Tech. That’s no fun.
Duke has had rock star teams before. The 1991-92 squad that successfully defended its national champion boasted Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Laettner. But as the Blue Devils’ success has grown so has the resentment. That’s occasionally the price of winning. It has happened with the New England Patriots and the Golden State Warriors.
Williamson can help change some of that. He already has at the box office for road games. This was the largest crowd to see a basketball game at the KFC Yum! Center this season (22,046).
The Zion Effect. pic.twitter.com/j0A28guOpQ
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) February 8, 2019
Williamson and Murray State’s Ja Morant are the two most exciting players in the sport. College basketball needs them to be major part of March Madness. In the past, many people have eagerly and happily rooted against Duke, rejoicing in their early NCAA tournament flameouts:
In 2012, losing as a No.2 seed to No.15-seed Lehigh
In 2014, losing as a No.3 seed to No. 14 Mercer
In 2017, losing as a No.2 seed to No.7 South Carolina.
We cackled at their failures, making us feel better while ignoring our own school’s shortcomings. But with Williamson, this is different. It’s not going to be enjoyable to see Williamson and Duke get upset in the first weekend. If you’re rooting for Duke to get bounced before the Elite 8, you’re rooting against fun.
Who doesn’t love spectacular dunks and highlight reel plays? Plus, from what we’ve seen, Williamson is an engaging guy.
Duke might never be loveable. But Williamson might make them more likeable.