You don't know what you have until it's gone: The Zion Williamson era at Duke was far too short

<p>Zion Williamson spent more time in the stratosphere than any other player this season.</p>

Zion Williamson spent more time in the stratosphere than any other player this season.

For as much as Zion Williamson was discussed this season, it often became far too easy to gloss over the superstar freshman.

Maybe it was because he set the bar too high. Williamson needed just 23 minutes in Duke's season opener to score 28 points on 10-of-12 shooting against a Kentucky team that also came up one game shy of the Final Four.

Maybe it was because you couldn't turn on ESPN without a highlight—be it his magnificent 360-degree dunk against Clemson or his shoe blowout against North Carolina—or praise for the Spartanburg, S.C., native.

Maybe it was because when he was sidelined for more than three weeks at the end of the season, Williamson stirred constant debate as to whether he should just sit the rest of the way, and whether other top college stars should follow suit. 

Maybe it was because when he came back against Syracuse in the ACC tournament, Williamson turned in a perfect 13-for-13, 29-point performance. Or maybe it was because even once Williamson returned, he was repeatedly asked why he wanted to keep playing for the Blue Devils, even if that meant risking tens or hundreds of millions, only to answer with class every time.

"I'm just enjoying my college experience with my brothers."

There's a reason why Zion generated more talk than any college basketball player in recent memory. 

It's because there will never be another talent like him in this sport. Ever.

Saturday afternoon, prior to Duke's Elite Eight matchup, Mike Krzyzewski was relatively honest about the changes that are coming down the line with the NBA's draft rules. He knows that many mature, highly-talented players like Williamson and R.J. Barrett will more than likely opt to skip past college and head right to the pros.

As much as it will benefit the college game to have more players who intend to stay for multiple seasons, it will also rob fans of the chance to see teenagers like Williamson dominate against their peers rather than immediately going toe-to-toe with grizzled professionals.

"Having the opportunity not just to coach him but to get to know him, he is such a genuine young man and well advanced maturity-wise," Krzyzewski said of Williamson. "He's extremely intelligent book-wise, but [also] people-wise. And he's humble. 

"He's really got everything. This is not a phony guy. And he's more than a dunker; he's a lot more than a dunker. He's a very, very special human being and player."

Before that season-opening game had even finished, it became crystal clear that 2018-19 would be Williamson's only season in Durham. Although there were initially some questions as to whether he was well-rounded enough to be a one-and-done player, they vanished in a matter of minutes.

After many games, I ran out of words to describe what Williamson had just done. His dunks often are effortless, his leaping ability (almost literally) out of the gym.

When this block happened at Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena in February, I was just a hundred feet away, yet I didn't really think much of it upon first glance.

Then, upon watching the replay, I was stunned. How does a player do that, let alone an 18-year-old college freshman? It was undoubtedly the highlight of the college basketball season, but it didn't even seem remarkable in the moment because it was—at least to an extent—what we came to expect from Zion.

In the coming days, he'll be named National Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. In a few months, he'll be the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. And chances are that, soon enough, he'll have one of the richest, if not the richest, shoe deals in basketball history.

One thing that Williamson won't have, however, is a jersey hanging in the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Unlike former Duke standout Jason Williams, I'm not of the belief that Williamson should be given an honor that is bestowed upon only those that have earned their degrees. 

Of course, if he ever returns to Durham to complete his coursework, then absolutely raise that No. 1 jersey right next to J.J. Redick's No. 4 and Shelden Williams' No. 23. But that's almost certainly never going to happen.

Maybe the eventual fading of the one-and-done era will mean that the Blue Devils get the chance to retire more numbers in the coming years. But it will also mean that there won't be more Zions.

Sunday's loss to Michigan State represented more than just the end of Duke's season. It brought a close to the discussion of Williamson the Blue Devil and kickstarted the talk of ping-pong balls that will ultimately decide which jersey he gets to don come the fall.

That doesn't mean we should stop talking about what Zion Williamson did at Duke. 

There have been few seasons as remarkable as the 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman's campaign. Maybe Redick's senior year in 2005-06 and Jason Williams' junior season in 2001-02 come close—both those teams also failed to make the Final Four, losing in the Sweet 16. But Williamson is unique, special, incredible and a freak athlete, something unlike any of us have ever seen outside of LeBron James.

They say you don't know what you have until it's gone. The Zion era at Duke was far too short, and it didn't give us the time to appreciate all that he did.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

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." 


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