With Duke out, Zion enters the NBA universe
Martin Rogers: Blue Devils superstar is the biggest no-brainer first overall draft pick since LeBron James.
Zion Williamson’s freshman season ended Sunday with a loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, but the Duke star had a season to remember, especially statistically. Although he hasn’t formally announced his intentions, he’s already the talk of the NBA universe and what teams have the best chance to draft him if he goes down that path in June. A look back at what he accomplished and a look at what might be ahead,
On Sunday night, the clock hit zeroes, Duke’s championship dream evaporated, and a few million more brackets were set ablaze.
Within moments of the buzzer sounding and as Michigan State celebrated, Adam Silver emerged from the tunnel, strode onto the court, enveloped Zion Williamson in a big hug, grinned and whispered, “You’re ours now.”
OK, the NBA commissioner didn’t do that, but he might as well have. Because in that moment, Williamson essentially became the property of the NBA universe and its global fan base, a player to be cherished and lauded and scrutinized and debated.
Forget about the formalities, Williamson is now an NBA player, and one of the most famous ones on the planet. There is no drama, no maybes, no wait-andsee moments to be had over the next couple of months.
There won’t be any draft night shocks. He will suit up for whichever team gets lucky in the lottery, and he will do so as the biggest no-brainer first pick since LeBron James leaped from high school, back when that was a thing.
Williamson comes in with a greater level of focus and intrigue than anyone since James, who arrived in the NBA boasting a Sports Illustrated cover while barely old enough to drive. Williamson drops in with 2.8 million Twitter followers. That’s a lot of people wondering how you’re going to fare.
There is still a process to go through, but it is just that — process. Williamson couldn’t just walk off the court at Capital One Arena and find a suitcase full of cash ready for him in the locker room, but he won’t have to wait long for it and he’s set for life already. He still loves his college teammates, but he isn’t part of their world anymore, not even the same world as Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, who will join him on draft night and hear their names called shortly after his.
The Zion-sphere, as big and all-encompassing as it is, is carved to fit just one personality, and it is his alone. Williamson will get a monumental shoe deal. He’ll be referred to predominantly by his first name only, a marker of extreme fame and — let’s be honest — having a slightly unique moniker. Leave off LeBron James or Serena Williams’ last names and everyone still knows who you are talking about. Tom Brady, for all his Super Bowl jewelry, not so much.
Williamson will be courted by all and sundry, from agents to endorsers to talk show hosts. TMZ will try to chat to him at an airport. He’ll get name-dropped in lyrics by recording artists.
The fans’ thirst for information about him won’t be sated; anything from his love life to who he’s hanging out with will be up for grabs. He’s a level-headed kid by all accounts, one who has been schooled well this year by Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. He’ll take it in stride.
The only unknown is what will happen when he actually takes to the court, and if you don’t count Summer League we will have to wait until October to see that. Whatever level of greatness he attains will be determined by performances churned out night after night, year after year.
That’s the same for everyone, but what makes Williamson different is that he has become an NBA star before he even plays an NBA minute. He has a lot to live up to, but if he’s even half as good as the hype suggests, he has a lot to accomplish. The clock just started again.
Duke’s Zion Williamson is the presumptive top pick in June’s NBA draft.