Zion Williamson

USA Today

The Return Of Zion

He’s not just exciting, he’s beyond that.

March 15, 2019 - 10:01 am

There were two questions going into last night’s Syracuse-Duke game, better known as the Return of Zion.

The first was: what shoes would he wear? And the answer is a different model. He went with a pair named after a point guard in Boston instead of a wing in OKC. And a certain shoe company went to great lengths to tell everyone about the great lengths they went to, to make sure these didn’t blow out. And a lot of people gave a lot of free advertising to that company for that.

But of course, that wasn’t the biggest question. Here’s the biggest question: is Zion back? Answer? Roll it.

Back? It’s like he never left. He had 11 of Duke’s first 17 points. The opening of last night’s game is one of the most impressive and electric things I’ve seen in a long time. Seriously. That’s not hyperbole to make you pay attention, that’s the truth. Rust?  Hell, the guy has near looked better.

He’s not just exciting, he’s beyond that. How many times did he do something last night that had announcers and people watching at home losing their bleep?

He had 21 points, was perfect from the field, 9 rebounds and five steals last night. IN THE FIRST HALF. That’s one of the all-time great ACC tournament games, and Zion had it in the first half. And it was his first game action coming back from injury.

You’re telling me that guy was returning from a knee injury? Or he just went back to the lab and had new parts installed. Because he is not human.

I want to be very clear about this, though. Because sometimes when the media and fans hype an athlete up so much and they say that she or he isn’t human, it’s demeaning. Because it devalues the work that the athlete has put in, it diminishes the crazy work ethic and long hours of grinding to become better.

I know Zion has done all of that. When I say he’s not human, I mean he’s doing things I’ve never seen a human do. He is breaking my brain every time he steps on the court.

And don’t take my word for it. Check with Jim Boeheim:  “I’ve been in this game over 50 years and seen a lot of great players. I'm not saying he’s better than those guys but he’s a different player. He can do things nobody has done in this game."

That’s more than half a century of basketball knowledge talking and he’s never seen anything like it. Or check with Boeheim’s assistant, Allen Griffin, who told Yahoo: “He's like the Incredible Hulk. You ever seen the movie? Where he jumps up and over people and smashes them. That's what he reminds me of."

And Zion did jump up and over and smash Syracuse. 29 points. 13 for 13 from the floor. 14 rebounds. 5 steals. He’s the first Duke player to go for 25, 10, and 5 since Christian Laettner.

But as good a college player as Laettner was, he never threw down the nastiness that Zion does on a regular basis.

And it’s not just about the dunks or being a perfect 13 for 13 from the floor, it’s the energy Zion brings. He does the big things and he does the little things – hustling on defense, sticking his hands in the passing lanes, tipping loose balls and rebounds.

Even in the one area where he wasn’t great last night, the free throw line, he had a great description: "Couldn't really throw a tennis ball into the ocean with my free throws. So I don't consider that perfect."

Even where he’s not perfect, he’s perfect. 

He even conducted a post-game locker room interview with his teammate Jordan Goldwire.

Syracuse had no answer for Zion. Well, no legal answer. Because Syracuse’s Frank Howard did have one attempted answer: tripping. The clip went viral almost instantly and it looks bad.

That is bush league. Complete and total bush league. Howard said after the game he didn’t do it intentionally: “I’m not going to wait four years to get to this stage to start tripping people. If you’re a competitor, if you’re a basketball player, it’s war. And it’s a way of war, an art of war. And I don’t want to win like that -- if I gotta trip people, try to hurt somebody. He’s a great kid. And you know, it’s silly. I understand we’re in the era of clicks, everybody gotta get clicks. But don’t do that.”

Look, we’re dealing with college athletes and I’m not going to crush a college athlete. That’s not my deal. Everyone does dumb things in college that we wouldn’t want to have to answer for.

I don’t know what was and wasn’t in Frank Howard’s mind. I’m sure he didn’t show up at the arena last night with a plan to trip Zion Williamson.

But in the moment, it sure looks like he tried to trip him. I’m not going to get all Kevin Costner on it and break it down frame by frame, but from where I’m sitting, that sure doesn’t look like an accident.

Maybe he wasn’t even a conscious move, but it sure looks like an intentional move. That’s not a natural move of the foot to get in Zion’s way. And the only good thing from that moment was the fact that Williamson didn’t go down and didn’t get injured.

And it’s a damn good thing that Zion kept on dominating, because that is the real story from last night. If he never played another college game after the shoe explosion on February 20th, nobody would’ve faulted him at all.

But to hear him tell it, there was no chance of that ever happening. "I wanted to be out there every game. I see my brothers out there battling and wanted to go to war with them. Everybody has a right to their own opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time."

In other words, thanks for thinking of me, but I’m going to do what I do – dominate. I couldn’t respect that more. I said at the time, I wasn’t going to tell him what to do and that I’d respect him no matter what he chose. But I’m still in awe, not just that he came back, but how he came back.

He knows what is on the line. He knows what is potentially at risk. Literally, hundreds of millions… And he still wants to go out there with his teammates and battle. And not just battle, but do it at an incredible level. Because there was nothing cautious about how he played last night. He only knows one speed – Zion Speed.

Zion was so dominant and so incredible that the rest of the game was an afterthought. Duke won 84-72, by the way. Which means that we get more Zion tonight. This time against UNC. And whatever your Friday night plans were, change them.

Because Zion Williamson isn’t just the best thing in college basketball. He might be the best thing in sports. And we are all witnesses.