DURHAM, N.C. — No matter how anyone felt about the NBA’s slam dunk contest, which Hamidou Diallo would soon conquer, there was little arguing that the best show in basketball on this particular February night had just concluded a couple hours down the road. Diallo’s soaring honey-dip slam over one big Shaqtus would prove a worthy conclusion to an otherwise underwhelming All-Star Saturday, but here at Cameron Indoor, one of college basketball’s last cathedrals left standing, one might have sensed they were peering into the weekend’s future.
Allegedly unbeknownst to him, Zion Williamson had already been a topic of discussion back in Charlotte, where hours earlier, LeBron James and Stephen Curry had offered praise for Duke’s sensational 18-year-old, whose game is equal parts balletic and blunt instrument. Seated at his locker, fresh off a 32-point night and 94–78 win over NC State, Williamson learned this by dint of a reporter’s question. He shrugged it off with a grin.
“Why they talking about me? I’m in college!” Williamson paused as the scrum around him chuckled in concert, before proceeding. “I mean…I guess it’s dope, those are two of the best players in the league. But I’m hoping to be there, competing against them next year.”
That Williamson might be in action a year from now in Chicago's All-Star weekend certainly hasn’t seemed far-fetched to this point. Come to witness the show was boxing champ Floyd Mayweather, Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, and a host of former Blue Devils including Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Typically, there’s a level of guilt associated with crowning college freshmen this far ahead of the fact with any confidence. But what’s hyperbole when even the best players in the world are happy to discuss?
“I’ve never tooted my nose up or had anything to say about the comparison to me and Zion and Zion to me,” James told reporters earlier in the day. “I think it's great for the game.”
Buried in all this was the fact that R.J. Barrett, who leads the ACC in scoring and will hear his name called minutes after Williamson is drafted in June, had just put together a 23-point triple-double with no turnovers. By the end of the season, they might have a case as one of the better college basketball duos ever. Fellow freshman Cam Reddish wouldn’t be a secondary option on any other team in the country. At this point, none of the attention is exactly new for Williamson or his teammates, who have become one of the more captivating and dominant college teams in recent memory.
“[Zion] brought in a million or so followers, every game that he played in high school or AAU was a show. So he’s been accustomed to dealing with that,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “R.J., with his international experience, there’s a maturity and comfort level with not taking [the spotlight] seriously. Understanding that if you’re going to be good, it’s a good part of what you’re doing, and not to let it become pressure.”
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Duke doubles as an NBA feeder team, with point guard Tre Jones also building a case as a fourth one-and-done prospect. While the flock of scouts already in-state who drove out from Charlotte was somewhat normal, more noteworthy is the fact that Duke has had to turn down a slew of teams ahead of Wednesday’s rivalry game against North Carolina, for which tickets have been listed at $2000 on the secondary market. If you’re a franchise with any chance of drafting in the lottery (or if you’re simply curious), the Blue Devils are a priority, and that begins with Williamson, who rarely disappoints.
“Really, Zion shouldn’t even exist,” one scout said earlier this week. Watching Williamson put down a casual, 360-degree windmill off two feet in warmups at his listed 6’7” and 285 pounds drives that point home. There was another attempt from just inside the free throw line, outside the paint to the left, where he soared to catch his own alley-oop off the bounce, cocked it back, and struck back iron, that sent the student section into a minor frenzy. In the context this particular night, it might have been better than anything that happened in Charlotte.
When asked after the game, Williamson admitted he hadn’t planned on watching the contest live, and said he didn’t last year, either. “I’ll probably just catch the highlights after.” The common critique of the dunk contest, of course, is that until the game’s brightest stars again take part, it will fall something short of must-watch. And so, of course, the million-dollar question was posed to Williamson by a member of the press.
“Do you want to be in it?”
Seated to Williamson’s left, Mike Buckmire’s eyes lit up. “That’s a good question,” Buckmire said, knowingly. “That’s a good question.” The sophomore walk-on has doubled as Williamson’s foil during postgame sessions all season. Buckmire has also seen his behind-closed-door acrobatics that would, surely, for lack of a better term, break the internet.
Williamson gave it some thought, before answering with his typical deadpan charm. Of course, magicians never reveal their secrets. “Me and Buck will discuss that more. I’m not sure yet.”
“You could jump over me,” suggested Buckmire, who is listed at 6’2”.
“I mean, if you’re in town,” Williamson said, straight-faced. “If they even put me in the dunk contest. They might not want to put me in it. I’ll think about it.
“They might not. You never know.”