Clemson found out exactly what it missed out on seven minutes and 35 seconds into the second half.
Zion Williamson stole the ball from point guard Shelton Mitchell with an open floor in front of him and took two dribbles to decide what to do to wow the sellout crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not much can surprise Blue Devil fans anymore after 13 games of watching the once-in-a-generation freshman, but Williamson picked a new trick this time, bringing the house down with a full 360-degree spin while floating in the air before slamming it home with his left hand.
"At the last second, I said, ‘You know what, I’m wide open, why not?’" Williamson said. "I did it, got high enough. I mean, it was almost like a layup."
Classmate R.J. Barrett was trailing the play and jumped almost as high as Williamson did in excitement, but was less impressed in the postgame locker room after he was asked to grade the dunk.
"I'll give that an eight," Barrett said, on a scale from one to 10.
Williamson agreed with the rating, and from the other side of the room, Barrett challenged his friend to do a between-the-legs dunk during a game to earn an elusive 10. But Williamson added that Saturday night may have been the loudest he's ever heard the crowd after a dunk, rivaling a transition slam he recalled from the Chick-fil-A Classic holiday tournament his junior year of high school.
"He’s a treasure. He’s a beautiful kid to coach. Every day, he’s upbeat," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Everybody on our team loves him, and he’s got a great sense of humor and a little bop when he’s making some jokes and all that. As unique as he is as a player, he’s unique in that way as a person. He’s the total package, there’s no question about it. Big-time great kid and player."
Despite the highlight-reel play that put an exclamation point on a stellar 25-point, 10-rebound performance to lead Duke to an 87-68 victory in its home opener, Williamson said he had no extra motivation playing against Clemson, the school less than 70 miles from his hometown of Spartanburg, S.C. Most recruiting analysts expected the 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward to be in a Tiger uniform this season before he made the surprise choice to commit to Duke last January.
"I made my decision the night before. It was a very hard decision," Williamson said. "When it came down to it, playing for Coach K, playing with other great players, I felt like I couldn’t turn that away, and these other players are pushing me to be a better player myself, and I felt like Coach K would let me be me. So far, I don’t regret my decision at all."
Williamson did more than just dunk it once Saturday night, though that will certainly lead all the SportsCenter highlights in the morning. He scored Duke's first four points with a pair of putbacks, drove into the paint at will for an efficient 9-of-11 night from the floor and got to the free-throw line nine times.
Williamson's 25 points matched his most since the second game of the season against Army, and his effort on the glass made it his third straight double-double.
After Williamson passed up an open 3-pointer on the first play of the game, head coach Mike Krzyzewski implored him to shoot it, though Williamson's first two attempts from deep were his only misses of the night, including one airball that came nowhere near the rim. But the third and final one he took went in, becoming just his fourth made triple of the season.
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The head coach on the other sideline was left shaking his head at what might have been, still searching for an infusion of talent that can take his Clemson program up a notch after the Tigers made a Sweet 16 run last March. After the game, a lopsided 19-point defeat that still could have swung the other way if a player like Williamson switched teams, Brad Brownell was asked if Williamson's college success has lived up to what he expected during his recruitment.
"Yeah, I thought he would be this good," Brownell said in the middle of a brief, frustrated press conference. He didn't need to say anything more.