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'Once in a lifetime': How did Duke men's basketball's Zion Williamson get so good?

<p>Zion Williamson's thunderous jam against North Carolina was just one of the highlights of a massive ACC tournament weekend for the soon-to-be National Player of the Year.</p>

Zion Williamson's thunderous jam against North Carolina was just one of the highlights of a massive ACC tournament weekend for the soon-to-be National Player of the Year.

A minute into the second half of Duke’s beatdown of Clemson at Cameron earlier this season, Zion Williamson scooped up a defensive rebound and took the ball down the court. 

At 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, he moved with the kind of ease that makes you question your conception of physics and what a body that big should be able to do. Four orange jerseys converged on him, but he dribbled around them and laid the ball in. Coast to coast. 

A few minutes later, he pickpocketed the Tigers’ point guard and threw down a 360-degree slam.

The question that has hovered around him all season and seems to defy explanation, even in the midst of March, is how did the 18-year-old Williamson—wielding a combination of high-flying dunks, ball-handling skills and media savvy—get so good? 

‘As long as he puts the damn thing in’

Williamson was not always 6-foot-7. Lee Sartor, Williamson’s high school coach at Spartanburg Day School, first saw Williamson play during an AAU game when he was in the fifth grade. Physically, Sartor said, Williamson was a fifth grader, but his basketball IQ was clearly above the others on the court.

Williamson transferred to Spartanburg Day School before his ninth-grade year, and the rim-rattling slams soon gained national attention.

“He wasn’t tall and physically overwhelming like he grew to be when he was in the ninth grade. I think his size started to come between his ninth-grade year and his 10th-grade year, then his 10th-grade year he went to a whole other level physically,” Sartor said. “The rest is history.”

Williamson spurted up several inches in one year, eventually leading his team to three straight state championships—including scoring 37 points and throwing down a handful of slams in the championship game his senior year.

“He’s just one of those players that comes along maybe once in a lifetime and kind of transcends the game of basketball,” Sartor said. 

After every college game that Williamson throws one down, reporters jab teammate R.J. Barrett for a ranking of the dunk. The 360 jam against Clemson earned a seven, his soaring throwdown against North Carolina in the ACC tournament earned a 10. 

Either way, it’s still only two points.

“He can do that, so then do it. We allow him to do it,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the January win against the Tigers. “There’s no ceiling on how high or how many times he can twirl as long as he puts the damn thing in.”

Zion Williamson followed up a 13-for-13 outing against Syracuse with 31 points and 11 rebounds in what will likely be his only game versus North Carolina. Jim Liu

‘His game is more complete than that’ 

It’s hard to say the most prolific basketball player in the nation is underrated, but there is one aspect of his game that gets buried under the windmill slams and break-your-brain defensive swats. 

He has handles. The basketball phenom that LSU tried to recruit to play football and who is heftier than all but two dozen Blue Devil football players was not always a forward—he grew up playing point guard. 

“The thing with Zion is that people look at his dunks, but his game is more complete than that,” Sartor said. 

Williamson was the first in the gym for practice and one of the last out, the coach explained, and he developed strong guard skills early in his career. Krzyzewski, commenting on Williamson after the blowout win against Kentucky to open the season, called out his point guard history when he noted that all four freshman can bring the ball up the floor. 

“It’s an unusual mix and the offense that we’re learning allows them the freedom to do it,” Krzyzewski said.

Zion Williamson became the first freshman in conference history to win ACC Player of the Year and ACC tournament MVP. Jim Liu

‘The same humble, respectful kid’

Sartor said the first time Wiliamson made ESPN was his freshman year during a Christmas tournament. Soon, his highlight reels were racking up millions of views on YouTube and he was frequently making SportsCenter. 

“Between Zion’s junior and senior year, we didn’t play in a game that wasn’t sold out,” Sartor said. 

The coach said that what made Williamson worthy of attention is that he’s always been modest about it.

“Of course we were excited and happy for him, but he remained the same humble, respectful kid,” Sartor said. 

So when he got to college, the media was nothing new to him. After games, as reporters jockey for positions around his locker and Williamson pulls in sidekick Mike Buckmire for interviews, the 18-year-old handles questions with an ease political candidates would envy.

Now, he’s been on the cover of SLAM magazine, GQ recently ran a feature on him and his freshman teammates, and you can hardly turn on ESPN without seeing his face. The 18-year-old takes it in stride. 

“I came in, and with the brotherhood we all look out for each other, my teammates look out for me,” he said after the Clemson game. “If I’m ever feeling the pressure of the media they always got me. So the transition has been really easy.”

The freshman is all but guaranteed to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft this June. But Sartor, now the head men’s basketball coach at Erskine College in South Carolina, said Williamson’s best is yet to come.

“I’m so proud of him,” Sartor said. “But I tell people all the time that there’s so much more the world hasn’t seen that he’s capable of.”

And as good as he is, Williamson himself sees room for improvement.

“I’m 18 years old, I’m an unfinished product,” he said after Duke’s season-opening win against Kentucky. “I just work on everything.”