CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Two minutes is all it took.
Zion Williamson had been gone for a month following a knee injury against North Carolina. Six games of frustration — including three losses — for Duke and a whirlwind of debate about the freshman superstar’s future filled the void. And then, two minutes into Duke’s 84-72 win over Syracuse in Thursday’s quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, Williamson reminded the basketball world of what it had been missing.
Williamson stole an outlet pass, dribbled downcourt, leapt from just inside the foul line and delivered a powerful tomahawk dunk. Cellphone cameras flickered, the crowd erupted and it felt as if Williamson had never been gone. And that was just the start.
The Duke freshman finished the game shooting 13-of-13 from the field, tying the ACC record for most makes without a miss. His 29 points led all scorers, and his five steals set the tone on defense. He also had 14 rebounds, becoming the first Duke player to post a 25-10-5 line since Christian Laettner in 1992, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
A month ago, there was debate about whether Williamson should return at all. On Thursday, he said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Everybody has their right to an opinion, but I knew I was coming back the whole time,” Williamson said.
The Duke freshman said he wasn’t aware of his perfect shooting night until a team manager informed him afterward, and he downplayed the success by noting he “couldn’t throw a tennis ball into the ocean” from the free throw line (2-for-9). But Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim turned up the hype machine where Williamson wouldn’t.
“I’ve been in this game over 50 years, and I’ve seen some great players,” Boeheim said. “I’m not saying he’s better than those guys, but he can do things nobody has done in this game. He’s crazy. He’s a different type of player. There’s not guys like him.”
Jay Bilas breaks down Zion Williamson’s impact for Duke in his first game back vs. Syracuse.
Williamson, who won the ACC’s player of the year award despite missing the final month of the regular season, changed the dynamic on both ends of the court for a team that struggled to find an identity without him. His five steals opened the transition game for Duke, and he helped the Blue Devils dominate the Orange in the paint. Perhaps as important for Duke, he proved he is healthy enough to change the dynamic against North Carolina in the third installment of the rivalry this season, which comes Friday in the semifinals.
Williamson was asked after the game how eager he had been to get back. Mike Krzyzewski interrupted the answer.
“How about how badly I wanted him out there?” the Duke coach said.
Not that Williamson’s return wasn’t without controversy.
After another Williamson dunk, about eight minutes into the game, Syracuse’s Frank Howard extended his leg in what appeared to be an effort to trip the Duke star as he retreated down the court on defense. The move created a stir on social media, and broadcasters blasted the move during the game. Afterward, however, Boeheim was quick to defend his player, calling it a “manufactured” story and saying there was no trip.
Howard offered a similar rebuttal, saying he had no intention of injuring Williamson and pointed to his career at Syracuse as evidence he is not a dirty player.
“I mean, if you said I tried to trip him, I don’t get it,” Howard said. “I realized I tripped him, and I tried to give him a little hand at the same time. I mean, it’s the heat of the game with a very tough defender on me, and I was trying to get open, get the ball and get the ball out fast. … He’s a hell of an athlete and a hell of a player. I have a lot of respect for him. I’m not going to wait four years to get to this stage to start tripping people.”
For his part, Williamson said he wasn’t aware of the tripping incident until after the game and seemed perplexed by the controversy. He did, however, have a lot to say about the heated debate regarding his sneakers that followed his February injury.
Williamson was wearing Paul George Nikes, which tore open during a spin move on the opening possession of Duke’s loss to North Carolina on Feb. 20. Williamson said it was the second time he had blown out a Nike shoe, after ripping through the toe of a Kyrie Irving model during the summer.
After the high-profile injury, however, Nike sent representatives to Duke to meet with Krzyzewski and Williamson, then traveled to China to work on manufacturing a modified version of the Kyrie 4 shoes with additional padding. Williamson also was told to rotate shoes more frequently.
Nike issued a statement Thursday in advance of Williamson’s return: “We’re thrilled to see Zion returning to the court. After working closely with the Duke Basketball team to examine the issue, we are confident this was an isolated incident. We continue to work with Duke, and all of our partner programs, to ensure we are providing the best product for their athletes.”
Krzyzewski offered his support for the brand too.
“We think it’s the best shoe or else we wouldn’t be with them,” Krzyzewski he said.