With Duke out, Zion en­ters the NBA uni­verse

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Mar­tin Rogers Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

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.

USA TO­DAY SPORTS

GE­OFF BURKE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

JEREMY BREVARD/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Duke’s Zion Wil­liamson is the pre­sump­tive top pick in June’s NBA draft.

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