Teams have tried everything this year to limit Zion Williamson, and looking at his overwhelming highlights and National Player of the Year resume, it’s safe to say no one has cracked the code.
St. John’s forward Mustapha Heron thought he’d try to limit the star freshman by getting in his head and riling him up. Spoiler alert, it’s best not to wake a sleeping giant.
With the Red Storm getting as close as a two-point deficit, Williamson sparked the Blue Devils to victory by scoring 10 straight, pushing the Duke lead to double-digits at the halftime break.
For the Spartanburg, S.C., native, all he needed was a little spark.
That came with 11 minutes to go in the first half, when fellow classmate Cam Reddish poked a loose ball down the court and drove the lane. St. John’s forward Marvin Clarke II jumped with the freshman and hit him with a hard foul, which was determined through review to be a flagrant one foul. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski ditched his blazer in an attempt to fire up the crowd and get the team going, a power move that the Hall of Famer has been using for years.
“It gets me pumped,” Williamson said. “When Cam got fouled and he took the jacket off. He said, ‘Are you going to let them do that to your brothers?’ and we’re like ‘No sir, No sir.’ From there we started bringing the pressure to them.”
Then it was Heron, who right before an inbounds play stuck his hand on Williamson’s chest, which he brushed aside. When the transfer from Auburn put his hand onto that number 1 again, the referee had to come over and defuse the situation. It was one of many scrappy moments throughout the day from the two teams, as the veteran Red Storm team looked to win the mental battle over Duke’s freshmen.
“He put [his hand] back and the ref was like ‘Hey, you can’t do that, you can only put your forearm.’ I think it just shows the physicality of the game,” Williamson said.
Physicality is one of the first things people notice about the 6-foot-7, 285-pounder, but it goes both ways, as defenders try to gain any edge possible to slow down Williamson, whether it’s an arm bar on the inbounds or getting bodied in the post.
“They all try to physically challenge me,” Williamson noted. “They’ll try to give me a bump to see how I react. But, some people will get caught off guard, not only am I strong, I’m quick. So, then it’s a lot to keep up with. But, every team does try to play me physical.”
With the Blue Devils leading 37-33 with just over two minutes to go, Williamson found his stride. He made a trio of layups, hit two foul shots, and then capped off the half with a steal and thunderous slam—two of his 29 points on the night, coming on a 13-for-17 performance from the floor. St. John’s would briefly cut the Duke advantage to single digits to start the second half, but never got close enough.
“It wasn’t a 10-point game, but it was because of that explosion,” Krzyzewski said. “We play defense. We scored a few buckets tonight on our denial. In the first half we got a couple and [the dunk] was a big one.”
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Those are the type of moments and situations that the projected top-overall pick feeds on, which gave him extra motivation to get going. With the crowd picking up and Williamson locked in, it was easy to sense that another classic Cameron run was about to occur.
With chippy plays coming left and right from the Red Storm, Williamson thought back to his younger days when he was nine years old. He remembered how he would play pick up with the adults in a local park, and how they would bully him on the court, making him stronger mentally.
“They said if you want to make it big, you’ve got to be mentally tough,” Williamson recalls. “When I get in a physical battle like that, I think it elevates my game and I think it makes me a better player.”
If there was any question of whether or not the young Blue Devils were mentally ready for this stretch of the season or not, it’s been answered, and Duke's latest phenom will be the stalwart for a team getting ready for its toughest stretch of the season. The Blue Devils have four consecutive matchups against currently-ranked opponents looming, starting with a rematch against No. 3 Virginia next Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.