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Opinion: Duke's Zion Williamson drops jaw in supersized return from injury  2 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

CHARLOTTE — They stood elbow-to-elbow on the steps surrounding the players’ tunnel at Spectrum Center, some of them crowding for a viewing angle, others holding cell phones high above their heads.

It isn't often that a conference tournament produces a "remember where you were" moment, especially before the game actually starts. But there was a different energy Thursday night here at the ACC tournament, a din that followed Zion Williamson from his first emergence onto the floor to the first thunderous, above-the-rim dunk that announced his return to health to his final tally of 29 points and 14 rebounds in Duke’s 84-72 victory over Syracuse.

"Bro, you didn't miss," Duke guard R.J. Barrett said to a laughing Williamson as he picked up a box score in the postgame news conference, causing Williamson to cover his face with the copy in front of him.

Indeed, he didn't.

After missing six games over a three-week stretch that sparked a national debate over whether Williamson should play again this season, the most exciting college basketball player of the decade didn’t just come back Thursday from a knee injury the way most human beings would come back from a knee injury.

Like everything with Williamson since his college career began, it was a supersized, otherworldly, 13-for-13 comeback designed to drop jaws and give NBA executives dry heaves over the May 14 draft lottery that promises to change the direction of one franchise and leave several others cursing their luck.

"There was never any pressure to rush back until I was ready," said Williamson, who added that he never considered shutting himself down for the season. "I felt ready a few days ago and it was good to get back."

Williamson’s performance after a 22-day layoff didn't just remind everyone why Duke surged to No. 1 in February and has looked like the national championship favorite when fully healthy. It accentuated the gulf between Williamson and every other prospect in college basketball.

Because with Williamson, it’s not just the unique physique, the force with which he can finish around the rim or his occasional flash of skill on the perimeter. Williamson, quite simply, loves to play — a simple but essential element of the entire package he brings to a basketball team, and one that was lost on the Twitter crowd yelling at him to shut it down after his left Nike exploded back on Feb. 20.

"I wanted to be out there every game," Williamson said. "I see my brothers out there battling and wanted to go to war with them.

"Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time."

Of course, if he was going to come back, it was going to be in a different pair of shoes than the Nike PG 2.5 that came apart at the seams, which was an interesting subplot on its own.

Earlier Thursday, Duke posted a photo of Williamson lacing up some white Nike Kyrie 4s, but these weren’t your typical, off-the-rack sneakers.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the day after the North Carolina game, Nike sent "their top people" to figure out what happened and then went to China to personally oversee the manufacturing of a stronger, more stable version. He said they’re also going to make sure Williamson alternates his shoes frequently, as they suspect wear and tear of using the same pair of shoes in several games contributed to them coming apart under the weight of Williamson’s 285 pounds.

"They came back within a week with different alternative to make sure it was done right," Krzyzewski said.

"We have a very close relationship, we think it’s the best shoe or we wouldn’t be with them."

Said Williamson: "The shoes were incredible this game."

Equipped with those stronger shoes, Williamson sprinted and rebounded and dove on the floor with abandon. He poked away balls, he bullied his way to rebounds, he called for lob dunks and offered his teammates a smile after every positive play. 

Of course, that's what makes this whole thing so interesting and what separates him as a potential generational talent. In order to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Williamson didn't need to come back at all. And yet when he did, he played as if his future earnings depended on it.

"I've been in this game over 50 years and seen a lot of great players," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "I'm not saying he's better than those guys, but he’s a different player. He can do things nobody has done in this game. There aren't guys like him."

About the only thing Williamson didn’t do was shoot free throws well (2-for-9). But when you rack up five dunks, cause five steals and come within two rebounds of a double-double in the first half, the show is more or less already over. 

Even though you only needed to see his first viral moment to understand that Williamson was indeed back — a steal at halfcourt, a launch from one step inside the free-throw line and an assault on the rim just two minutes in — he went ahead and offered up several more anyway. That's just who he is.

And while Thursday was massive for Duke because it was a reminder that the middling team they often looked like the past three weeks is no longer relevant to their NCAA tournament prospects, Friday’s semifinal matchup is significant on its own.

North Carolina beat Duke twice without Williamson, including last Saturday in Chapel Hill. Should Duke turn the tables on a neutral court with its best player healthy, its argument for a No. 1 seed will be rock solid.

"We’re very excited to be a part of it because it’s real now," Williamson said. "From now on it’s win or go home."

 

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