Why Duke’s Zion Williamson is the NCAA star NBA teams are tanking for

Duke's Zion Williamson (1) goes up to dunk against Florida State during the first half of the ACC tournament's championship game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, March 16, 2019. (Chuck Burton/AP)

In a pre-YouTube Internet age, you had to really put in work to find what you wanted.

Downloading videos could take hours and required patience, but the reward was often worth it. My friends and I would congregate to watch, among other things, music videos and carefully-curated feature films — the opening sequence of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie, the performance of “Echoes” from Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii, and the “iconic” film Half-Baked were all go-tos.

But nothing was more exciting than the basketball highlight reels at our disposal. We would forgo our afternoon classes — and often enough the morning ones, too — to watch, primarily, dunk videos, before going out and finding a hoop low enough to, unsuccessfully, try to recreate the jaw-dropping feats we had studied on the screen.

Vince Carter’s 2000 slam dunk contest reel was the gold standard, and the grainy footage of Carter’s dunk over Frederic Weiss during the Sydney Games was the Holy Grail. James White, for his performance at the 2001 high school dunk contest was firmly entrenched in our Hall of Fame — this specific video, which appears to have made it onto YouTube in 2006, was a favourite years before.

I cannot for the life of me comprehend the level of obsession that would have taken over our lives had Zion Williamson been around back then. His YouTube collection is best-in-class and totally worth throwing away your education for.

The 18-year-old freshman phenom was already a household name before stepping onto the Duke campus thanks to the physics-defying feats caught on video.

He entered college already with more Instagram followers than Aaron Rodgers and Saquon Barkley combined, and twice as many as Mike Trout. Even by the standards for a sport as popular on social media as basketball is, that is not normal.

Of course, nothing about what Williamson does on the court is.

Standing at six-foot-seven and 285 pounds — which would make him the NBA’s heaviest player outside of seven-foot-three giant Boban Marjanovic, who is listed at 290 — Zion has a 40-plus inch vertical leap and a truly unbelievable hang time that allows him to soar through the air like a flying squirrel … except, imagine that squirrel was the size of a moose.

His physical tools are unheard of by NBA prospect standards. You’ve likely seen the obvious comparisons to strong, bouncy big men of the past. Charles Barkley. Larry Johnson. Shawn Kemp. None of those legends could fly quite like Zion, who also happens to have at least 35 pounds on all of them.

He could have played any sport. Let’s be glad he chose basketball.

Even after watching him embarrass high school opponents, I still had my reservations when it came to his prospects as a basketball player. Yes he was strong, could jump like few others and the hype was very real. But, like James White, Dajuan Wagner (who once scored 100 points in a high school game but flamed out in the NBA), and countless others before him, there was no way I thought Zion could live up to it. He’d be a highlight-machine, sure, but that’s where his legacy would begin and end.

I gleefully admit I was very wrong. Not only is Zion a complete basketball player, but he’s far and away the most exciting and promising NBA prospect since LeBron James.

He can really do it all. Beyond being a rim-rocking bully down low, Williamson is also a gifted passer with elite-level court vision, a comfortable shooting stroke and range that extends to the three-point line, a feared rim protector despite his height, and a legitimate two-way threat.

He’s making easy work of collegiate players this season, but has the skill-set, physical tools and killer mentality to keep it up at the next level.

It’s why a handful of NBA teams are tanking harder than ever for the opportunity to land Zion with the first-overall pick of this year’s draft.

As a prospect, he has it all, including an electrifying game that is sure to pack the stands, a winning attitude that can help dictate a culture, and he’s a marketable superstar who is poised to sign one of the biggest endorsement deals ever.

But, for now, we’ll be watching him continue to carve out his collegiate legacy at the NCAA tournament — which seemed like a long shot this time last month following an injury scare.

You could practically hear the collective gasps through your living room windows after he sprained his knee during the first play of a much-anticipated Duke-UNC game. Of course, in typical Zion fashion, even his mishaps are extraordinary — after planting his left foot, his Nike’s literally exploded due to the force.

The injury was concerning mainly because it was a knee strain, which could have lingering effects on his other-worldly hops, and could keep him out of March Madness, which would be an obvious shame to both college hoops fans and the millions who only tune into the NCAA action this time of year to catch a glimpse of stars of tomorrow, a list Williamson clearly headlines by a country mile.

As it turns out, neither concern was warranted. In his first game back from injury, an ACC conference tournament matchup with Syracuse, Williamson shot a perfect 13-of-13 from the floor and finished with 29 points, 14 boards and five assists. And that athleticism? Those hops that could make the staunchest of atheists believe that maybe there really is such a thing as a god? Zion hasn’t skipped a beat.

When Zion got hurt he says he bawled in the locker room, with his mother and brother at his side, because he had looked forward to the iconic Tar Heels matchup for so long. When he got another chance, in the ACC tournament semifinals, he made the most of it, sinking this tough game-winner:

Two days later, he was named ACC tournament MVP after averaging 27 points, 10 rebounds, over two steals and one block per game, all while shooting 77 per cent from the floor and 50 per cent from deep. In the process, he joined Kevin Durant as the only freshman to average at least 27 and 10 in a conference tournament. So much for lingering injury woes.

And so here we are, on the eve of March Madness and just two days from Zion’s NCAA tournament debut.

It sets up what should be a fascinating next few weeks for Zion, whose Duke Blue Devils earned the top seed overall and will be the marquee attraction as the annual event gets underway on Thursday.

The upsets are nice, and the thrill of elimination games is practically contagious. But the real reason why we should be tuning in to the Madness this March is to find out one thing: what will Zion Williamson do next?

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