WASHINGTON D.C. — As Zion Williamson’s size 15 shoes pushed the hardwood in and sprung him up towards the jumbotron, the crowd silenced. The world’s most famous teenage athlete was mere fractions of a second from taking his superhuman basketball celebrity to another realm with the most impractical blocked shot in recent memory.
This is why he’s worth the price of admission. When watching Williamson play in person, there are three levels to his entertainment. His first act brings down the house. His second act affirms the first was no fluke. And the third releases the type of dopamine hit only a Key & Peele skit could replicate. He flashed all three in Duke’s 75-73 Sweet 16 victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies.
To understand the cruelty of Zion’s opening act, and most devastating NCAA tournament moment, one must investigate the irrationality of any athlete to even attempt it.
Kerry Blackshear Jr., the Hokies 6’10 forward, was forced into taking a fadeaway jump shot outside the low-block thanks to skin-tight defense from Duke’s R.J. Barrett. The difficulty of that shot alone would’ve been considered a win for most defenses, as an off-balance shot has a way worse likelihood of swooshing through the net than a rhythm one. But that wasn’t satisfactory for Zion.
Williamson levitated from the restricted area inside the paint to block a shot launched six or seven feet away from him — by someone three inches taller than him — off the backboard.
For a microsecond, nobody inside Capital One Arena said anything at all. Then the crowd erupted in a terrified, awe-struck rumble you might expect when an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist hits. The players on the court seemed to stop playing. Humiliatingly enough, Blackshear caught his own rebound and looked at the ball, then at Williamson, then realized it was still game-on. The aura of the moment sucked the focus of a crowd of 20,000 and the stars they paid to watch.
“Oh huhuhuhuhuho,” – Duke’s sophomore reserve, Mike Buckmire, laughed when shown a replay of the swat for the first time. A frequenter of Zion’s highlights, Buckmire told SB Nation, “You don’t really appreciate it until you see it on the replay and see how high he got.”
“It looks like a photoshop,” Blue Devils forward Jack White, who was on the court at the time of the block, said when shown the same replay.
Even after the hundred or more highlights seen in practice and online, Duke’s roster can’t get used to their superstar teammate’s leaping abilities. “When people ask me ‘How’s Zion,’” Antonio Vrankovic, Duke’s seven-foot Croation center, said, “I explain that he physically doesn’t make any sense.”
There’s debate over the legitimacy of the best shot-block of Williamson’s career. Virginia Tech fans will say it’s a goaltend, but to argue semantics is to deny a boundary-pusher rewriting what we know basketball players are capable of.
Don’t ruin this: it was a block.
Williamson’s second act came on a lob pass from his point guard, Tre Jones. Off a steal, the 6’2 team leader in assists pushed tempo, looked to his right to see where Williamson was lurking, and knew right there and then where the play would end. Steps before even reaching the three-point line, Jones tossed the ball to the sky, knowing well that anything within a 10-foot radius of where it needed to be would get slammed home.
And Zion obliged.
The audacity of Jones to so nonchalantly toss a Hail Mary of an alley-oop shows just how confident he was Williamson wouldn’t make him look foolish. Is there any pass he can’t catch?
“It would really have to be a bad pass,” Vrankovic said.
Williamson’s final act sent media row into hysterics. There gets to a point where Williamson’s size, speed, skill and overall dominance become hilarious. He is that much better than what the rest of the world has to offer in his age range.
Hokies senior guard Justin Robinson dared take the Duke machine off the dribble, and shook him with a quick change of speeds. It was a brilliant move that would’ve left every other player in collegiate basketball in the dust. But Zion is so fast with so much spring that his move was all for naught. Williamson pinned that off the backboard as well, saying sayonara to another mortal’s attempt to have his moment.
This was a three-act play, and Williamson delivered it brilliantly like he’s done all season long. Since November, he’s elevated himself from top-3 pick, to clear No. 1 NBA Draft pick, to best college player of the decade, to maybe — if March’s luck turns into April success — the best ever.
The Sweet 16 was just one leg of the Zion Williamson Show.