This story appears in the April 8, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
As Michigan State danced off the floor, vanquishers of mighty Duke in the East Regional final, there was one word that went unuttered: overrated. The Spartans did not stick a pin in the hype around freshman Zion Williamson. They blew it up more. Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman said, "It's almost impossible to guard him one-on-one." Junior forward Nick Ward added, "Zion's quicker than what he looks, stronger than what he looks." In winning 68–67, the Spartans acted as if they had survived some sort of natural disaster.
Michigan State left Washington with dreams of another championship. Williamson? He left his mark on the sport. This season was filled with paeans to Zion, from the most vaunted experts to the most casual fans. But maybe the best, nicest thing we can say is that he reminded us that college basketball is supposed to be a blast.
Every time you watched him, there was a good chance you would see something you never had before. There was Zion launching from the lane with no prayer to block a three-pointer and blocking it anyway. There was Zion flinging crosscourt passes like he was chucking baseballs. There was Zion making an impossible alley-oop seem as easy as signing his name. There was Zion, all 6'7" and 285 pounds of him, moving more quickly than anybody else on the court. There was Zion, making people forget they hated Duke.
This is the beauty of Zion Williamson: His highlights went viral, but the more you understand about basketball, the more you appreciate how he played. He did not take possessions off on either end. He did not force shots. He loved the dirty work. His lone college season was like a Disney movie where the scrappy kid at the end of the bench grows a foot and gets a talent infusion from heaven.
"We knew he was special, but he's even more special than we realized," Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer says. "Right away we just saw his massive talent; who he is as a teammate stood out. He can really shoot too. He can do everything."
The only thing he couldn't do was win a national championship. But most teams don't, and even most teams loaded with one-and-done talent don't. The obstacles to winning that way are myriad: egos, disinterest, lack of accountability or cohesion. These Blue Devils did not face any of those. What they faced, and what every team like them faces, was a compressed time frame.
Give Duke and Michigan State another month alone in the gym with their coaching staffs, and the Blue Devils probably win by 10 or more. But that's not how this works. Duke didn't hold many full-length, full-contact practices after New Year's, because the ACC schedule is too tight. Mike Krzyzewski and his assistants taught as much as they reasonably could without stifling their team's superlative individual talent.
Williamson finished on Sunday with 24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. He also had five turnovers, two brainless first-half fouls that sent him to the bench and three misses from the line in five attempts. He failed to corral two entry passes late in the game and stayed flat-footed for a beat too long on the winning basket, a three with 39 seconds left by fifth-year senior forward Kenny Goins. Michigan State was headed to the Final Four because its players, while not nearly as talented, better refined the talent they have.
Since Coach K took the one-and-done plunge eight years ago he has won one national championship, in 2015. The freshmen then—Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones—had played together for USA basketball and essentially committed as a package. This team was different. Williamson and RJ Barrett chose Duke independently. They were roommates mostly as a forced social experiment: Duke needed them to get along for this to work.
They did better than get along. They became the best of friends, easily complementing each other, casually chatting in free moments, working together on the court, never showing a hint of jealousy. This feels like a lifetime ago, but before Zion arrived in Durham, a few NBA executives had a fuzzy worry that he would be selfish or difficult. He turned out to be a joy.
Following his final college press conference Williamson trudged silently with Barrett back to the locker room—the first time all week that they did not chat during that walk. Two guys for whom college is just a stopover were devastated. Then Williamson sat at his locker room stall and reminded us once again why he is so easy to like. He was asked about playing his last college game and said, "I mean obviously, there's a high possibility, but I'm not focused on that right now." He was asked about the individual year he had and said, "If you know me, you know I don't care about individual."
After stellar performances from junior guard Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 assists) and Tillman (19 points, nine rebounds) and the game-winner from Goins—a former walk-on—the Spartans celebrated their Final Four berth in a tournament that for most of them will be the peak of their basketball careers. Defeating Zion added some shine to their accomplishment. Fifty years from now they will talk about the night they beat him, no matter what happens in Minneapolis.
As the premier one-and-done player of the last decade, Williamson was a talking point—a way to point out how silly the NBA's age minimum was. He never took the bait. Instead he said, "I regret nothing about this, even if the one-and-done rule wasn't there." Zion Williamson spent his season reminding us of what the Spartans know well: College is supposed to be the best time of your life.