DURHAM, N.C. – This will forever be regarded as the game in which Zion Williamson blew out his Nike’s, suffered a knee injury and spent a mere 34 seconds on the court with Barack Obama sitting courtside.
It was also one in which North Carolina pounded Duke by 16 in Cameron Indoor Stadium despite making just 2-of-20 shots from 3.
But as much as I’d love to make this about North Carolina’s victory in one of the most difficult venues in America, it’s just not. As much as I’d love to proclaim the Tar Heels national title contenders for going into Cameron and returning to Chapel Hill with a win, I just can’t.
This one quickly turned into the Zion Mystery. The Cameron Crazies were desperate for Williamson to provide a Willis Reed-esque moment and run back onto the court while flashing that trademark smile, but it never happened. Instead, Williamson never returned from the locker room and was ruled out for the remainder of the game prior to halftime.
Zion has ruled college basketball this season. He’s the ultimate human highlight film, with all due respect to Dominique Wilkins, a 285-pound bundle of freak athleticism and power who possesses far more skill that nearly all of us gave him credit for prior to November.
The positive news come after the game while the Tar Heels were celebrating on the opposite corner of the building: Williamson’s injury was deemed a mild knee sprain, and the length of time will be known on Thursday.
The bad: The knee sprain raises the question whether Williamson will return to the court this season for the Blue Devils? Will this injury give his parents trepidation that another one could jeopardize his draft stock and his NBA future?
These are valid questions that no one wants to, or can answer right now. Sure, Williamson loves college basketball and it’s evident he loves playing with his Duke teammates. But it’s also clear that there’s a risk involved here – especially with putting him back on the court at anything less than 100 percent.
“I might be done,” one parent of a former lottery pick told me. “It’s too much of a risk for me.”
It’s likely that Duke’s Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke doctors will huddle with Williamson and his family with hopes that if his star freshman is able to return and take to the court for the NCAA tourney as Duke attempts to win its sixth national title.
But there’s certainly that possibility that college hoops has seen the last of Williamson in a Duke uniform – which would be a shame come March and potentially in April.
It’s clear after watching Duke on Wednesday night that this team is unlikely to reel off six consecutive wins without Zion. There’s a reason why he’s become a virtual lock to go No. 1 in June’s NBA Draft and is also the clear frontrunner to win the National Player of the Year. He changes the game. He is able to mask many of Duke’s deficiencies, including the team’s lackluster perimeter shooting (Duke is shooting 29 percent from 3 in ACC contests).
“Let’s be honest. When the big fells went out of the game, it changes a lot of stuff for them,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after the 88-72 win. “It was a huge blow to them.”
Luke Maye, whose assignment at the outset of the game was Williamson, finished with 30 points and 15 rebounds going up against the likes of Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. There’s no way he makes that kind of impact going up against the energy, athleticism and strength of Williamson.
Maye and Cam Johnson combined to score 56 points and grab 22 rebounds, and had no issue admitting that Williamson is a difference-maker.
“He’s a great player and people are going to say what they want, but they still have two lottery picks and two guys who can go for 20 or 25 points any night,” Maye said.
“People can put an asterisk next to it if they want,” Johnson added. “But we don’t care. We came in to win the game, and we did that.”
But this game would have been different with Williamson. No one who has watched him can argue that. He brings a tenacity, an energy, a guy who is a matchup nightmare and can alter the contest on both ends of the court. I’m not saying Duke would have definitely come out on top, but the Blue Devils wouldn’t have looked as though they were playing 2-on-5 at times with frosh R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish as the only legitimate offensive threats. Barrett finished with 33, Reddish with 27 and the rest of the team added 12 points. UNC scored an eye-popping 62 points in the paint against Duke.
“We have to come up with a game plan without him and hope that he comes back soon,” Krzyzewski said.
“He impacts the game in every way possible,” added Duke point guard Tre Jones, who had as many points (3) as turnovers (3) in the loss. “He’s such a dominant force.”
Now the college basketball world waits to see when – or maybe even if — Williamson returns from an injury that could completely change March Madness.