Ever since he snatched the ball out of Kentucky center Nick Richards’ hands and took off full speed to deliver a perfectly placed bounce pass to teammate R.J. Barrett for the hoop and the harm, there’s been little doubt about who would be the first name off the board when the time came in June. At least now for Zion Williamson though, it’s official.
NBA Commissioner and Duke graduate Adam Silver took to the podium Thursday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. to announce that the New Orleans Pelicans selected Williamson with the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-7 forward becomes the fourth former Blue Devil to be selected with the top pick — the most all-time by any school — and the first since Kyrie Irving was taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011.
Williamson will join fellow former Blue Devils Brandon Ingram, Frank Jackson, and Jahlil Okafor on the Pelicans, whose general manager is another Duke alumnus in Trajan Langdon. New Orleans is experiencing massive changes to its organization after dealing star Anthony Davis, picked first in 2012, to the Lakers for multiple young players and future first round picks. The Pelicans landed the top pick in May’s NBA Draft Lottery despite just a 6 percent chance of taking home the top prize.
The former Blue Devil star declared for the pros after just one season in Durham where he delivered averages of 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game on 68.0 percent shooting from the floor. Williamson was named the consensus National Player of the Year for the 2018-19 season, and was also awarded ACC Player and Rookie of the Year.
Williamson and fellow freshman R.J. Barrett dominated college basketball all season, leading the Blue Devils to an appearance in the Elite Eight. The Spantanburg, S.C., native had a career-high in points with 35 in a Jan. 14 loss to Syracuse and a career-high 17 rebounds in a win against Boston College on Feb. 2.
During Duke’s home bout with North Carolina on Feb. 20, with stars as big as former president Barack Obama in attendance, Williamson would suffer a knee sprain that sidelined him for the next six games, where the Blue Devils would go just 3-3 in his absence. The 285-pounder went to perform a spin move just 33 seconds into the game and tore through his Nike PG 2.5 shoes, leading to the injury.
Despite constant pressure from the media that he should sit out the rest of the season, Williamson returned for a run in the ACC Tournament, where Duke would avenge losses to Syracuse and North Carolina, before closing out a championship against Florida State. The former No. 2 overall recruit would hit all 13 shots in his return against the Orange and then deliver a 31 point, 11 rebound performance against the Tar Heels. Williamson would take home tournament MVP honors.
This year marks the sixth year in a row that the Blue Devils have had a player selected in the top three of the NBA Draft, with the next closest program, UCLA, having four straight years of top three picks from 1974-77. Williamson joins Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley as the former Duke players that make up the streak. There has been a Blue Devil taken in the first round every year since 2010.