CHARLOTTE—As blue and white confetti fluttered down to the Spectrum Center floor, Zion Williamson made sure to dap up each of his teammates. But he didn’t stop there, continuing down the line to congratulate Duke’s assistant coaches and managers as well.
All season long, Williamson has tried to shun the spotlight, instead deferring to his “brothers.” The freshman doesn’t do a postgame interview without sophomore walk-on Mike Buckmire by his side.
But he can’t avoid being the center of attention.
His dunks fill up highlight reels, his presence draws multiple defenders at once and his celebrations make cameras click from every angle. When Williamson was handed the ACC tournament MVP trophy, he beamed from ear to ear.
With the soon-to-be National Player of the Year back on the floor, the Blue Devils reminded everyone why they are as likely as anyone to be celebrating a championship once more this season.
“When you're a little kid watching Duke on TV cut down nets, championship nets, and you say you want to be a part of it, you say it as a little kid,” Williamson said. “But when you actually grow up and get to be a part of it, I mean, that's why we come to Duke, win championships and try to get banners.”
To put things in perspective, consider this: Thursday night, Duke scored 44 points in the paint against Syracuse—that tied the most allowed by the Orange this season. Then on Friday, the Blue Devils dropped 50 points in the paint against North Carolina, also the most surrendered by the Tar Heels in any game this season.
And once more, with a 21st ACC tournament title on the line, Duke logged 42 points in the paint against 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and a long, deep Florida State team. Of course, that tied the most allowed by the Seminoles this year as well.
You think that Williamson guy makes a difference?
“It's tough to determine what our potential is.... I try not to do that,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Half the conference season we played without our full complement of players. So, to play these three games was so important because we remembered many of the things that we did when we played together before, but we [also] learned some new things."
It didn’t take long for Williamson to make an impact in the Blue Devils’ postseason opener. His emphatic dunk just 2:05 into Thursday’s win brought the entire building to life. Then following up on a perfect 13-of-13 outing, the Spartanburg, S.C., native delivered the game-winning bucket to beat North Carolina and help Duke get the proverbial monkey off its back against its hated rivals.
Saturday night, his impact wasn’t as obvious. Williamson’s 21 points were quiet, and he grabbed just five rebounds.
Instead, Williamson’s presence made life easier for his teammates. Three of Duke’s other four starters added double-figure points, led by Tre Jones’ 18—two of which came courtesy of a gorgeous bounce pass from, you guessed it, Williamson.
Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams said after Friday’s semifinal, “The guy that’s been hurt put on his Superman jersey.” Thursday night, a Syracuse assistant called Williamson “the incredible Hulk.”
Williamson isn’t any single character. He’s Superman, Batman, the Hulk and Captain America all wrapped into one.
For the Blue Devils, though, one hero is not going to be able to do it all and carry this team to a sixth national title. Williamson is still a freshman, an 18-year-old kid who has yet to play in the NCAA tournament despite all the hyperbole and hoopla that surrounds him.
Duke has beaten every team it has played this season, except for Gonzaga. Every team the Blue Devils will play over the next three weeks, they will be more than capable of beating.
And each opponent will know exactly who to have its eyes on—at 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, the man wearing No. 1 in white won’t be hard to find.
“Those six games I sat out, when you see your brothers going to war battling and there's nothing you can do but sit on the sideline and cheer, there's nothing wrong with that, but I'm not that type of person,” Williamson said. “I want to be out there with them.”
Williamson, after getting through the handshake line, made his way over to ESPN’s Allison Williams along with R.J. Barrett. Through all the clichés, Williamson delivered a poignant message.
When asked what about their March mentality, his answer was simple.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."